§ 6.5 p.m.
§ Baroness Cox
My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.
I must begin by saying how grateful I am to noble Lords for being so patient about the numerous changes of date which, due to circumstances beyond my control, have occurred with regard to this Bill. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have put their names down to speak in the debate this evening. Inevitably, given the changes of date, some noble Lords who wished to speak in support of the Bill are unable to be present today. Among those whose absence I particularly regret, because they are so supportive of the Bill, are a former Archbishop of Canterbury, the noble Lord, Lord Coggan, and also the noble Lord the Chief Rabbi, Lord Jakobovits. I believe that the debate will be impoverished by the loss of their spiritual inspiration.
Another noble Lord who cannot be present is the noble Lord, Lord Grimond. The noble Lord, together with the noble Lord, Lord Young of Dartington, and myself, is a co-sponsor of the Centre for Educational Choice. That centre supports the Bill. Perhaps this coalition indicates that the Bill is not a partisan political initiative but represents principles of freedom of choice and diversity of provision which transcend party political lines. Other noble Lords who support the Bill but cannot be here include the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and a number of my noble friends from these Benches.
I am of course aware that the Bill not only has many supporters but also many opponents. I am also aware that some who support its intentions and principles have serious reservations about its wording. It may therefore be helpful if at the outset I indicate that I am sensitive to noble Lords' concerns. In view of that I am minded to beg leave to withdraw the Motion at the end of the debate. However, I hope that my noble friend the Minister will take particular note of the anxieties that the Bill reflects and will perhaps consider ways in which help might be offered to some of the excellent schools which have been involved in this initiative.
I began my speech with a reference to support from two of the spiritual leaders of our time because the Bill originated in response to requests from Christian and Jewish schools which had been established by parents and teachers who were deeply concerned about the situation in many state schools, especially their secularism, their lack of spiritual and moral values and their poor levels of educational attainment. I must emphasise that there are many good state schools. I have no wish to cast aspersions on the entire state 1242 sector. However, the reverend Colin Hodgetts, the head teacher of the Small School in Hartland, wrote on 8th February in the Church Times,Illiteracy, vandalism, truancy, teacher stress … we know the problems. While Secretaries of State monopolised the media with their innovations, there has been a quiet, but nonetheless determined response to the crisis in schools. Groups of parents and teachers have been starting their own".I have visited many of these new schools. I wish all noble Lords could visit them. If they could, I believe they would have great sympathy for the Bill, as the pupils are the best witnesses for the scheme. Inevitably the buildings are often not ideal. They include disused churches and air-raid shelters. However, the children are happy and full of enthusiasm. They are performing very well on traditional academic criteria. Their work is of a standard which is often well above the national average, despite policies of taking pupils across the full ability range and taking a full share of children from problem homes.
Perhaps I may give your Lordships one example. I shall never forget the honour of taking part in the speech day of the John Loughborough School in North London. The school was set up by the Afro-Caribbean community, which was so dismayed not only by the poor educational standards in local schools but also by the lack of spiritual and moral values that it established its own school with the help of its church. The words of a parent governor are engraved on my mind:Before John Loughborough was set up, we used to have to send our children back to the West Indies to get a good, old-fashioned, traditional British Christian education. Now this school is here we do not have to send our children 3,000 miles away".What an indictment of the way our education system failed that community and many others.
Those parents, who come from some of the poorest parts of London, can ill afford the cost of setting up their own school and paying to educate their children. Why should they have to pay to obtain the education they believe is right for their children? That school is giving its pupils an excellent start in life—pupils living in areas where they might otherwise be especially prone to the all too familiar problems of truancy, drugs, underachievement and subsequent unemployment. Instead they are going on to continue their education or to good jobs. Not surprisingly, that school is over-subscribed by a factor of five. However, it cannot expand to meet demand because it cannot obtain more buildings or funding. Parents who are turned away are desperate.
That brings me to the purpose of the Bill. New schools have been springing up throughout the country in response to parents' and teachers' wishes. The majority are Christian schools, but there are others too, providing an excellent education inspired by different commitments. They have joined with the Christian Schools Campaign to support the Bill.
They include the Small Schools Movement, which is trying to maintain small schools in both rural and urban areas, believing in the value of schools of smaller sizes serving local communities as a more appropriate environment for some children than the 1243 typical large comprehensive. Mensa also supports the Bill, its concern being that exceptionally gifted children are often not adequately served in local state schools and are unable to realise their true potential, which causes frustration to the children and loss to the nation.
Others who support the Bill include the Steiner Fellowship, with its distinctive educational philosophy, and also representatives of other faiths. I have already mentioned the support of the Chief Rabbi, the noble Lord, Lord Jakobovits. In addition there are supporters of Moslem schools such as the Muslim Education Co-ordinating Council and the Islamic Academy.
That brings me immediately into an area of great controversy. I wish to address the issue openly as I fear that it is one about which many people have reservations but on which they may be reluctant to speak frankly. It has been put to me by many people, including some Christians, that they cannot support the Bill because they cannot support the idea of state-funded Moslem schools.
As a Christian I am grieved by that attitude because I believe that, as Christians, we should have enough confidence in our own faith to give our fellow citizens the democratic rights which we have given to ourselves. If it is necessary to offer a spiritual justification for schools from communities of other faiths I can do no better than quote again from Colin Hodgett's article in the Church Times:If a case needs to be made then Rabbi Jonathan Sacks's Reith lectures are a good place to start. If, as he argues, hope lies in communities of faith which speak a local language and are renewed by education and inspiration, then that education will not be secular. Secular education cannot renew our values So parents are starting new schools".Rabbi Sacks makes a powerful point in his Reith lecture:In our plural, dangerous, interconnected world we can no longer afford to see God's image only in those who are in our image. It will take courageous leadership to remind us that after Babel, to be authentic to one truth does not mean being exclusive of others. The community of communities needs 2 kinds of religious strength, one to preserve our own distinctive traditions, the other to bring them to an enlarged sense of the common good".That quotation from Rabbi Sacks echoes a point which the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, would have made if he had been able to be here and which he asked should be put on record in support of the Bill. It is essential that home and school teach consistent moral and spiritual values. If there is conflict there is a recipe for moral and spiritual confusion for children.
That is why I believe that arguments which oppose the Bill out of fear of Moslem or Jewish schools are inconsistent with the three fundamental principles underpinning the Bill. Those are, first, the principle enshrined in Article 2 of the first protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights:that the state shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions".Moreover, a Labour Government in 1976 signed a United Nations covenant on economic, social and cultural rights whereby, in Article 13, they undertook to: 1244have respect for the liberty of parents … to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions".I look forward to hearing comments from noble Lords opposite on their present position regarding that covenant.
The second principle is the principle of natural justice. In the United Kingdom we have allowed, and in the past encouraged, the establishment of state-supported religion-based schools with our Anglican, Roman Catholic and Jewish voluntary aided and controlled schools. Those have made a much valued contribution. They are immensely popular and most are over-subscribed. Given that situation, natural justice requires us not to deny comparable opportunities to other new good schools, whether they be Christian schools or those of other major religions and/or educational philosophies. To deny the Moslem community comparable rights to Christian and Jewish traditions is, I believe, a violation of natural justice and will be a legitimate cause of grievance.
Thirdly, there are principles to which this Government are ostensibly and publicly committed, principles of freedom of choice, diversity of provision and encouragement of good educational standards.
The schools which I have visited are all excellent. Yet many—such as the Yesodeh Hoatorah schools serving the Jewish community in some of the most deprived areas in North London—have applied for voluntary-aided status and been frustrated either by local authorities or by successive Secretaries of State. All those schools continue to run on faith and a shoestring, at great personal sacrifice by parents and teachers.
Hence the motivation for the Bill. I shall now speak very briefly to its substance and conclude by trying to address some of the objections that I anticipate it will generate.
As I have said, many of those new schools are providing good education in response to parental demand by parents who often do not have much money. It is surely arguable that their entitlement to education compatible with their deepest convictions should be provided within the taxpayer funded system of schools and should not be curtailed by their inability to pay. The Bill would make it a little easier for the schools they have established to be brought into state funding.
I say "a little easier" because the final decision on each application will still rest with the Secretary of State. That means that the Bill does not give an automatic or absolute right to public funding although it would facilitate it in the following ways. Clause 1 provides for some of those new independent schools to opt into grant-maintained status by adding the word "independent" to the appropriate part of the Education Reform Act 1988. However, subsection (3) provides substantial limitations on independent schools which might wish to opt into state funding as grant-maintained schools because it is not the purpose of the Bill to enable every independent school to become state maintained.
1245 Thus, subsection (3) provides for the Secretary of State to designate categories of independent schools which would be eligible. In so designating he is required under the clause to include schools which provide a religious ethos, including those with a Christian ethos. However, the Bill would not limit the provision to Christian schools but would enable other kinds of schools to be considered. I am aware that the wording of this crucial section may not be perfect. Were the Bill to have moved forward to Committee stage I would have welcomed amendments, particularly an amendment to include some independent schools which cater for pupils with special needs.
A further limitation on the eligibility of certain schools to apply for grant-maintained status is contained in subsection (4). That excludes all schools which are already well financed, whether by fees charged and/or by endowments. In essence, Clause 1 provides for certain independent schools to join the state system as grant-maintained schools. It is not irrelevant to note that this is by no means an outrageous, way-out suggestion. There is already a precedent in Northern Ireland where such a scheme is operated by virtue of the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 1989.
Clause 2 offers an alternative route for certain independent schools which provide a good education but are not financially well endowed to become state funded. That route in its present form goes back to the Education Act 1944 when many church schools which were struggling financially were welcomed into the state system under the provisions for voluntarily-aided or controlled schools. Since 1944 other schools have followed that route, but in recent years the vast majority of applications for voluntary status have been opposed by local authorities and/or successive Secretaries of State. Many of these schools have been well run, with high standards, operating at full capacity and meeting parental wishes and children's needs, yet their applications have been unsuccessful.
The overriding reason most frequently given for turning down those applications is not inadequacy on the part of the school but the existence of surplus places in other local state schools. As long as that reason can prevail there will be virtually no successful applications from new schools, for two reasons. First, with the decline in the number of young children of school age there are already so many vacancies in state schools that the Audit Commission reckons a cost-effective system would need to close the equivalent of about 1,000 state schools. Secondly, a subsidiary reason for some of the empty places is the precise reason why those new schools have been established —parents have voted with their feet and have gone away from schools not giving satisfaction and into new schools which they can ill afford but which they have set up in desperation. It really is anomalous to continue to put public money into subsidising empty places in schools which parents do not want and to refuse to support highly successful schools which parents do want—hence the provisions in Clause 2 of the Bill. Those provisions need to be 1246 seen in the context of the fact that at the moment there is only one statutory principle which the Secretary of State is required to take into account when considering applications for voluntary-aided status.
The Education Act 1944 requires that the Secretary of State must be satisfied that the promoters of the school can find their contribution to the money involved. No other criterion is specified in law at the present. However, successive Secretaries of State have compiled their own criteria. On January 16th my right honourable friend reiterated six of the principles he currently applies. In addition to the financial criterion, those include: the overall need for school places in the area; demand for a particular kind of school, including denominational need; local authority support; ability to deliver the national curriculum; and adequacy of premises. Your Lordships will see that Clause 2 of the Bill seeks to remove two of those principles by disallowing the criterion of surplus places and awarding voluntary status even if the local authority objects. Instead, the principle of the desirability of diversity in the state system in accordance with parents' wishes and children's needs is affirmed.
The final point I make on Clause 2 bears on the financial implication of these provisions. Obviously it makes no sense for an authority to pay for empty desks and then to increase the number of school places for which it has to pay. Hence the provision enabling the Secretary of State to direct that the local authority should reduce surplus places, which by definition are empty places not in demand, and to make those places available for the newly-proposed voluntary school, which by definition is in demand and has pupils.
I give one example to illustrate how that principle could work in practice. Avon local authority at the moment has a surplus of 700 senior school places in the north of Bristol. One senior school with a capacity of 700 is operating with only 200 pupils. If Avon were to rationalise those places and hand over one empty school or even part of a school to the excellent Oak Hill Christian School as a voluntary-aided school it would save money on those empty places and help fulfil the criterion of diversity in response to parental and denominational need. In any case, other schools in that area will have to close. Avon would benefit from the inclusion of a very good, popular school which would be contributing 15 per cent. of capital costs from its foundation body.
