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Schools: Admission Policies

Volume 747: debated on Monday 22 July 2013

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have plans to encourage religiously selective schools to adopt more open admission policies.

My Lords, the coalition supports inclusive admission arrangements. New faith academies and free schools may admit only half their intake based on faith where they are oversubscribed. The Government also remain strongly committed to faith schools, which play a long-established role in our diverse education system. They allow parents to choose a school in line with their faith and they make a significant contribution to educational standards in this country.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. However, in the light of the government announcement last week of a funding initiative for 6,000 new schools, and given that this year the Department for Education has already accepted 16 new Christian schools and six Muslim schools, and that the Cantle report into the 2001 riots cited religious and ethnic fragmentation as an underlying cause, will the Minister tell us whether this Government believe that the children of this country should be integrated or segregated?

This Government believe strongly that one of the secrets for success in this country is that children should be integrated and that all schools should teach a balanced all-faith curriculum, even if they have a particular faith-based thesis. We will not make a long-term success of this country unless we can succeed in doing what the noble Baroness has mentioned.

My Lords, my interests are in the Lords’ register. Is my noble friend aware that Catholic schools are ethnically diverse—more diverse than community schools—that they serve some of our most deprived areas, that they make a major contribution to community cohesion and that they often have higher academic standards? Does my noble friend agree that it would be a mistake to tamper with a system that has served us so well and for so long?

My noble friend is quite right. According to the five A* to C statistics, including English and maths, 65% of pupils at Catholic schools achieve five A* to C grades, as opposed to non-faith schools, where the figure is 58%. At level 4 of key stage 2, 85% of pupils at Catholic schools achieve a pass mark, as opposed to 78% for non-faith schools. I agree that Catholic schools and all faith schools contribute strongly to our diverse education system.

Will the Government ensure that the duty to promote community cohesion works in religiously selective schools now that that responsibility has been taken away from Ofsted and the governors themselves may not value it?

All state-funded schools are required to promote community cohesion. Under the draft citizenship curriculum, pupils will be taught about diverse national, regional, religious and ethnic identities in the UK and the need for mutual respect and understanding. Schools are also free to teach pupils about such issues in PSHE. All state-funded schools are also required by law to teach a broad and balanced curriculum that promotes the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils, and Ofsted’s inspection framework includes a focus on this.

Is the Minister aware that not all schools of religious character select on faith grounds? The Methodist Church has 65 primary schools that are state-funded and 17 independent schools, none of which select according to the faith of the parents, although all are organised on Christian principles, but they are offered to society for the good of society as a whole.

The noble Baroness is right that it is important to distinguish between faith schools and the selection criteria of those schools.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for confirming earlier that some religious free schools can select up to 50%. How does the department monitor the percentage of admission by faith in schools, particularly in those previously independent religious schools that are now free schools.

We are very keen that, under the free schools programme, all schools have as open an admissions policy as possible, consistent with the general policy on faith. I will need to write to the noble Baroness with full details to answer that question.

May I ask the Minister about the curriculum? In every Education Act that I can remember, certainly in the past few years, it has been stated that children should be permitted or encouraged to have a broad and balanced curriculum. How will faith and free schools enable pupils to have such a broad and balanced curriculum?

We are very keen that all schools, including free faith schools, are open to all faiths and teach all about the major religions practised in this country. They are obliged to do so, and Ofsted will inspect against that, as we would expect it to do.

Does the Minister agree with the Secretary of State that Church of England schools are most often found in very challenging areas in our communities and provide excellent education? Would he encourage the expansion of religious schools of that kind in oversubscribed areas?

Where we have areas of basic need, we are keen to encourage all comers to help us. I entirely agree with the right reverend Prelate about the performance of Church of England schools. Again, in respect of achieving five A* to C grades, including in English and maths, they score 62% versus 58%, and at level 4 of key stage 2 they score 82% as opposed to 78%. We would welcome expansion of these schools as they provide an excellent education.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that throughout this country church schools, Church of England schools in particular, make an enormous contribution to the cohesion of their local communities, and that Church of England clergy play a big part in this, both by what they teach and by serving as governors on the boards of such schools?

I agree with my noble friend. A 2009 independent report commissioned by the Church of England analysed Ofsted’s judgments on schools’ promotion of community cohesion. The report found that for secondary schools, faith schools contributed more highly to community cohesion than community schools and had higher average grades than community schools for promoting equality of opportunity and eliminating discrimination.

My Lords, will the Minister look at the situation in Northern Ireland where more than 90% of the children are in schools that are segregated on religious lines? Whereas that is not the only factor contributing to the historic difficulties in Northern Ireland, there are ominous lessons for us. Surely, the right way is to move, as in Northern Ireland, towards integrated education, which is what the majority of people in Northern Ireland want and what I believe most people in Britain would want.

We need a diverse education system that, as I say, is open to all faiths and teaches tolerance of all faiths. Indeed, there are good examples of faith-based groups running schools or sponsoring schools in Muslim areas, where the co-operation is working extremely well.