HC Deb 24 April 1996 vol 276 cc429-32
10. Mr. Nicholas Winterton

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment if she will make a statement on religious schools and assemblies. [25088]

Mrs. Gillan

Denominational schools are popular with pupils and parents and will remain a vital part of our education system. Daily collective worship makes a major contribution to pupils' spiritual and moral development.

Mr. Winterton

Is my hon. Friend aware that the overwhelming majority of parents in my constituency strongly support the Christian and other moral and social values that are advanced through religious assemblies in schools? Will she join me in strongly deploring the commitment given recently by the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), to scrap Church schools and end religious assemblies in schools? Will my hon. Friend give me a firm commitment that she will preserve the richness of the contribution to our education system made by the Anglican, Catholic, Jewish and other faiths?

Mrs. Gillan

On behalf of the Government, I have no hesitation in giving my hon. Friend that commitment. I agree that the remarks by the Liberal Democrat spokesman on education, the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), are disgraceful. The millions of voters who send their children to denominational schools should take careful note of his remarks. The intention to destroy Church schools and abolish all acts of worship in them is his stated personal agenda—disgraceful.

Mr. Don Foster

Does the Minister accept that she should not necessarily believe all that she is told, either by the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) or the Prime Minister? Does she accept that it is my view and that of my party—and frequently stated—that in our multicultural and multi-faith society, religious education plays a vital part in the national curriculum? Will she accept that I have never stated that I believe that we should abolish religious schools? Will she also accept that there is considerable concern nationally about the legislation on the collective act of worship—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is under attack. He has every right to speak his mind.

Mr. Foster

Thank you, Madam Speaker. Will the Minister also accept that members of the National Association of Head Teachers believe that the legislation is unhelpful and unworkable, and that a similar view is shared by the Secondary Heads Association? Finally, will she accept that expressing views on the current legislation on the collective act of worship is in no way an attack on the important role of religious education?

Mrs. Gillan

What I will accept is that that was the grossest act of wriggling on a hook that I have seen from a politician for a long time. The House should know that the record says that the Liberal Democrat spokesman said: in an ideal world there would be no religious state schools. We would put a stop to the daily act of worship in an attempt to encourage all children to be educated together". Those are his words and they are taken from a press release issued by a colleague and member of his party, who said: The millions of voters who send their children to church schools will want to consider Mr. Foster's comments at the next election". I think that the case is proved.

Mr. Harry Greenway

Does my hon. Fried agree that the daily act of worship and proper religious instruction in schools go together and that that is the most important subject in any school, because, if children do not know how to live with one another and in a civilised, cultured and ethical society, they do not start to live and will learn nothing else?

Mrs. Gillan

I agree absolutely. My view and that of the Government is that denominational schools are vital to the British education system. They make up a third of all state schools, with more than 7,000 providing an excellent education. They are popular with parents and many have very high academic standards. Part of their popularity and success must be attributable to their denominational status. That is why I believe so firmly in them and so do the Government.

Rev. Martin Smyth

Does the Minister accept that we may live in a multicultural nation, but we are still mainly a single faith nation and, therefore, it is important that the worship in our state schools should be based on the Christian faith?

Mrs. Gillan

I have no hesitation in agreeing with what the hon. Gentleman said. I believe that collective worship is an important part of the school day. It can develop community spirit, it can promote common ethos and it can reinforce positive attitudes among pupils. I believe that collective worship should be predominantly Christian. It brings a great strength to our system of education.

Mr. John Marshall

I ask my hon. Friend to thank her colleagues for demonstrating their commitment to religious schools by granting voluntary-aided status to Hasmonean prep school, Beiz Yaakov school and Pardes House school over the past two years. Does not this demonstrate the Government's commitment to helping religious schools?

Mrs. Gillan

Yes, it does. Any voluntary group of any religious persuasion can apply to set up a new voluntary-aided or grant-maintained school. All proposals are considered on their merits, in the light of the individual circumstances of each case. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his congratulations.

Mr. Madden

First, will the Minister confirm that her Department and the Government regard Britain today as a multi-faith society? Secondly, will she confirm that it remains the policy of her Department that representatives of any faith can apply for voluntary-aided school status provided that they meet the education and the accommodation criteria? Finally, will she make urgent inquiries into the arrangements pioneered in Bradford for religion and education and promote them throughout the country? The arrangements have served the city of Bradford extremely well over the last decade or so and I believe that they would be extremely helpful in other places.

Mrs. Gillan

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution and I take it that he is inviting me to look at the religious schools in Bradford. I have no hesitation in considering his invitation.

Mr. Nicholls

Does my hon. Friend agree that, if multi-culturalism is about defending the rights of people of other faiths to worship freely and peacefully, that is something to which we should all subscribe? However, did my hon. Friend detect in the smearing attack on Christianity by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) the idea that multiculturalism means that the Judaeo-Christian tradition of this country is no more or less valid than any other tradition? Is that not something that she and I should reject completely?

Mrs. Gillan

I repeat: the Government are committed to the provision of religious education, to Church schools and to religious schools in this country. It is an important plank of choice and diversity. These schools deliver good education throughout the country and I hope that any potential Liberal Democrat voter will notice the attitude of the Front-Bench spokesman towards these schools.