I do not expect these provisions to be immensely popular with the local authority lobby or those whose educational philosophy motivates them to require all children to attend local state comprehensive schools. Therefore, I briefly address a few of the objections which I expect to be raised. First, there is concern that the Bill will be divisive and promote segregation. I believe pluralism is a precious attribute of western democracy. It is premised on respect for the right of citizens to have different beliefs and to maintain their cultural traditions; of course, within the law of the land. It is also the responsibility of government to protect those rights. The establishment of faith-based 1247 schools is an important aspect of respect for the freedom of parents to have their children educated according to their convictions.
That principle has already been enshrined in the system of voluntary schools, but the system has become stuck in a time warp with no flexibility because of demographic trends, ideological hostility and the vested interests of local authorities. Consequently, there is reluctance to admit new schools to this category, despite the fact that the rights of parents to choose the education offered by those schools is diminished de facto or denied because of lack of funding. Surely, the taxpayer's money should follow children to the schools chosen by their parents. I suggest that in a democracy pluralism and freedom of choice are inseparable principles and are incompatible with forcing everyone into a mould which has become historically crystallised. A democratic society should be a flexible one, responding to the changing wishes of its citizens. The Bill would help our education system move in that direction. Perhaps it may reassure your Lordships to know that other countries, including Denmark, the Netherlands and parts of Canada have already adopted similar policies. I believe those countries are not noted for any particular divisiveness, racism or intolerance. I believe those are good precedents.
In connection with divisiveness, I was particularly heartened to note that the Roman Catholic bishop, Bishop Konstant, in his speech in January to the North of England Education Conference, supported the concept of diversity and the rights of other faiths, including the Moslem community, to have state-funded denominational schools. He also argued that he did not believe this would lead to divisiveness and discounted the argument that the problems of Northern Ireland were attributable to differentiated schooling.
I make only two further brief points concerning the thorny issue of divisiveness. They refer to practicalities. First, the fact is that these new schools, if granted voluntary status, would have to have open and agreed admission policies. A significant number of the new Christian schools in the inner cities already have high proportions of children from Moslem, Sikh and Hindu families. For example, 70 per cent. of the pupils at Shepherd's School in Lewisham come from those backgrounds. So such schools are not exclusivist. If they were to come into the state system they would be required to deliver the national curriculum and to abide by other criteria, such as equal opportunities. That might offer some reassurance to those who are worried about faith-based schools failing to provide a good all-round education for their pupils. To that extent state funding would provide a safeguard.
I return for one moment to the issue of surplus places and double funding. Finally, I must point to an inconsistency in the Government's present policy of rejecting applications from new schools on the grounds of surplus places. That consideration did not weigh with the Government in the establishment of the city technology colleges. Let me hasten to say that I am not against the CTCs. I support them. I object to double standards in the application of criteria. If the 1248 surplus places argument did not militate against the Government's implementation of their own policy for setting up their own new schools, it should not prevail against the establishment of other new schools which reflect the wishes of parents and teachers.
That brings me back to where I began, with the parents and the teachers who have been working so hard and making such sacrifices to provide the kind and quality of education that they passionately want for their children. Many of those who are financially better off have sold houses and cars to help realise the capital to fund those new schools. Others are making great sacrifices to pay their fees.
It is my earnest plea that we respect their rights and, where appropriate, their achievements, which are often very great, and that we consider as a matter of urgency ways in which we as a nation can fulfil our commitment to the principles of freedom of choice and the diversity which must accompany it. It is the purpose of this Bill to suggest, albeit inadequately, some ways in which we might address these principles and put them forward for critical discussion but, I hope, sympathetic consideration. I beg to move.
Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. —(Baroness Cox.)
§ 6.32 p.m.
§ Baroness Blackstone
My Lords, the Opposition are unable to support this Bill. We strongly oppose it on grounds of principle and we believe that it will be unworkable in practice. We feel sure that Ministers will share many of our concerns. We understand that the Bill does not have the support of the Church of England, although the right reverend Prelate will confirm whether that is correct. We know that the local authorities consider that the Bill is fundamentally flawed and would be very damaging in its effects on our education system.
§ The Earl of Longford
My Lords, perhaps I may interrupt the noble Baroness. I gather that she speaks for herself.
§ Baroness Blackstone
My Lords, I indicate that the Opposition are unable to support the Bill, but of course I speak for myself. There is a good case to make all publicly maintained schools secular schools, as in the United States of America and many European countries. Religious teaching is then left to the churches and other religious bodies and takes place outside school hours rather than within them. That means that parents can be absolutely sure that the religious teaching which their children receive in the evening or at weekends is truly in line with their own religious beliefs. It also means that children can receive their secular education together without being segregated into separate schools according to their parents' religious faith. That has much to recommend it in a multi-racial, multi-faith society. Despite the noble Baroness's disclaimers, segregation has little to recommend it. However, I do not want to pursue that issue further today.
The history of education in this country means that there are a substantial number of existing church schools—many of them very good—which are fully or 1249 almost fully supported by the state. I shall not go into the details of the 1902 Act or the 1944 Act, each of which embodied a complex settlement with the churches. It suffices to say that the present law allows both the existence of church schools and the creation of new ones. In that respect there is absolutely no need for new legislation. Moreover, it would be quite wrong to create new legislation that puts pressure on successive Secretaries of State for Education to establish new schools, at a cost to the taxpayer and at the expense of the rest of the education system, in order to meet the wishes of very small minorities who want a quite different education for their children from that of the great majority of the population.
Under the existing system all parents have the right to remove their children from religious instruction and religious worship in existing schools if they are inconsistent with their own values and beliefs. That is quite right and proper. If parents want to go a step further and wish their children to be segregated into schools where some kind of alternative religious or philosophical ethos is taught, they have the option to use the independent sector. That is a right which they have and which they should be allowed to continue to have. If they wish to make the sacrifices to which the noble Baroness referred, that is fine. But despite what she said and despite her concerns, I am glad to say that well over 90 per cent. of parents continue to use the maintained system and benefit from the considerable diversity that exists within it.
I turn to the specific proposals in the Bill. First, the Bill gives the Secretary of State a new power to give grant maintained status to independent schools. Secondly, it allows the establishment or the enlargement of voluntary aided schools without regard to existing school provision. To amend the 1988 Act by the inclusion of independent schools in the provisions for grant maintained status is not a minor amendment. The option to seek grant maintained status was never intended to apply to independent schools; nor should it be applied. To do so would involve the Secretary of State stepping into a minefield.
First, let me ask how he will determine whether an independent school which applies has an alternative religious ethos or philosophical ethos (whatever that might mean). Does a secondary school which encourages its pupils to believe in or indeed to practise free love have an alternative philosophical ethos to maintained schools in the area? Can we assume that any Secretary of State will have the requisite knowledge of esoteric religious or philosophical distinctions to determine whether a school is fulfilling a need for an alternative not available elsewhere, quite apart from the question of whether he ought to provide for such needs?
Secondly, the Bill suggests that an independent school would not be eligible if it were well provided for financially or likely to have an adequate private income. Exactly what that means is somewhat unclear. The noble Baroness has just indicated that private income would include fee income. That means that 1250 only those schools which are unable to attract a sufficient number of pupils willing to pay an adequate fee would qualify. In other words, unsuccessful independent schools would be eligible. Can it be right to rescue private schools which have failed at the expense of existing state schools?
The Bill gives independent schools in financial difficulties an incentive to apply for grant maintained status, whether or not they genuinely have some different religious or philosophical ethos. What happens if the school is seriously in debt? Surely, to allow grant to be used to pay off past debts would be wrong; but a school without debts might be considered to have an adequate income and therefore to be ineligible. The Bill is a mess.
Thirdly, there is no provision in the Act for former independent schools with respect to the governing bodies of grant maintained schools. The Bill omits any reference to governors.
Fourthly, in the 1988 Act the provisions on parental ballots to decide whether to seek grant maintained status do not fit at all well with independent schools. Most independent schools have proprietors. Will the parents have a right to a ballot regardless of the owners' views? If such a ballot leads to grant maintained status, will the owners be compensated? After all, their school has in a sense been nationalised against their will
Clause 1 of the Bill is neither desirable in principle nor, as I hope that I have demonstrated, workable in practice. In some ways Clause 2 is even more pernicious. I regret that it reveals a totally irresponsible attitude towards public expenditure and a complete disregard of the need to maintain good working relationships between the Department of Education and Science and local education authorities. Indeed it shows a truly astonishing lack of understanding of the local authorities' role and their responsibilities in planning education and being accountable to their local electorate.
In requiring the Secretary of State to take into account the need for a diversity of schools to satisfy parental demand, the clause more or less empowers any group of parents, however fanatical or nutty they may be, to require the setting up of a new school maintained by the taxpayer regardless of what provision already exists in the area. This cannot be a reasonable or sensible way to construct education law. By ruling out objections from the LEA, the Bill will create a situation in which local authorities will have no say in the quality or nature of the schools that their voters have to finance. In so doing it completely undermines the principle of accountability which the poll tax is actually meant to increase.
The existence of surplus places in maintained schools in the area is not of itself to be a reason for rejecting proposals for new aided schools in the Bill. The Bill gives the Secretary of State extraordinary new powers to direct a local authority to reduce surplus places in its maintained schools and to make surplus places available to a new voluntary school. There is, incidentally, a very odd omission in that there is no 1251 reference to surplus places in aided schools. Why are they excluded? Why refer only to maintained schools? But, more importantly, the Bill omits any reference to the fact that closing schools is subject to clearly laid down procedures of consultation and formal proposals. LEAs cannot simply reduce surplus places by diktat; nor can the Secretary of State. To do so would be to ignore requirements laid down in the 1980 Act. Of course we should take out surplus places, but we should do it as laid down by law.
The Bill reveals an astonishing disregard for the rights of those parents and pupils in schools which happen to have surplus places. Surplus places are not in schools which are already empty but in schools which have pupils and which, although not full at present, may well be quite viable. The Bill appears either to force an existing school to share its premises with a new voluntary aided school or, on the direction of the Secretary of State, to force the closure of an existing school and the transfer of its pupils elsewhere in order to accommodate a new aided school.
What will happen if the parents in that school do not want their children to be transferred in this way? I must say that the scope for parental unhappiness and political conflict as a result of such measures is unbounded. Moreover, these proposals would almost certainly give rise to religious and possibly racial antagonism in the area where they are being implemented. Anyone who has been involved with the closing of schools, as I have, will know what a difficult and sensitive business it is. This proposed legislation is both insensitive and extraordinarily politically naive. It would lead to one group of parents—moreover, a group of parents unwilling up to now to make use of existing maintained or aided schools—having their wishes for a separate education for their children met at the expense of other parents with less exclusive views about their children's education. It is a recipe for disaster.
Finally, there is no reference in the Bill to questions of quality. There are serious questions to be asked about whether existing fundamentalist schools of various faiths which might seek to benefit from this proposed legislation are providing an education of acceptable quality. Some of them, we know, discriminate against girls; many of them have a narrow curriculum and rely on untrained teachers. Local education authorities cannot and should not be expected to pay for such schools. But the fundamental question of principle raised by the Bill is whether new maintained school places should be provided on parental demand, regardless of cost and of the impact on existing maintained schools.
I cannot believe that there can be much support for this Bill either in Parliament or in the country, and I am surprised that it should have proceeded thus far, although I am glad to hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, that it will now go no further.
§ 6.44 p.m.
§ Lord Ritchie of Dundee
My Lords, may I begin these words by apologising to your Lordships for the fact that I may have to leave the debate before it is over. However, I shall read Hansard with great interest later.
The Bill has given rise to certain heart searchings by me personally, although the policy on these Benches is clear enough. May I quote John Stuart Mill on liberty?
All that has been said of the importance of individuality of character, and diversity of opinions and modes of conduct, involves, as of the same unspeakable importance, diversity of education".We are great believers in that.
