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Faith Schools: Impact of Removing Admissions Cap

Volume 838: debated on Tuesday 7 May 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of removing the admissions cap on state-funded faith schools on community integration and cohesion.

My Lords, the admissions cap has not significantly increased the diversity of intake in faith-designated free schools, and it has prevented providers such as the Catholic Church, which attracts a more diverse intake, opening new schools. All faith-designated free schools are required to demonstrate their commitment to community cohesion and how they promote fundamental British values.

My Lords, this policy would increase religious discrimination in schools that the British taxpayer is paying for. Many parents will be paying for local schools from which their own children will be excluded. It will diminish diversity and inclusiveness, increase racial segregation and further disadvantage poorer families, non-religious families, and families of the “wrong” religion. It is hard to find an upside to this, so why are the Government proposing such a retrograde step when they supported the 50% cap until only a short time ago?

The Government do not see it as a retrograde step and I do not accept the description that the noble Baroness makes of our faith schools, which are extremely inclusive, many working with other schools in their local area, and which produce some of the best academic results in the country.

My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that it has never been Tory policy to advocate 100% faith schools? No Tory Education Secretary since 1945 has advocated them. They have preferred the model of the Church of England schools, which welcome children of no faith and all faiths. Indeed, I went to such a school myself during the war; my primary school was Holy Trinity in Southport, which was a community school. It so happened that my closest friend at that school was the single Jewish boy, who was a refugee. We became very close friends. I learned from then on that Jews, Christians, Muslims and Hindus at school should all study alongside each other, play with each other, eat with each other and go home with each other as members of a multicultural society.

Does the Minister realise that, if this goes through, it will be not only Catholics but Muslims who apply for independent, free faith schools. Does she really consider that appropriate in our country at this time in our history? This is an absurd proposal and it should not feature in any way in the manifesto of the Conservative Party at the election.

With the greatest respect to my noble friend, I think there may be a slight misunderstanding, so it might perhaps help the House if I explain what the Government are proposing. They are proposing to make no change whatever to existing schools, faith schools and non-faith schools. The 6,700 faith schools that exist today will not be affected by what is proposed. What is proposed is a consultation on whether there should be a restriction on free schools—new schools—that are opened with a faith designation. So far, 95 such schools have opened.

My Lords, I welcome the removing of the admissions cap and the explanation the Minister has given to the House. Will she firmly rebut the erroneous idea that these schools fail to promote integration, diversity and cohesion and confirm that they are the most ethnically diverse in the country? In England, 45.5% of their pupils are from ethnic minorities, compared with 37% in the state sector, and 50% of the pupils educated in those schools are from the most deprived backgrounds.

Perhaps I may share with the noble Baroness the work of the Liverpool John Moores University’s foundation for citizenship, which I founded. We saw outstanding examples of schools promoting virtues, values, duties, responsibilities and the wider common good. The Government’s decision to build on those achievements and prevent such schools having to turn away members of their own community is to be greatly welcomed. I know that many in the country will do so.

I thank the noble Lord for his comments and echo his remarks about the ethnic diversity in our faith schools. I agree with him that faith schools can and do offer the very important tenets of our major religions including, of course, tolerance.

My Lords, the rationale behind the proposed change to the state-funded faith schools admissions cap by the Government is in large part, as the noble Baroness has said, to increase the number of school places available. Has the department made any estimate of how many more places will be made available and when? What will the Government do to ensure that school places are established where they are needed most and for families whose children most desperately need the best start in life?

The number of additional places will depend on levels of basic need where there are not enough school places available. The noble Baroness well knows that in some parts of the country we have the opposite challenge at the moment. That also answers the second part of her question; it will be where there are population pressures.

I would like to take the opportunity in answering the noble Baroness’s question to pick up on the second part of the consultation. If agreed, it would mean that faith schools were able to have a faith designation. I know the House agrees with me that we need to move faster to make sure there is provision for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

My Lords, Church of England schools will continue our long tradition of seeking to serve the common good and welcoming a huge diversity of people; we are glad to do that. The Minister has spoken about the huge problem of there not being enough special educational needs places. If I have understood this correctly, it means that this will be a new possibility. We in the Church of England would be keen to play our part to help with this, but one issue is the funding available for it, which makes it very difficult to offer. Alongside this announcement, what consideration have His Majesty’s Government given to providing additional funding for those SEND places, which we hope can release more energy into that deprived area?

To be clear, and to avoid upsetting my noble friend Lord Baker one more time, the changes we are proposing in relation to special schools will not affect eligibility. Eligibility for a place in a special school will be dependent on a child’s education, health and care plan. The Government fund all the capital costs associated with developing a new free school. The funding is provided through the local authority for children with an education, health and care plan.

My Lords, should we not be proud that the new schools that we have opened since 2010 include Muslim, Hindu and Sikh faith-based schools, which were the first in the country, as well as additional Church of England schools? Can my noble friend the Minister confirm that, in line with previous suggestions for changing the admissions arrangements for new free schools, what is proposed is just that the admissions criteria that apply to existing Catholic schools will be the same for a new Catholic free school? There will be no change to the admissions policy for Catholic schools; it would just be the same policy across the board.

My Lords, the Minister will know that we are developing, one hopes, a successful, multicultural society, with children of different faiths and none having the opportunity to learn and work and play together. Does she not think it important that in all our faith schools there should be children of different faiths?

The vast majority of our faith schools have children of different faiths. It is typically only in schools for the smallest-minority faiths that one has a concentration of children of those faiths. This is a longer debate that I am happy to have with the noble Lord, but parental choice is fundamental. We are very pleased to see the volume of activity that faith schools undertake with other faith schools of different denominations.