On 4 December, the Education Bill received its Second Reading. One of the more controversial proposals is to encourage religious organisations to bring forward proposals to meet any identified need for new schools. The government believes that the distinct ethos and character of faith schools helps them perform better and has welcomed proposals, in a report by the Church England, for 100 extra church secondary schools because "they have a good record of delivering a high quality of education".
I would challenge this conclusion. Any selective school can achieve better than average results, and church schools are selective. They take less than their share of deprived children and more than their share of the children of more ambitious parents. This covert selection goes a long way towards explaining their apparent academic success. "Selection, even on religious grounds, is likely to attract well behaved children from stable backgrounds," said a spokesperson for Ofsted in the Times Educational Supplement, 16th February, 2001.
A recent study by the National Assembly for Wales found that the higher grades achieved in church schools at GCSE were not statistically significant if free school meal entitlement (used as a measure of deprivation) was taken into account.
There is no magic ingredient in religious schools, as the head of a Church of England revealed in the Independent on 15 June: "The fact that we select those who are supported by parents is the key defining factor in the kind of pupils we send out into the world."
The government has stressed that religious schools should be inclusive. However, the Church of England report (June 2001) actually said: All church schools must be distinctively and recognisably Christian institutions... and the justification for retaining and aspiring to extend its provision is, and must be, because engagement with children and young people in schools will, in the words of the late Lord Runcie when he was Archbishop of Canterbury, enable the Church to: Nourish those of the faith; Encourage those of other faiths; Challenge those who have no faith... It also recommended that: Church schools, where there is strong demand for places, concentrate on the nurture of Anglican and other Christian children in their faith and allocate resources accordingly".
When only 7.5 per cent of adults go to church, such overtly Christian schools cannot serve the whole community. Neither do they respect the autonomy of children in the vital matter of choosing their own religious and value commitments. Religious education and worship in church and other religious schools are not generally as broad based and multi-faith as in community schools.
22 per cent of all schools in England are Church of England and 10 per cent Roman Catholic. If even more are created, it will worsen discrimination against other religions and provoke more demands for publicly funded schools for other religious groups. On 18 February, Yussuf Islam of the Association of Muslim schools said on Radio Four's Sunday Programme "well while we have so many Christians schools - I mean if there is going to be a general ban on all religious schools then I'm sure that, you know, there would be no griping amongst anybody ..."
Religious schools discriminate against everyone not of that faith - in their admissions and employment policies, their curricula and their assumptions about their religion. Some faith - based schools will not even try to serve the whole community and will divide children not just by religion but also ethnically. Northern Ireland and Bradford are examples of what happens to communities where children are educated separately and grow up knowing little of each other.
As Richard Bentley, Priest-in-charge at St Peter's in Petersham wrote in a letter to The Independent in February: "In its indecent haste to benefit from the Government's misguided delight in church schools, the Church of England is colluding with forces which continue to divide society and disinherit children. Church members should only feel shame at the repeated assertion that the quality of church schools is somehow superior to the love and professional dedication shown by staff in state schools... It is these schools, truly open to applications from all races and religions, which have the moral and professional authority to claim that they have at heart the good of our whole society."
I uphold the right to freedom of belief and understand the desire of parents to bring up their children with the family's beliefs. However, it is not the job of publicly funded schools to instil a religious faith in children and states are not obliged to provide schools catering for every shade of belief or philosophy. The state has its own interest in ensuring that children grow up to be responsible and capable citizens.
Groups lobbying for religious schools sometimes cite the First Protocol, article 2 of the Human Rights Act 1998, part2: No person shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and teaching, the state shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.
But this article guarantees people the right of access to existing educational institutions, it does not require the government to establish or fund a particular type of education. The requirement to respect parents' convictions is intended to prevent indoctrination by the state. Schools should, of course, teach about religion and philosophy but they should do so in an objective, critical, and pluralistic manner.
The curriculum in some private religious schools would certainly appear to contravene another human right. Article 13, Convention on the rights of the child states that: The child should have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds.
We need to have all our children educated in schools that believe that concern for others is not a Christian virtue, or a Jewish or Islamic virtue, but a human virtue; and where all the faiths are equally respected. Faith schools do not, and cannot, do this.
Of course, given the existence of so many religious schools in this country, it would be naive to think that these can be abolished. However, if the government wishes to ensure that faith schools are inclusive and take account of the interests of all sections of the community, as stated in the White Paper that was a precursor to the Bill, they could consider taking powers to ensure that the admissions arrangements of faith schools are more open. In a recent article in the Financial Times, a government official is quoted as saying that evidence of inclusive admissions policies would be required and cited as an example a new Church of England-backed City Academy where admissions are 40:30:20:10 - CoE; non – CoE Christian; non-faith; and non-Christian respectively. However, the government has said it will not impose quotas.
Many Labour MPs share my concern about government policy on religious schools. The Education Bill will now be considered in a committee but when it returns to the Commons chamber for its Report Stage, I and others will be tabling amendments to restrict selection on religious grounds.