Before going further, let me say something with close reference to what the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, has said. I have not prepared my notes obviously, but our problem in the education system in this country is that most children have to go to the nearest school available for one reason or another. Schools are not made just by educationists, local education authorities, governing bodies or teachers; they are made by the parents, the children and the environment. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, referred to certain schools which offered something special and had high standards, which is admirable. But that is because the parents want those standards and those values.
However, we are worried about schools where parents do not understand; they may be living in deprived areas; they may feel that they have no alternative, and they are perhaps not very concerned anyway or they do not understand the system. It seems to us that this is where funding should go—to improve the standards of the schools that exist so that the sort of schools of which the noble Baroness spoke become less necessary. She said that parents have voted with their feet, but I would say "some parents". The great majority of parents do not get the opportunity to do that.
Reverting to diversity, I personally happen to believe that the education offered in the Steiner schools is of inestimable value and embodies the best of modern trends and future hopes for education. It is particularly appealing in that it is international, attracting pupils from all over the world and, for example, flourishing in Japan, South Africa and Latin America, including the Favella slums of Sao Paulo, as well as in Europe, the United States and Israel. The Steiner schools in Germany were closed by Hitler, which in itself is a worthy recommendation.
The schools offer the arts and sciences and academic and manual skills for all pupils in a totally integrated way, and they teach modern languages from the age of six. They are totally non-sectarian but teach reverence for all life, in whatever form. They are state supported in New Zealand, Sweden, Holland, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Israel and Finland; but in this country they have always been handicapped by lack of funds. It would be my dearest desire to see these enlightened schools redeemed from the crippling effects of penury.
Another very worthy candidate for consideration is a small school in Hartland in Devon—a school 1253 catering for about 30 children of secondary age—which was founded by parents eight years ago as a human-scale alternative to the 1,800-pupil comprehensive school an hour's bus ride away. The school is based on the philosophy of Dr. Schumacher. The parents and staff at this school are making untold sacrifices in order to enable the children to live the principle that "small is beautiful".
We as a party are concerned when thinking about the larger sections of the community seeking segregation on religious grounds. I am thinking particularly of the Moslem community. I believe it is the case that in this country the Moslem community is divided as to whether its members wish their children to go to all-Moslem schools, if such were freely available, or whether in order to ensure a top-class conventional education they would prefer their children to avail themselves of the state system. We on these Benches appreciate the natural justice of the claim that Moslems should be accorded the same rights as members of the Church of England, Methodists, Roman Catholics or those of the Jewish faith, but we have misgivings that where racial differences are added to fundamental cultural and religious ones our social integration may be threatened by according these rights. We would be chary of encouraging segregation in that way.
However, that is not our real stumbling block. The Bill proposes that applications for public support should take the form of applying for grant maintained status. We have always opposed the grant maintained system on the following grounds. We believe that education should remain locally delivered. The local education authorities, with all their shortcomings, are likely to appreciate local needs better than a central authority appointed to fund the grant maintained schools.
We believe that locally delivered education accords better with the principle of a devolved, decentralised society. The present Government have done much to make such local delivery of education unworkable. How can a local authority plan efficiently and economically if schools in its midst are suddenly removed from its administrative control and handed over to central Government with grant maintained status? It must be rather like captaining a football team but being told that the centre half is taking orders from another manager; or like running a rail network in which some of the stations or lengths of track are to be removed entirely.
Numerous services are organised on a country-wide or borough-wide basis. To have certain schools not part of that organisation and yet to retain certain responsibilities towards them must constitute an administrative nightmare. There is also the somewhat disagreeable implication of the social ladder. If one's children attend a grant maintained school, they are a rung or two above one's neighbour's children who only go to a local comprehensive. It looks as though grant maintained schools will be better funded than the common run of schools and are likely to become increasingly selective. The class system in this country 1254 flourishes. We need to iron out differences rather than to manufacture new social ladders to encourage or perpetuate them.
We should like some categories of independent schools to receive public funding. Apart from other considerations, some are undertaking important pioneering work. But we wish to see it done by the voluntary aided system. Your Lordships will know that a number of the C of E, RC and Jewish schools in the country receive public funds through local education authorities on that basis. The voluntary aided schools own their own premises and enjoy a considerable degree of independence but are funded by county hall as to running expenses and 85 per cent. of capital expenses. They are ultimately under LEA control.
Why may not the schools about which we speak apply for voluntary aided rather than grant maintained status? The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that any independent school may already legally do so in accordance with the 1944 or 1980 Education Acts. Section 13 of the latter sets out the terms under which application may be made.
Such an application does not usually have the support of the LEA, as the noble Baroness said. However, when Islamiyah, the large Moslem primary school in Brent, applied for voluntary aided status last year, it was the then Secretary of State who refused permission and the LEA which supported the application. Normally it is the LEA which opposes such applications. But if it were thought desirable to overcome such resistance in the interests of John Stuart Mill's diversity or of pioneering endeavour, an amendment such as that contained in Section 2 might be made.
The nub of our objections to the proposal that we are debating is this. By removing the responsibility for considering such applications and ultimately for administering such schools from the hands of those who live locally and putting it into the hands of remote and faceless officials in Elizabeth House, one would be striking yet another blow at regional devolution.
I wish to press the Minister to give an answer to the million dollar question. For a number of years it has been the policy of Her Majesty's Government to cut local education authorities down to size and to make their job more difficult. Is that war of attrition aimed at their abolition? Has the possibility of a neat solution to the poll tax problem suddenly given this long-term aim an added impetus? Do the Government believe or do they not believe in democratic control of state education? We have the right to know their thoughts and to have an open debate on the subject.
We believe that public funding should be available for certain categories of independent school ultimately at the discretion of the Secretary of State after consultation. For example, I refer to schools which undertake important pioneering work or are fulfilling special needs of one kind or another. We are chary of schools which would be exclusive especially on religious grounds. We wish such funding to be done through the democratically controlled local authority and not by the central authority, which would bypass and undermine the devolved system.
1255 For those reasons we are sympathetic to some of the thinking behind the Bill. However, we cannot support it as it stands.
§ 6.57 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Guildford
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for introducing the Bill. Whether or not she withdraws it at the end of the debate, she has helped us to focus upon some important issues in relation to the educational system in this country. I am unable to support the Bill as it stands. However, I wish, greatly daring, to distance myself from some of the criticisms of the Bill put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, whose clarity and punch I admire but whose opinions I do not entirely share.
I should make it clear that the Bill has been carefully studied by the General Synod board of education. It is in the light of those discussions that I try to express how I believe the Church of England views the proposals.
The first clause provides for independent schools to be eligible for grant maintained status. The Church of England is concerned that we should have an adequately funded pattern of education across the country which ensures that children of all abilities and backgrounds have access to high quality education. We are in partnership with local and central government to that end. If independent schools at present privately financed are brought directly into the maintained system as grant maintained schools, there will inevitably be an increase in public funding requirements. I have heard no indication that the Government are prepared to provide extra finance.
It can be pleaded that any money needed for those new schools can be found through transferring allocations from under-utilised schools elsewhere. However, the Government are giving additional financial incentives to those schools which wish to become grant maintained. I believe that the net effect of the Bill would be to place additional financial pressure on existing schools. That would cause me some concern.
I am not opposed to grant maintained schools on principle. The noble Lord, Lord Ritchie, indicated that having grant maintained schools in the present system is rather like trying to run a football team with the centre half being given orders from elsewhere. I can ass ire the noble Lord that bishops in the Church of England are well experienced in that art. I have to run a diocese with 50 per cent. of the clergy appointed by other bodies. We are quite used to such curious football teams. Now and again they work. Nonetheless there is concern that if we allow independent schools to jump straight through to grant maintained status, we place undue strains on the present educational pattern.
Furthermore, I am aware that parts of the first section of the Bill state that the independent school is not eligible if it is already well endowed financially, and so on. I wish for a clearer definition. I am not clear about what criteria the Secretary of State would use to designate categories of independent schools; nor how 1256 he would determine any consequential applications. For those reasons I cannot support the first part of the Bill.
I have more sympathy with the second part of the Bill which touches a very real issue. There is need for further discussion. I doubt however whether the proposals in the Bill are the right ones to take us further forward. It would help to remove misunderstandings and a sense of injustice if we could be given a clearer indication of the criteria used by the Secretary of State when determining applications for voluntary aided status. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, referred to the Secretary of State having indicated the principles he uses. It is clear that we know what information he wants; it is not clear what are the criteria against which that information is assessed. It is on that point that we want more openness and information.
The information that the Secretary of State requires is not laid down in legislation; it is administratively derived. We are not clear about the criteria that he uses. There is no fixed ordering or weighting of factors. For instance, the views of the LEA are important but not determinative, and although the Secretary of State does not normally approve proposals where surplus places exist in the area, that is not an invariable principle. Where applications are made and are then turned down on the basis of surplus places existing in the area, it might be helpful for there to be some way in which the Secretary of State could refer the matter back to the local authority. That would enable further plans to be brought forward as to how the surplus places could be reduced in a satisfactory overall local scheme. I do not wish to see the importance and responsibility of the local authority undermined or diminished in employing a pattern of education in the country.
The main issue is surely that we need greater clarity and openness. An anxiety exists that the Secretary of State is rejecting voluntary aided applications on technical grounds that surplus places exist in the locality whereas his real grounds lie elsewhere. If we do not face that anxiety and the contentious issues that surround it, there will be the lurking fear that we have bureaucratic discrimination. That would be damaging for our society.
For its part the Church of England, in making use of voluntary aided status, sees itself as working in partnership with government, both local and central, to provide a pattern of education for all. Any voluntary aided school must work on a basis of partnership and not just seek public funding for any private cause or philosophy. There must be ready agreement to accept equality in both race and gender, as enshrined in law. In regard to gender it is surely important that there should be not only equality between boys and girls in the classroom, but also a clear recognition that that equality pervades the whole of life.
We want to see the national curriculum used and taught in such a way that it encourages pupils to develop their critical faculties; there is no place for 1257 indoctrination in education. It is over the issues of partnership, equality and indoctrination that the main controversies and anxieties lie.
I want to place on record that both I and the General Synod board of education are not against voluntary aided status for Moslem or other faith schools, nor for some small Christian schools. But our hope is that any applications for voluntary status will take on board the principles outlined; that is, partnership, equality and the avoidance of indoctrination. I wish to place on record my appreciation of some of the small independent schools, particularly one that I was able to visit and others with which I have been in indirect contact. Those that I have seen impressed me. Some might benefit the maintained system by being included within it. But I am not convinced that the way to achieve that is to prevent the Secretary of State using surplus places in adjoining schools as adequate grounds for refusal. There are wider issues to be faced and other routes which might be followed.
I cannot obscure the fact that the draft Bill has brought before us issues which it would be unwise to avoid. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for introducing the Bill and allowing us to consider some of those issues, even though I cannot support the Bill as it stands.
§ 7.6 p.m.
§ Baroness Flather
My Lords, since coming to your Lordships' House I have much admired the commitment and dedication of my noble friend Lady Cox; especially the amount of hard work that she has put into bringing the Bill before the House. I therefore particularly regret that I am unable to give it my support.
I am conscious that the motivation behind the Bill is of the highest. However, I strongly believe that it does not serve either the interests of society as a whole or of the children. In the present situation—I agree that much of this has been said—all religious schools have the right to apply for voluntary aided status, but they must find 12 per cent. of the funds required and the state provides the balancing 88 per cent. There is no discrimination as to which religious groups are eligible to apply.
The Secretary of State may refuse approval on grounds such as suitability, educational content, and so forth. In addition, as we heard, he may refuse if too many school places are available in that education authority area. The Bill will remove "surplus places" as a reason for refusal. That will mean that the most objective reason for refusal will no longer be available to the Secretary of State. Clearly, if the educational level is not satisfactory it will still be possible to refuse. Any other grounds will be extremely difficult to judge by objective criteria. There is the likelihood of a large number of cases applying for judicial review where the Secretary of State decides not to give his approval to a school.
The Bill further provides for independent schools, or schools which have opted-out from the State 1258 system, to opt in again as grant-maintained schools. That may lead to independent schools being set up with the specific intention of applying for grant-maintained status shortly thereafter. That is a somewhat backdoor way of obtaining access to state funding.
I do not believe in a proliferation of separate religious schools. Changes which open the door any wider need to be resisted. Britain has undergone an enormous change during the past 30 years. Large numbers of immigrants have come to this country from the former Empire and there is now a greater diversity of cultures, races and religions. In our schools we have second and even third generations of British born children of those immigrants and we need to consider seriously the kind of society we want to build for them.
It is a matter of great regret to me that Lord Swann is no longer with us. I had the privilege of serving on his committee of inquiry into the education of ethnic minority children, which produced the appropriately named report, Education for All. We had a lengthy debate on the desirability of separate religious schools and came down firmly against them. We felt that educating children separately would threaten the cohesion of society even further and that there could never come a time when the different groups would begin to feel a part of the same society. That means neither assimilation nor separation. We subscribed to the concept of pluralism but with diversity within unity. I commend to your Lordships most particularly the first chapter of that report under the title "Nature of Society".
I understand and sympathise with the groups who see their religion as a way of life which permeates all aspects of their day-to-day living. That applies particularly to Islam and perhaps also to some of the Christian groups who want these provisions. But we know only too well what separate education can do. We already have an example within the United Kingdom, in Northern Ireland. Even on the mainland it was not so long ago that there was considerable antipathy between Protestants and Roman Catholics. With some of the other religious groups there would be the additional element of racial differences to contend with. The noble Lord, Lord Ritchie, has already pointed towards that.
There is another important factor that we must not lose sight of. In many cases there is a desire to control the education of girls through separate schools. Many societies see equal opportunities and education for women as threats to their traditional way of life. Interestingly, many of the societies are changing their views on a number of these issues; but it is the nature of immigrant communities to hold on to the attitudes which they have brought with them, particularly in the face of what they perceive as a threatening environment.
Much has been made of the fact that we already have denominational schools, including Jewish schools. After all, the Church of England and the Roman Catholics were the sole providers of education long before the state took over the task. There was a 1259 need for Catholic and Jewish schools if the Catholics and Jews were to get any education at all. It was not the luxury of parental choice which led to those denominational schools, but sheer necessity.
I take up a point made by my noble friend Lady Cox. She said that many of the Christian schools opened their doors to other faiths and that there are many Hindu, Sikh and Moslem parents who send their children to these independent Christian schools. That may be the case now, but would it be so when they also set up their own separate faith schools? I believe not. Parental choice cannot be paramount. It must be balanced with the needs of society and those of the real consumers, the children themselves. It is their future and ability to compete and function alongside their peers that we should be most concerned about.
I am sorry that my noble friend Lady Young is unable to be here today. I know that had she been present she would have fully supported these views. I believe that there are now many opportunities for making sure that there is a strong moral and ethical element underpinning our education system. But at the end of the day children spend only a fraction of their time at school. We cannot absolve the parents from their own responsibility for the religious nurture of their children.
§ 7.14 p.m.
§ Lord Sefton of Garston
My Lords, in not preparing a speech for a debate of this kind one falls into the trap of listening to the other speakers and then deciding to reply to them. There is then the difficulty of deciding to whom to reply and still keep one's speech short. I do not believe that because the Bill is to be withdrawn we should not spend time on it. That would be a discourtesy to this House.
There are a few points I wish to make arising from the debate particularly concerning the speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford. He referred to access to high quality education as an aim, I assume, of the Church of England. I certainly agree with that. Some people would suggest that high quality education means giving children all possible knowledge on certain subjects. One of them, which is a very important part of our lives and which at times seems to be the most important part of some people's lives, as witnessed in Northern Ireland, Beirut and other parts of the world, is religion. Some would say that children should be taught about all the religions and then allowed to make up their minds as to which, if any, they wish to pursue. That is my idea of high quality education, though I may be wrong.
The right reverend Prelate said that he sees no place for indoctrination in education. I wonder whether that applies to teachers taking a crocodile of young children aged about seven or eight, marching them along the street by order, sitting them in a church and then letting them be indoctrinated with the views of that particular church. I see that every day of my life. If that is not indoctrination, I do not know what it is. However, I am glad to see that the Church of England 1260 seems to be changing its mind. No doubt it will have a word with one of the other main faiths in this country.
In proposing the Bill the mover gave us an example of name-dropping at its best. We were regaled with the names of various people who support the principle and fundamental reason for the Bill. I was very impressed. I thought to myself: "This is an important Bill. It has something to do with religion because the rabbi and various bishops were mentioned who all support the Bill". That poses the question as to why it is being withdrawn.
According to the religious people who lecture me, religious belief is the most important thing in the universe. In fact some religions say that they know the answer to the creation of the universe. I was taught that until 1940 when I used to attend my church as a regular supporter. I speak to young children who go to church and they are taught the same. It is blasphemy to suggest that Jesus Christ is not the Son of God, the whole Creator. That is blasphemy. That is an important issue. I assume that the intent behind this Bill is contained in that very pointed remark.
The bishops and the rabbi will not give way on their faith. The rabbi does not believe in Christ, but he will not give way on his faith. He believes it is right. He is dogmatically opposed to an atheist. Islam may also know the answer. Persons like me who have been described as pagans in this House do not know the answer. I frankly admit that I do not know the answer. In determining that ultimate answer everybody should be free from indoctrination. They should be taught everything possible about how the religions were created and then they can make up their own minds.
We heard a lambasting of the state schools. If I heard correctly—one can be mistaken, so I shall read Hansard tomorrow with interest—I shall make sure that all the people I know in state schools, particularly the teachers, get to know what the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and the supporters of this Bill think about our state education.
§ Baroness Cox
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Maybe he could not hear because there was some conversation going on about him at the time. At the outset of my speech I made a special point of saying that there are many good state schools and I had no wish whatever to cast aspersions on the entire state system.
§ Lord Sefton of Garston
My Lords, I am grateful for that admission: some of them are bad and some of them are good! We all know that, but the general impression given in the speech was that by and large state schools are not very good at all. That is not my view. My view is that they labour under tremendous difficulties and give our children some of the best education in the world. That is my view. I may be wrong.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, mentioned the case of people sending their children to the West Indies for a traditional British, Christian education. I have never before heard such arrogance, in this House or elsewhere. I do not know whether I am in the House 1261 of Lords or out on the stump somewhere listening to the Evangelists. It has been said before in the House that secular education cannot maintain our moral values. I resent it now as much as I resented it then. I believe in a secular society.
Our prisons are not full of people who have sat down and discussed the questions of religion and creation and become secularists by conviction. They are usually full of people who have never given any thought to religion at all and who have been reared in that atmosphere. That is the population of our prisons. They are not secularists. They are not people who believe in a secular state. They are not people who will politically support one of the worst organisations in existence in the United Kingdom and then march behind funerals and listen to Christian dissertations upon deaths which they themselves have brought about. They are not people who have given any thought to secularism or morality. They are people who have been reared, as they are today in Ireland, against a background of religious bigotry. Those are the fundamental issues lying behind this Bill.
It is no use talking about education because at the base of it all we have to ask ourselves this question: is a Christian right in suggesting that public money should be used for a religion that is blasphemous against Christianity? I assume that the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, is a Christian. I thought blasphemy was the worst crime that could be committed. We seem to be getting dangerously near to establishing a case for the abolition of the blasphemy laws, an attempt which I made some time ago.
Perhaps I may say something on the question of the procedure of this House. I moved an amendment to the Education Reform Bill. I spent a quarter of an hour in this Chamber trying to put forward reasons why we should have no indoctrination in our education but should teach all the children about all the religions, let them have a free discussion and make up their own minds. On that occasion I did not hear one word in opposition. There were right reverend Prelates on the Bishops Bench and the government spokesman was present. Everyone refused to accept the challenge and so the vote was taken without any opposition being expressed. I thought that these were important matters. This Chamber is motivated by things other than party politics. This Chamber is sufficiently mature that it can debate fundamental issues. So I proposed a Bill to abolish blasphemy. This is how I relate that matter to this debate. I sought the opinions of Members of the House who are older than I am and more versed in the functions of the House. They came to the conclusion that the time was not right and it would be wasting the time of this House to propose that Bill.
I had a choice. I could have come to this Chamber, moved the Bill and then withdrawn it at the end of the debate. I considered that that was both discourteous and dishonest. When I next move the Second Reading of the Blasphemy Bill I shall not let it die. I have had a lesson taught to me today. I shall bring it here and I shall speak on it. There will be no question of me 1262 withdrawing it at the end. I shall insist that it goes ahead because that is the lesson I have been taught today. It is downright discourteous. It is betraying the elements of the Christian faith to come to this House, debate a Bill and then withdraw it. If it is a fundamental issue, why can we not have a vote on it; or is it politically unwise at the moment from the point of view of both sides of the House to introduce such a Bill? I am not afraid to ask that. If that is the reason then it is a betrayal of anyone who believes in any religion whatsoever.
I quote the new Archbishop of Canterbury, who in some respects seems to be starting off on the right lines. He is quoted in the Independent today saying that religious truths are too important to be fudged. We have heard the religious truths today and we shall no doubt hear some more before the end of the debate. We shall then fudge it at the end by being afraid to vote or by being persuaded by our political masters not to vote. The issues raised not only in words but by implication are very important.
I have spoken for 11 minutes. In view of the fact there is to be no vote Members of the House will want to go home or to other places where they can put their heads down. Although I have two more pages of notes I shall ignore them completely.
I was told once that I must not rubbish faith by asking certain questions or saying certain things that are true. But the Bill proposes to allow the Islamic faith to be taught with the aid of the public purse. I have said some nasty things about the Christian religion in the past. That was before it began to modify its attitude to dogmatism and before it began to modify its attitude to the ultimate question. Nevertheless it was guilty of some terrible crimes. It is an obscene blasphemy for any religion to threaten the life of any man simply because he wants to express an opinion. I would defend to the death that man's right to express it. I would certainly never agree that the Islamic faith should be aided by the public purse in order to carry out that religion, even though it is only following some very good examples set by the Christian Church.
I conclude by suggesting to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, that there is another fundamental question. If it is a religious issue, if it is something that strikes at the very heart of relationships between the state and religion, that, as the noble Baroness herself said, transcends politics. Perhaps I may say in a good Liverpool fashion: just have the guts to move the Bill and stick by what you are saying; do not allow your religious convictions to be influenced by party politicians and managers.
§ 7.29 p.m.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, I put down my name to speak on the merits of the Bill. I did not realise that I would have the privilege of following the noble Lord, Lord Sefton. I must not allow myself to be unduly distracted. Time is short and in any event it would be quite impossible for me to discuss matters of theology with the noble Lord. With respect, I think he went a little over the top.
1263 The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, speaks with great clarity and conviction. I understand exactly what she says. The trouble is that I do not happen to agree with it; but at least I can understand exactly what is being said, whereas I do not have that advantage with the noble Lord, Lord Sefton.
I turn to the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie of Dundee. It seems to me that we agree on diversity as a matter of fundamental approach and he is very much in sympathy, as I am, with the direction of funding—for example, in favour of the Steiner schools—but we part company as to how that should be done. Again, that is a matter which one simply cannot discuss within the compass of 11 minutes or so.
As there are many speakers in the debate, and in order to save your Lordships' time, I should point out that I showed the notes from which I was to speak to my noble friend Lady Cox. She did not by any means agree with all of my points. However, every word that the rig it reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford said reflects the passages of my notes. I take my stand not only on my own behalf but I also accept and adopt, as being the correct approach without any cavil or qualification, every word he said. That admission will shorten my contribution to some degree. It is the first time in my experience that I have ever found it possible to speak in such a way as regards my relationship with the Spiritual Benches.
The right reverend Prelate took the bold point; namely, that here is the Secretary of State exercising powers to approve or reject the proposition. I looked through the statute quite coldly, as would an ordinary lawyer, and there is nothing to say how he would exercise those powers. I then searched for secondary legislation, but I found none. That meant that I had to consider how on earth this would be done. It seems that he will make up his own rules as he goes along and that there is no control by Parliament. Further, there is no proper provision for making representations; he does net have to give his reasons in writing; and, there is no way that the exercise of this discretion can be challenged in the courts by way of judicial review. Is that not a fine kettle of fish? The right reverend Prelate was right to point out that that is a wholly unsatisfactory way of conducting our affairs.
It appears that the current rules, which were made up by the Secretary of State in connection with Clause 2 and, according to the speech he made on 16th January, state that he must take the following considerations into account. Consideration must be given, first, to the overall need for school places in the area; secondly, to the demand for a particular kind of school; thirdly, to whether the LEA supports the proposal; fourthly, to whether the school will be able to deliver the national curriculum; fifthly, to whether the premises are up to standard; sixthly, to whether the promoters can meet the expenditure; and, finally, to the provision of equal opportunities for boys and girls. However, no one has the slightest idea how those criteria will operate in practice.
I should point out to the noble Lord, Lord Sefton—and I hope he will not be cross with me for so doing—that the value of this occasion is that we can meet, 1264 discuss and hear one another's views. Indeed, I have been able to assimilate views which I have not heard before and I have also been comforted to hear the right reverend Prelate confirm my very tentative approach to the subject. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Sefton, wishes to intervene. I am happy for him to do so.
§ Lord Sefton of Garston
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. However, I hope that he does not think that I am frightened of debate. It seems to me that there are ways of ensuring that matters are discussed in this House other than introducing a Bill.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord.
Because we are able to discuss the matter a form of consensus, perhaps even including the noble Lord, Lord Sefton, could emerge—I can see the noble Lord nodding in assent—that if the system under Clause 2 is to continue then it should at least be better run. That is one of the aspects which has emerged from the debate which might not have come to light if the debate had not taken place.
Another factor which emerges from the debate is the fact that the Bill is too narrowly drafted. Many problems arise under the 1981 Act as regards children with learning difficulties. I refer to the appellate procedures. I believe that I should now declare an interest, in that I have been involved in many such cases and I am currently concerned with about three of them. I shall not bore your Lordships with the details, but the procedures under Sections 5 and 8 of the Act are in urgent need of review. This is the kind of occasion upon which one can put forward such a proposition. One can say, "Well, if another Bill in a different form is to be introduced at some time which takes account of the objections, perhaps thought might also be given to such and such an aspect of the matter". I hope that that proves to be the case.
Another problem with the Bill is not just the question of drafting; it goes beyond that point. I refer to the concept of categorisation. I hope that that will never come back. If one tries to categorise schools as religious, philosophical (the Steiner type of school), specifically Christian or secular—although no mention is made of secular schools; they were to be introduced in Committee—the process is really not appropriate and could cause considerable offence because of the way it is put forward in a multi-religious and non-religious society. Further, it belies practical application. One of the reasons for that is that the independent schools, and certainly those on the borderline of viability which under these proposals would qualify to apply for grant-aided status, are very often sacred or religious schools as well as being schools which cater for the learning difficulties of children. Therefore, it is quite impossible and impracticable to approach the matter with the concept of categorisation. I hope that I have made that point both briefly and clearly and that the concept will not reappear in another draft. I believe that my noble friend Lord Renton wishes to intervene. I shall, therefore, give way to him.
§ Lord Renton
My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for giving way. I should stress the fact that we are very interested in what he has to say. But perhaps he could confirm something for the sake of completeness and clarity. When he refers to "categorisation" I assume that he is referring to the issue of whether schools would enter into the,county, voluntary or independent school",status, or the maintained or voluntary agencies. Alternatively, is he referring to both those categories?
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
No, my Lords; I was not. However I am most grateful to my noble friend. That was a perfectly reasonable assumption to make. I was referring to Clause 1(3), which states:The Secretary of State shall by order designate categories",as regards schools which provide a,religious or philosophical ethos, including a specifically Christian ethos".I referred to the fact that no mention was made of the secular category. I was directing my criticism directly to that omission.
The other matter is that the Bill should make it absolutely clear, and it does not, that the true intention of my noble friend Lady Cox, which I support—and it is worthy of further discussion and consideration in a leisurely fashion —is that the Bill is designed to supplement and not undermine the state system by conferring eligibility only upon those independent schools on the borderline of viability which could not meet the reasonable parental demand without grant aid assistance. Certainly, most independent special schools would not qualify, by reason of their endowment.
However, the whole concept must be worked out within current viable financial restraints and provisions. On that I go along with the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie. I do not believe that that can be done, so to speak, off the cuff. This whole matter raises an important question of education which requires considerably longer discussion and thought, although I am extremely grateful to my noble friend Lady Cox for giving us this opportunity.
§ 7.41 p.m.
§ Lord Addington
My Lords, much of what I had originally planned to say has already been said. However, I should like to make one or two brief comments. In his closing comments the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, touched upon what I believe to be one of the saving graces of the Bill, which I believe is otherwise a complete and utter mess and unworkable; that is, that certain types of school in the independent sector should be given some form of assistance.
My noble friend Lord Ritchie pointed out that the voluntary aided schemes are there to give assistance. However the schools with which my noble friend is involved—schools for pupils with special educational needs—as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, pointed out, need some assistance especially as many are in danger of closing. In spite of the fact that improvements have been made in this sphere in recent 1266 years, we have not got it right yet. For example, as regards dyslexics, the private sector still has to do far too much work. Parents are forced to choose private sector education.
I should like to make a comment on a point mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Sefton. I have a gut reaction against the idea of religious schools. My party believes—and I agree with this—that there should not be a blanket ban on any type of educational school. However, I am frightened and am made angry by the thought of fundamentalism of any description being brought into schools. That is an alarming concept. It does not matter where it comes from. As soon as it is said, "This is the right way to do things, this is the way things should be done", then everybody else is wrong. If everybody else is wrong, it is possible to justify doing almost anything to them. If one puts racial discrimination into that cocktail, then one arrives at a situation which we should take every step to avoid. That is a danger inherent in this Bill as currently drafted. I do not believe that the noble Baroness wants anything like that to come about, but that is a danger. Some of the briefing on schools having the right moral fibre and background offended many people. That is a danger which comes to the fore as we discuss this Bill.
Other points have been covered very well. The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, referred to the fact that the construction of the Bill is very shaky. I do not wish to say anything further on that other than that the Bill has opened up a huge Pandora's box of issues. I am glad that the Bill is to be withdrawn because, had we stepped into that box at this point, I do not know what would be the outcome.
§ 7.46 p.m.
§ The Duke of Norfolk
My Lords, I welcome this debate and thank my noble friend Lady Cox for initiating it. I have a clash of engagements this evening so I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I do not listen to the whole debate. I must leave shortly.
The point about indoctrination has been raised and discussed, particularly after the right reverend Prelate claimed that there was not much indoctrination in his Church. All religious schools are indoctrinating schools. Of course they are. In my Roman Catholic Church the clergy indoctrinate, but I hope that they do so by giving all points of view. We are lucky enough to have some Roman Catholic laity to keep the clergy in order. That is a very important part of the Roman Catholic Church in this country, as I have frequently said.
The key to this Bill lies in the reference to,schools … which provide an alternative religious or philosophical ethos, including a specifically Christian ethos, to the existing local maintained schools".The Bill seeks to make available such schools where there is a demand from parents. As the noble Baroness told the House, there are many Anglican, Catholic and Jewish schools dating back many years. These days there is also a demand from other religious groups, both Christian and non-Christian, such as the Mohammedans. In justice, that demand too should be met.
1267 Roughly speaking, there are 1 million Moslems in this country. They should be given proper recognition. We no longer live in the Middle Ages, with Crusades taking place. The Moslems believe in Islam and a way of life which we should respect. I was rather amazed and saddened by the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone. I believe that she was defending LEAs rather than speaking about education. However, having said that, I leave the point.
Following the legislation of recent years, local education authorities have been under a duty to comply with parental preferences where it is possible to do so. However, those preferences have been limited to the schools available. It should be the duty of the Department of Education and the local authorities to go beyond that and seek to ensure that the availability of schools more accurately reflects the wishes of the parents in the area. In particular, I strongly support the provision in the Bill which will prevent a surplus of places in other maintained schools being used as an impediment to the provision of religious schools for which there is a demand from parents.
I have received many letters on that point from people living in the Wirral where there are vacancies in the maintained schools. There Catholics are seeking greater support for their schools. Where religious groups can show sufficient support from parents for a school of a particular faith and can meet the other conditions required, it is surely wrong that their applications should be refused merely because there is a surplus of places in the maintained school. That must be wrong.
We should take note of what such a surplus of places amounts to. It consists of places not now wanted by parents although they may have been wanted in the past. In most areas the pattern of schools is not of recent origin. In some areas it goes back a long time, although the composition of the population in those areas has frequently changed. I cannot believe that it is right that groups should be denied a school of their faith because of arrangements made by local authorities many years ago in different circumstances and in answer to different needs.
§ 7.50 p.m.
§ The Earl of Longford
My Lords, if I seem to agree with the noble Duke, I hope that that will not be put down to subservience towards higher authority in my Church. He is the popular leader of the Catholic laity, but that has not prevented me from differing from him on party and religious matters. Today I agree with him. I support the Bill in principle. I cannot imagine the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, introducing a Bill to promote Christian education which did not secure my support in principle. We all remember that it was due solely to her initiative that the word "Christianity" is in the Education Reform Act. She is entitled to a great deal of respect from anyone who has Christian leanings.
I shall not estimate the contribution Christianity has made to the position of the Labour Party. It has made a large contribution, but it has not been the only 1268 contribution. I do not believe that anyone ever called Sidney Webb or Bernard Shaw Christians. The two former Labour Prime Ministers, my noble friends Lord Wilson and Lord Callaghan, are both Christians. The position of the late Lord Attlee was rather more complex. The House may remember that when he was asked whether he was a Christian he said that he accepted the Christian ethic but could not stand the mumbo-jumbo. That was not a firm Christian affirmation. On the other hand, when he was asked whether he was an agnostic he replied that he did not know. So the humanists cannot claim him as one of their own.
Kenneth Harris's fine biography of Lord Attlee brings out the fact that he was influenced by the Christian traditions of his family and above all by his brother Tom, a Christian pacifist, who went to prison for his beliefs during the First World War. At that time the late Lord Attlee was going through what Winston Churchill described as the heaviest fighting. Perhaps we can refrain from dogmatism with respect to Lord Attlee, but two later Labour Prime Ministers were strong Christians, like many other members of the Labour Party.
I joined the Labour Party before the birth of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox and my noble friend Lady Blackstone. I hope that my noble friend will forgive me for interrupting her. She spoke brilliantly and the adrenaline may flow all the more strongly after an interruption.
§ The Earl of Longford
My Lords, my noble friend can afford to be generous. When I joined the Labour Party I said that I was a socialist because I was a Christian. That was my position then and it is my position today. That is true of very many other members of my party and other parties. Be that as it may, all of us in the House believe strongly in freedom of thought, speech and worship. We must surely all agree that there are matters which are more important than politics. The trouble is that politics tend to interfere in religious matters. That cannot be avoided. Back-Benchers on all sides of the House believe in freedom of speech, but Ministers have to make collective decisions on matters such as how public money is to be distributed.
I am losing the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway. I hope that I have said nothing to affront him. I thought that I was being innocuous.
§ The Earl of Longford
I shall think of something. Before the noble Lord's departure upset me, I was saying that there are matters deeper than politics. Politics have a way of interfering. The Government have the problem of deciding how the taxpayers' money, for which they are responsible, should be distributed. That brings us to the general issue we are discussing.
The country in general, whatever a few individuals may feel, accepts the voluntary system under which large numbers of children receive state assistance to 1269 attend voluntary schools. I do not believe that any party will disturb that arrangement in the foreseeable future. I shall concentrate on the great majority of children who attend state schools. There, as those of us who took part in the debate two years ago will remember, Christianity is guaranteed its position. It is not a dominant position, but I do not believe anyone will quarrel with me if I say that it has a leading position.
What about the parents who are convinced that that teaching is not being provided in the schools that their children attend? Are those parents to be denied what is provided for in the Act or are they to be given assistance to set up schools of their own? I believe an irresistible case is made out to give some assistance to people in certain circumstances. The Bill is not well drafted. People in my party shrink from the idea of assistance being given to independent schools. That conjures up the idea of public schools receiving assistance.
§ The Earl of Longford
I do not know whether my noble friend has had time to read the Bill. I expect that he will before he replies. If he reads it carefully he will see that steps are to be taken to prevent public schools from receiving assistance under that heading. That being provided for, I have no worries on social grounds. But I am worried about the drafting of the crucial clause. It is woolly, and if people do not like it, I share their dislike. Christianity seems to be relegated to an alternative status. The reference to a "philosophical ethos" is either meaningless or dangerous. I could not vote for that clause.
I am relieved to know that the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, will not take the Bill to a Division. If she had, I should have had reluctantly to support her. I should have had misgivings and I should have promised to make a thorough nuisance of myself in Committee. As she is rightly not taking the Bill to a Division, I hope that she will bring back a Bill which pursues the same ideas but in a much more sensible and acceptable form.
§ 8 p.m.
§ Lady Saltoun of Abernethy
My Lords, in the absence of the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, I had better speak. I understand that the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, will not be taking her Bill as it stands further than Second Reading. I am greatly relieved about that. Although I have a great deal of sympathy with the principle behind the Bill, I cannot support it as drafted. At this stage of the parliamentary year it has no chance of becoming law.
Many noble Lords have spoken in favour and against the Bill. Most have made valid points. The noble Lord, Lord Ritchie of Dundee, spoke of the problems of Moslem schools and the curriculum. The noble Baroness, Lady Flather, mentioned the tendency of immigrant communities to hold on to their ethnic customs. This is an important point. The Scots—and I am one—have been great emigrators for hundreds of years. Families of Scots descent may be 1270 found all over Europe, in Russia and more recently in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In all those countries the descendants of Scots families have risen to the highest rank and office. I shall not bore your Lordships with a list because most of us will be able to think of many examples.
When the Scots emigrate, they integrate, intermarry with the people of their new country and adopt the customs of that country. I hope that I shall not be shouted at for this comment, but they are unlike some English colonists whose great aim seems to be never to go native, as it is called. That is why the Scots flourished as they did. When in Rome they did as the Romans did; they became good Roman citizens. Surely that is what we want our immigrants to do.
That is one reason I am a little worried at the prospect of helping immigrants whose culture is very different and sometimes not altogether compatible with our own to continue preserving their culture in this country. The noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk, is not in his place, but here I beg to differ from him. I do not believe that it is in the interests either of the children of those immigrants or of this country to preserve their culture. Nevertheless, one can naturally very much sympathise with their wish to do so. If people feel strongly that their own culture is the only one acceptable for their children, then they should think carefully before emigrating. All in all, a great deal more consultation is needed before the Bill, having been totally reconsidered and redrafted, is reintroduced.
§ 8.2 p.m.
§ Lord Pearson of Rannoch
My Lords, I also wish to thank my noble friend Lady Cox for introducing the Bill and I congratulate her on her courage in doing so. It strikes me as a Bill with an unusually large number of natural enemies. It even seems to have attracted the hostility of some interests which are usually ranged against each other. That does not mean that it is necessarily mistaken in its purpose.
In supporting the Bill, I hope it will be helpful if I start by looking at some of the interests opposed to it and go on to examine what may be its biggest stumbling block. I suspect that is the prospect of Moslem fundamentalist schools. I shall end by considering some of the Bill's religious and spiritual implications.
First, I take its natural enemies. Because the Bill seeks to widen parental choice in education, it attracts the hostility of the state educational establishment in this country. That establishment is largely secular and in places aggressively atheistic. It is on the whole zealous in its efforts to "permeate the whole curriculum", if noble Lords will forgive the jargon, with the multi-cultural and multi-faith ethos. That ethos, as I have met it, largely in the polytechnic sector, does not respect the separate faiths and cultures now represented in this country. It jumbles them together into an unrecognisable and untenable cocktail, often spiced with a strong slug of neo-Marxism. In doing so, of course, it tries its best to undermine our own cultural tradition as well.
1271 So the Bill commits another crime, because it dares to suggest that religion should not only be taken seriously but that the world's greatest religions should be allowed to form the basis of the culture and education of those who adhere to them. That is sacrilege indeed in the British educational establishment today.
On a more practical front, our local education authorities and those who continue to support them oppose the further erosion of their power envisaged by the Bill. I hope that the Government may regard that as a point in the Bill's favour, since it fits in with the Government's excellent initiatives in setting up grant maintained schools, and in introducing local management of schools, which are also starting to erode local education authority power.
I agree with my noble friend Lady Cox that the "spare places" objection does not seem to have much validity. It seems fairly indefensible to go on keeping 1.5 million spare places, often in bad schools which parents do not want, while denying parents schools which they do want. Both the fact that parents are voting with their feet when they can, and the demographic trend, suggest that there may be a number of schools which should be closed and their resources redirected to new and better schools.
However, as if the antagonism of the educational establishment were not enough, the Bill also seems to be disliked by many of our more evangelical Christians. The reason for this dislike brings me to the Bill's greatest problem. To tell the truth, it may well be its only problem, apart from one or two administrative matters. That problem is the prospect of Moslem fundamentalism becoming too prevalent in a growing number of our schools. That scare is well and truly running, promoted by all the Bill's enemies. Images are being conjured up of schools run by mad mullahs, crazy ayatollahs and, no doubt, dancing dervishes as well, which will turn out growing numbers of violent young fundamentalists who will sweep our declining culture from the face of this land.
I should like to deal with this spectre under two headings; the practical and the religious. First, briefly a practical point. There are already 20 private Moslem schools and whether anyone likes it or not, there will be more. Apart from all the motives of natural justice, as mentioned by my noble friend Lady Cox, it must surely be sensible to do what we can to see that these schools follow the national curriculum and, for example, learn British history while retaining their own religious freedom. If we deny them that justice then perhaps we shall deserve it if, in understandable irritation, these schools veer more towards fundamentalism than would otherwise be the case.
However, the word "fundamentalism" brings me to the religious or spiritual dimension of the Bill. I am sure it is a matter of great regret to all of us that the noble Lord, Lord Coggan, and the noble Lord, Lord Jakobovits, are not with us today to take this aspect forward with the authority that they would confer upon it. In their regrettable absence, I propose to rely on my own Christian education and on the friendships I have formed within the Islamic community. Among 1272 the latter I am privileged to count the Imam Sheikh Jamal, who is the highest Islamic authority in this country.
Islamic fundamentalism is often thought to mean a way of life dictated by a fundamental adherence to the Koran. I understand that this is not so. Islamic fundamentalists, whose spectre is causing so much trouble to the Bill, rely on later, more violent texts. They are repudiated by the vast majority of Moslems. My friends estimate that of the nearly two million Moslems living in this country, the aggressive types which we all fear so much number only some 2,000. It can perhaps be said that the vast majority of Moslems are therefore too silent; but that may be because they reflect the true ethos of the Koran itself.
I know that quotations can be taken from most religious texts to justify a particular view. But it is perhaps worth offering your Lordships just two quotations from the Koran. They are two out of several which were given to me this morning by the Imam himself. The first comes from chapter 3 verse 84 and reads as follows:We believe in God and what is revealed to us in that which was revealed to Abraham and Ishmail, to Isaac and Jacob and the tribes of Israel, and that which the Lord gave to Moses and to Jesus and the Prophets. We discriminate against none of them. To Him we have surrendered ourselves".The second quotation comes from Chapter 16, verse 125. It states:Call men to the path of your Lord with wisdom and mild exhortation. Reason with them in the most courteous manner. Your Lord best knows those who stray from his path and best knows those who are rightly guided".Those could scarcely be milder verses. They are reminiscent of many Christian passages, perhaps particularly of Chapter 13 of St. Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians about Christian charity and love. I remind the evangelical community of that text at this time.
The picture I have from Islamic friends here, and indeed elsewhere—it appears to be supported by the Koran—is not at all the violent one so often portrayed in discussions on the Bill.
People of any religious persuasion are justified when they say that they do not want their children to be educated in our largely secular and amoral comprehensive system. Those who raise the fundamentalist scare often suggest that Moslem girls may not get a proper education in Moslem schools. However, with proper inspection under grant maintained or voluntary aided status, I do not see why that should be so. Certainly our society offers the families of those girls at the moment something which in many ways is not very reassuring to them. For instance in 1988 in the United Kingdom for every 100 conceptions by girls under the age of 20, 36 led to abortion, 46 led to illegitimate births and only 18 led to births within marriage.
I do not believe that our society is in any position to resist the thrust of this excellent and courageous Bill.
§ 8.12 p.m.
§ Lord Dormand of Easington
My Lords, as a comparative newcomer to your Lordships' House I cannot pretend to be an expert on the procedures of the House. However, I was surprised and concerned to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, say at the beginning of her speech that she intended to withdraw her Motion. I do not wish to attribute any motive to the noble Baroness, but that statement seemed to me to border on an abuse of the procedures of the House.
I have been present throughout the debate. Frankly, I consider it to be something of a charade. We have heard a number of noble Lords refer to parts and lines of the Bill knowing full well that the Bill will not be presented. We have had, and are having, a phantom debate. I believe I can speak for at least some of my noble friends on these Benches when I say that we would like to know—perhaps in writing from the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip, who are not present but I make no complaint about that—of any previous occasion when the Second Reading of a Bill was not pressed. This occasion may well be a precedent. If that is the case, that must be a matter of deep concern to all Members of your Lordships' House.
I must go a little further. I think the least we could have expected from the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, was a reason for such an important step. However, we were not given a reason. I hope that when the Minister replies she will repair that omission. Some of us believe that there is nothing more important than education. A debate of this nature is important and valuable. The Bill might well have continued through all its stages, despite the possibility of amendment in Committee. I hope noble Lords will share my view that this is much too important a matter to be withdrawn.
However, I leave that point. I must tell the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, that I disagreed with practically everything she said. However, I shall mention only one point that the noble Baroness made quite frequently. I do so as I feel strongly about it myself. On a number of occasions the noble Baroness referred to the value of diversity in education. No one in your Lordships' House would disagree about the value of diversity in education. However, the noble Baroness and the supporters of the Bill simply mean religious diversity. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, shakes her head. Perhaps she can explain that point a little further because the whole purpose of the Bill is to extend religious schools.
§ Baroness Cox
My Lords, the noble Lord said that he has been present throughout the debate. Therefore, he must know that I gave a considerable number of examples of the other kinds of schools which would be included in the provision and which form part of the coalition behind the Bill—it is a non-party political issue—such as the Small Schools Movement, the Steiner Fellowship and MENSA. I spelt out all that. I agree that there was a lot of noise on the Opposition Front Bench. Noble Lords on that Front Bench were talking for some of the time when I was trying to speak. Therefore, the noble Lord may not have heard 1274 me when I spelt out at great length the other kinds of schools involved in the coalition. They are part of the movement for educational choice which is cosponsored by the noble Lords, Lord Grimond and Lord Young of Dartington. I stressed that the coalition did not simply consist of communities of faith schools although they constitute a sizeable proportion of the movement.
§ Lord Dormand of Easington
My Lords, I understand that definition of diversity, though I do not agree with it. Before I went to another place I had for a long time been very much involved with state education in this country. I believe the schools in this country are as rich in diversity as any in the world. However, I accept what the noble Baroness said. I hope I have made my point that on the whole matter of diversity generally, we have no cause to be defensive.
I cannot proceed to the main part of my speech without referring to the speech of the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk. I was astonished to hear him admit that indoctrination took place in religious schools. I have never heard that sentiment expressed so plainly and bluntly. I had a lot to do with Roman Catholic schools in my time as a chief education officer. However, today we have heard that sentiment from the head of the Catholic laity. That remark was sufficiently interesting, but the noble Duke added that Roman Catholic schools present all points of view. Perhaps I misinterpreted the noble Duke's words but, to my mind, those two statements presented a contradiction.
Among my objections to this Bill is a fundamental one. I do not believe it is the proper role of the state to propagate religious or any other beliefs that are a matter of substantial controversy. That is not, I believe, a proper use of taxpayers' money. Schools should adopt an educational and neutral approach towards religion in which pupils are taught what the various religions stand for and what they teach. However, tutors should not support any religion. My noble friend Lord Sefton of Garston made that point strongly in his speech. He may be interested to know that when I was a young teacher the headmaster of my school asked me whether I would teach religious knowledge to the third year classes. I told him that I was a humanist and an atheist and that I did not accept religious beliefs. However, he told me he was not asking me to teach religion but rather to teach what was called an agreed syllabus. I am sure some noble Lords will recall that. In those circumstances, I felt that I did not infringe upon religious beliefs. However, I have no doubt I taught the subject very badly. In my view religious teaching relating to specific beliefs is a matter for the home, the Church, the mosque or the synagogue.
Some of us would argue that if religious beliefs are to be part of a school's curriculum then non-belief—the humanist view—should also have a part to play. We remember only too well that in the Education Reform Act 1988 the word Christianity was introduced for the first time into any education Act in this country. The noble Baroness played a large part in that.
1275 There is some justice in the position suggested by the noble Baroness. Proposals for new Jewish and Moslem aided schools are rarely approved, while literally hundreds of Christian schools already exist and proposals for new schools are usually accepted. By the same token there is some logic in the Bill before the House today. However, the right way to correct that injustice is not to create more schools propagating minority religious beliefs but to have a phased withdrawal of all state subsidies to religious foundations unless they adopt a purely educational approach on the same lines as local authority schools.
I believe that by their very nature religious schools are divisive. There can be no better illustration of that than that part of our country called Northern Ireland. That point was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, and I was grateful for confirmation from the other side of the House. Such schools do not contribute to social cohesion, tolerance and understanding. One would have thought that achieving such an aim was a fundamental objective of any educational system. Most people would accept that local authority schools have a very good record in that respect.
The Bill would also open the way for, or encourage public funding of, schools run by fringe religious cults such as the Moonies and Scientologists, about which we have heard a great deal in the past few years. There would not be much enthusiasm among tax payers for such freedom, if one can so describe them.
It is not possible to say on the basis of the Bill's proposals what the additional public expenditure would be. However, if there were to be an increase in this type of school there can be little doubt that it would be substantial. So far in the debate no one has referred to expenditure. For the next minute or two I should like to talk about that aspect.
Your Lordships will know that under present legislation the DES provides grant aid at a rate of 85 per cent. of governors' capital expenditure on voluntary aided and special agreement schools. The Secretary of State must also pay to the governors of such schools a maintenance contribution equal to 85 per cent. of expenditure. The Secretary of State may also at his discretion grant up to 85 per cent. of any sums expended by the governors on the provision of a site or on a significant enlargement of a school's premises.
Let us consider for a moment the cash sums involved. I shall give the figures for the three years from 1987 to 1990. I shall not give the figures for the past two years, 1990 to 1992, as they are not comparable with previous years because following the passing of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 the DES issues a capital guideline to each local education authority which is only one element in the calculation of each local authority's basic credit approval announced by the Department of the Environment. I mention that because there was a significant increase in the two years 1990 to 1992 and it might have been felt that the figures were somewhat misleading.
1276 The total cash grants for 1987 to 1990 were respectively £32 million, £43 million and £56 million—a total of £130 million. That is not exactly peanuts. Your Lordships will have noticed the large increase in each succeeding year. We are all concerned about inflation. On an index of 100 at 1981–82 prices the figures for those three years are 97, 123 and 150. Your Lordships will agree that that is a considerable increase.
I believe that I am correct in saying that the current expenditure of the voluntary schools—teachers' salaries, books, equipment and so on—is paid wholly from the public purse. Some of us are deeply worried by that level of expenditure and the increase that would have arisen if the Bill had been moved and accepted by your Lordships.
Expenditure on education is a constant source of worry and difficulty, perhaps more so now than at any other time. Two or three noble Lords have mentioned small schools. Like many people, I am very sympathetic to small schools. However, it is not realistic to think that a small village school can provide the range of facilities which modern education, and not least the national curriculum, requires —laboratories, gymnasium, special rooms and so on. The noble Baroness shakes her head, but she knows very well that we are not talking about thousands of pounds but about millions of pounds. That is not sustainable, much as we love small village schools.
In such circumstances, how can additional expenditure on such a controversial matter be justified? If there had been a sudden and overwhelming surge in church-going it would have been understandable if not justifiable. However, the reality is that many churches have been demolished or converted to other uses while the churches that remain are nearly empty. Opinion polls also suggest that fewer people than ever have any religious faith.
It is evident that the proposals will further concentrate power in the hands of central government and in particular in the hands of the Secretary of State for Education. The National Union of Teachers says that the Secretary of State's powers under the Education Reform Act are in the form of and in excess of 450 discretions and powers to make delegated legislation. As I understand Clause 1(3) (7A), the Secretary of State would be required to determine what constitutes an alternative religious or philosophical ethos to those available in existing local schools. The Secretary of State would need a knowledge of religious and philosophical distinctions the like of which we have not seen in any previous Ministers of Education. That aspect more than any other shows how far from reality the Bill is.
There are a number of proposals affecting local authorities which ought to be dealt with in some detail, but because of the time factor I shall mention only one. I find it astonishing that the Bill contains the words:A surplus of places in other local maintained schools shall not in itself be a sufficient reason for the rejection of proposals by the Secretary of State".1277 Excess capacity is a very real and difficult problem for LEAs at the present time and, in my view, will continue to be so for a long time to come.
The Government, and more recently the Audit Commission, have been putting tremendous pressure on LEAs to get rid of surplus places. The only way in which that can be done is by closing or amalgamating schools. Nowadays when schools are threatened by such action they frequently apply to opt out, which destroys plans to rationalise provision and thereby conserve resources. The proposal in the Bill would exacerbate that position by allowing an increase in the number of schools to be maintained by the authority. The LEAs' already inadequate supply of money would be spread even more thinly with resultant damage to existing local provision.
As one who for many years had to wrestle with the problem of surplus places I have great sympathy with the local education authorities and the Government—even this Government—in trying to find satisfactory solutions. There are now 1.8 million surplus places in schools throughout Britain. To end the Government's power to reject an application on the ground of surplus places is not only unrealistic but, in my view, unreasonable.
Those of us who oppose the Bill are as concerned as its supporters about high educational standards and moral values. Those virtues are not the monopoly of people who have a religious faith. We are also concerned about parental choice but recognise the practical difficulties involved in adequately providing that choice. One of the difficulties is the provision of resources for the many goals which parents and their children wish to achieve. I am as concerned about freedom as is the rest of the House. One part of me says that if parents wish to have their own religious schools they should have them, but the two main strong reservations I have mentioned lead me to object to the Bill.
I conclude by briefly repeating those objections. Parental choice on such a controversial issue as religion cannot be sustained by the public purse, and having hundreds of schools reflecting different faiths must inevitably be divisive to some degree. Of one thing I have no doubt. Over the century there has been a great decline in religious faith, and on that basis alone the Bill is at best unnecessary and at worst an irrelevancy.
§ 8.31 p.m.
§ Baroness Strange
My Lords, even as a rather solid and substantial phantom, I support the principles of the Bill of my noble friend Lady Cox, although I agree with her and the thoughtful and thought-provoking speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford and the speeches of the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, and other noble Lords that there are many aspects of it that need to be clarified or altered.
The policy of the Government has been to widen and extend parental choice in the education of children. That must be a reasonable view, for if there were no parents there would be no children, and if 1278 there were no children there would be no schools. Under the Education Reform Act 1988 the Government have given schools the opportunity to opt out of the control of local authorities while remaining in the state system. The principle of the Bill simply tidies up the edges by extending parental choice a bit further.
The categories to which the principle would have applied if the Bill had been amended are threefold: first, religious —there are currently 65 new Christian schools, a number of Jewish schools, 19 Moslem schools and so on; secondly, philosophical—in Great Britain there are 25 Steiner schools; thirdly, schools for special categories of pupils —either pupils handicapped in some way or those who have a MENSA standard of intelligence.
It may be argued that the Bill would immediately empty the present state schools. That surely is a denial of market forces. Parents will always opt for the best education they can obtain for their children. A little healthy competition does no harm to anyone.
It has been argued by the noble Lord, Lord Dormand, that the Bill would open the way for Moonies, Scientologists and many other undesirable cult religions—perhaps schools for witches and black magicians. But the final decision about funding these schools would rest with the Secretary of State. Surely he could be expected to sift the wheat from the chaff without stepping into a minefield and perhaps could ascertain that the school had suitable premises, suitably qualified teachers, was able to deliver the national curriculum, had enough pupils who wanted to enroll and an agreed admissions policy. In addition, any school which became voluntary aided or grant maintained under the scheme would be subject to school inspectors.
I hope your Lordships will give favourable consideration to the further freedom of choice to parents in this Bill when, as I hope, it re-emerges in a different form.
§ 8.34 p.m.
My Lords, I was very honoured when the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, asked me to speak in support of her Bill. She asked me to speak particularly about Moslems. We have already heard some very interesting remarks on this subject, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson.
I spent the greater part of my adult life—some 35 years —in the Moslem world and I think I am fairly well in touch with Moslem thinking. It is encouraging that in this context my views coincide broadly with those of the noble Lord, Lord Pearson. Although I have not consulted the same sources, I can assure noble Lords that I have consulted some of the highest Moslem authorities in this country.
We have heard varying figures about the number of Moslems and Moslem schools in this country. It is very difficult to get precise statistics. I believe I can say that there are between one and a quarter and one and half million Moslems in this country now. What is more important—I have mentioned this on several occasions when I have spoken on similar subjects—is 1279 that there are now more Moslems in this country than Methodists or Jews. As to the number of schools, I was given the figure of approximately 30 for the country as a whole. Of those, I must admit that the majority are small and poorly organised with very slender finances. Those schools would not expect to be granted maintained status.
However small and ineffective those schools may be (I am certainly not saying they are all ineffective; it is just that they lack the resources to be more effective than they are), I think our minds can be put at rest about Moslem fundamentalism. I can see no danger of it spreading through those separate schools, nor can those Moslem divines to whom I have spoken.
Apart from the majority of schools, I am told there are something like eight or nine schools which are effective and contain something like 50 to 100 or more pupils each. There are two schools in London. One is the Islamiyah School in Brent, whose application for grant-maintained status was recently refused, although it was supported by the local education authority. There is one school in Glasgow; there are two in Birmingham; and there are one or two elsewhere. Those schools feel they have a good case for grant-maintained status.
I must emphasis at this stage that many Moslems support the idea of integration. That point was made effectively by the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie of Dundee. I know many Moslems who send their children to local schools, and they are satisfied with the education received. The point the Moslem community want me to emphasis strongly is that they do not want to be treated in an entirely separate way.
In that case, why should those eight or nine schools feel they have grounds to make an application for maintained status? The first reason I can give is that, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, in her opening speech, the parents consider the present schools unsatisfactory in various ways. They consider that the standard of education the children receive is inadequate and that moral standards are in some cases deplorable and very far from the Moslem ethic. The second reason is that the governors and parents of these schools feel strongly that the teaching of the Koran and Arabic language should be incorporated within the general syllabus. I might mention that Arabic is certainly one of the hardest languages in the world to learn. I have been speaking it on and off for 35 years and still feel that I am only at its outer fringes. I feel that they have a good case in that respect.
I must also emphasise that throughout the Islamic world there has been growing tolerance. Basically, Moslems do not like co-education. They much prefer single sex schools. That of course is unacceptable to a great many local education authorities. However, some are beginning to accept the practice.
Another difficulty is the Moslems' dislike of nudity. That was mentioned when we discussed the subject during the passage of the 1988 Education Reform Bill. Many Moslems find it quite unacceptable that children should have showers in the nude.
1280 Many noble Lords will agree—those who are in contact with Moslems, and a surprising number of your Lordships appear to be, which pleases me greatly —that on the whole Moslem children are hardworking and well behaved. I do not say that all Moslems are better than all Jews or Christians. I would not say anything like that at all. However, in the schools that I have visited the standard of discipline is good and the children have a great desire to learn, which I am afraid is not apparent in a great many of our state schools.
The noble Lord, Lord Pearson, quoted from the Koran. I shall quote from what are called The Traditions or the Hadith and say to your Lordships:Seek ye knowledge even as far as China".I shall not speak for much longer. The main point that I want to make is that the governing bodies, parents and even the children of those seven or eight schools that I mentioned seek only equality of status with Christian—Church of England and Catholic—and Jewish maintained schools. So far as possible they want integration. They want to follow the general curriculum which is compulsory in other schools. But they need separate education in Arabic and the Koran, as I said. They do not press for anything difficult to achieve or out of harmony with the general education proposals in this country.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, said in her opening speech, many of those schools are run on a shoestring. The teachers are underpaid and overworked. They look with envy at grant maintained schools in the Christian and Jewish sectors.
In conclusion, one ought perhaps to study what has taken place in Holland. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, referred to certain other countries but I should like to speak in particular of Holland where there are six wholly Moslem schools. They are well run and have not created any degree of separatism or fundamentalism or anything of that kind within their communities. I greatly hope that your Lordships will accept this Bill. It may not be ideal but in terms of the Moslem community only, about which I speak, I believe that it is wholly just and wholly desirable.
§ 8.44 p.m.
§ Viscount Brentford
My Lords, I have a number of problems with this Bill but I should also like to express my strong support for my noble friend Lady Cox for having introduced it. I believe that it has a valid principle. I do not propose to go into the details of why I support it. Most points have been adequately proclaimed from all sides of the House.
I should like to put forward a few points that I feel have not been adequately covered. First, I refer to the Christian dimension of some of the schools that could be brought into the ambit of the Bill. Today the English Church Census was launched. It shows the Churches of Roman England sadly declining but the independent Churches strongly growing. The latter have increased something like 40 per cent. over the past 10 years. It seems to me that the Christian schools which are the subject of the Bill are those that are linked to the independent Churches today. Therefore the Bill proposes to do the same that has been done in 1281 the past for the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches. Those Churches are now on the decline—we hope that it will not be for long—but the independent Churches are booming. They, just like the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches, have spawned schools. It seems to me eminently fair that those schools should have the chance of government help.
There is a second point I should like to make about Christian schools. At lunchtime today I was talking to someone who is involved in running such a school. He said that it was not a question of religious teaching. He did not think that his school had any religious teaching at all. He said that it concerned the underlying tenet. All parents are told that it is a Christian-run school and that the underlying teaching of the school expresses the Christian ethical truth throughout. That is why the schools are popular with Moslems and other ethnic families; it is because of the strong morality that they present. They provide for what is often called the traditional values—honesty, compassion and respect for authority—which Moslem families endorse as strongly as do Christian families.
Reference has been made to indoctrination. I should have thought that what is true in the Roman Catholic Church is probably just as true in a humanist-run church where, I understand, humanism is indoctrinated just as far as Christianity may be indoctrinated in other churches. I do not think that one can get away from that.
§ Lord Peston
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Viscount but is he under the impression that there are some humanist voluntary aided schools in this country?
§ Viscount Brentford
My Lords, the noble Lord is saying that there is no humanist teacher in any voluntary aided school.
§ Lord Peston
My Lords, I hesitate to interrupt the noble Viscount again: it is slightly discourteous of me. However, I think we should at least get our facts right. We have been debating religious voluntary aided schools in this country. There are no humanist voluntary aided schools in this country. There could not be because they would be against the law. Therefore, the remarks that the noble Viscount makes about humanists are completely wrong.
§ Viscount Brentford
My Lords, I was not talking specifically about voluntary aided schools. I was talking about the general run of schools. I was about to say that any teacher imparts to his pupils his own philosophy, whether it is Christian or humanist. I have no objection to that. That is a fact of life. I was not talking specifically about voluntary aided schools or grant maintained schools.
§ Lord Dormand of Easington
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount for giving way. Under 1282 the present Act, if a teacher were, as the noble Lord says, teaching humanist views, he would be breaking the law.
§ Viscount Brentford
My Lords, I was talking about imparting a teacher's underlying philosophy rather than what he teaches. To say that Roman Catholic schools indoctrinate is not to demonstrate a unique tenet of life.
The second point I should like to make concerns the very strong community basis which so many of these schools have. They usually cater for all socioeconomic classes and take referrals from the social services, who have a very high regard for them.
Thirdly, I should like to mention the question of fees and the financial status of these schools. It has been implied once or twice that the schools which, it is suggested, could apply for government help, are more or less insolvent. From my experience of them I do not believe that that is the case. The problem is that they are dependent on fees which are always incredibly low. Therefore it is not the bank balance that suffers. The sufferers are the teachers, who get very low pay.
Also, there are very bad facilities in these schools. This does not necessarily affect the calibre of the teaching, which is usually extremely high, but I do not think the Government would have the responsibility of taking over insolvent schools. It would have the effect of increasing substantially the teachers' salaries month by month.
In conclusion, I should like to refer to Moslem schools, which seem to come high on the rating at the end of our debate tonight. I do not have the experience or the contacts of my noble friend Lord Pearson or of the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster. I am merely expressing my personal view. It seems to me just and reasonable today that the Government should be able to assist those of the Islamic faith who want to run schools in the same sort of way as the Church of England, the Roman Catholics and the Jews in the past. The question is whether they should be able to hold Islamic holidays rather than Christian holidays. There may be practical problems, but I can understand the view and I am sympathetic towards it. I believe that there should be the chance to learn Moslem culture in these schools with the benefit of government aid.
However, I have some caveats. If the schools were to be brought into the state system in any way at all—I am not talking about whether voluntary-aided or grant maintained—they must be subject to the national curriculum in the same way as every other government school. We all want to see the educational standards in this country raised. I am not talking only about government schools now but about every school where pupils are taught. We need standards raised. I believe that the question of standards in schools is important and that the need for schools to be scrutinised would enhance the standard of the teaching.
Another great benefit to the country if Moslem schools were absorbed in part into the state system is that pupils would learn English culture, English 1283 customs and the English language as fully as everybody else. The point has been raised once or twice during the debate. It is important that pupils are fully integrated into the customs and culture of this country, even if they have an overseas background. I see nothing but benefit coming from these schools being brought into the state system. I believe that if we did that it would put us in a much stronger position in this country in arguing for similar treatment for Christian schools in Islamic-governed countries.
§ 8.58 p.m.
§ Lord Young of Dartington
My Lords, I rise as a strong supporter of the Bill which the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, has introduced. I do so because I see the Bill—not necessarily every word of it but in its general intent, drift and purpose—as being designed to strengthen the public education system of this country by ensuring a new deal for non-fee-paying independent schools which can be to the benefit of poorer people.
We have what I think will in the long run be an untenable situation, where richer people can start and support any kind of school of any religious persuasion or almost anything else that they wish to support in schools which their children attend. They can do almost whatever they like, but poorer people cannot. Some poorer people by dint of considerable sacrifice have managed to start what amounts to a new wave of independent, non-fee-paying schools. This has been referred to by several previous speakers, and I do not think this new movement can be disregarded. At some point—perhaps not very far in the future—this new movement needs to be recognised and brought within the public education system.
My particular interest is in small schools like the now justly famous school at Hartland, in experimental schools, in progressive schools and in Steiner schools, which have been mentioned previously. However, one cannot be in favour of giving support to parents who want to start schools of that kind and not also in favour of the same kind of freedom for parents who want to start schools of a religious persuasion.
I had hoped prior to this debate that it would not be a party matter but I am not now so sure. I am very sorry to have to disagree with my noble friend Lady Blackstone but unfortunately I must. I rest my case on a kind Of Koran which might perhaps appeal even to her. The Labour Party, in what was called the Final Report of Labour's Policy Review for the 1990s, put the case as well as it could be put. It summarised a larger document called Schools and Multicultural Education and said this:We set out our approach to ensuring that children and their patents, from all ethnic backgrounds, should feel confident that schools are sensitive to their cultural needs and aspirations. It is an approach which must permeate all aspects of the curriculum and school life".Then there is the question of voluntary-aided, religious based schools.
The right to such status already exists in law and it has been exercised and enjoyed in practice by Anglicans, and Roman Catholics. In equity, that right cannot be denied to others.1284This right is not about the establishment of new schools but about the basis on which existing schools should be permitted to opt into voluntary aided or controlled status within the maintained sector. The exercise on the right must depend upon any applicant school meeting clear criteria about their educational standards and their ability to meet the requirements of the national curriculum. It would also depend on the acceptance of some degree of secular control over the admission policy and ethos of the school".That has not been thrown on one side, at least so far as I know. Jack Straw has not marched on the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk, but has been speaking the same language on this point as the noble Duke, whom we heard earlier today. Jack Straw has not marched on Mecca either.
It cannot be right that the religious settlement of 1944 will be fixed in concrete for ever. The social, ethnic and religious composition of the country has changed greatly since then. That needs to be recognised in our education policy. How can we say to the people of Southall that they are never to have a Hindu school on the same basis as Anglican or Catholic schools in the district? How can we say to Moslems in Brent that they are never to have a school on the same basis as Catholics and Anglicans in Brent? How can we say to Sikhs in Bradford that they are never to have a Sikh school in the way that Anglicans and Catholics are allowed to have a school with state support? How can we say to the Buddhist group which may be about to set up a Buddhist school that they have no hope of going through the portals that Catholics and Anglican schools went through long ago? It is not tenable that we continue to say that for ever. The situation is bound to change.
Demography alone will change it. It is only a question of time. It is a matter of how soon we recognise that we must shape our education system better to fit the new social and religious composition that has been brought about by the great immigration of the past decades.
Very little has been said about the experience of other European countries. There has been some mention of Holland but nothing about Denmark. In Denmark any group of more than 28 parents can start a maintained school. One consequence is that there are no private fee paying schools in Denmark. If Britain went the same way, in the end there would be no fee paying public schools; and that I would greatly welcome because I believe that they have a divisive influence on British society.
The effect of these principles on the newly emerging education systems of Eastern Europe is less well known. A new body, the European Forum for Freedom in Education, has recently been established. It is shortly to have its first large conference in Helsinki, with delegates from almost every East European country, all the Scandinavian countries and large numbers from Germany, Holland and Denmark, but unfortunately very few from this country.
In Hungary large numbers of independent but state supported schools are being set up. If Estonia achieves full independence from the Soviet Union, it is clear that it will go the same way. East Germany has moved in the same direction.
1285 When Karl Marx Stadt changed its name back to Chemnitz a new, free choice school was started. The ideas that have been put forward today are sweeping through Eastern Europe. We cannot put up walls and say that we shall not pay attention. Although there will be no vote on the Bill today, it could be a milestone on a road which will give us a new notion of voluntary aided status and a much healthier diversity in the education system of this country—of which by and large we can be so proud.
§ 9.4 p.m.
§ Lord Renton
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Young of Dartington, in warmly supporting the principles of the Bill. However, like others who have spoken I consider that it needs some redrafting, although not for some of the reasons given, if I may say so with respect.
My noble friend Lady Cox, to whom I am deeply indebted, intends to seek leave to withdraw the Motion for Second Reading. However, this interesting debate has nevertheless served a valuable purpose. I say that because all legislation is experimental. That is especially true of our education statutes. Education has to evolve. It has to be adapted from time to time to reflect the changes in society, population, social attitudes and the ever-increasing needs of our technically sophisticated society.
Education is evolving. Under the 1988 Act, to which the Bill refers, we already allow some schools to contract out of local education authority control while remaining in the state system as maintained schools. I suggest that it is logical and proper to allow some other schools to contract in so long as they accept the basic principles laid down by statute and already required, plus the factor of making better use of the existing school buildings. I shall come to that again later. We should he grateful to my noble friend Lord Pearson of Rannoch for telling us that there are 1.5 million empty spaces in those schools. That is one of the main reasons why I support the Bill.
My noble friend Lady Blatch—who already carries such a heavy load as Government spokesman, and, if I may say so, does it so well, although she does not always convince me—may oppose the Bill for some of the reasons expressed in the debate. However, I am sure that she will wish to tell my right honourable and learned friend the Secretary of State of the anxieties expressed by those of us who support the principles of the Bill.
In particular I wish to support the suggestion put forward first by the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie of Dundee, that the Rudolf Steiner schools should be allowed to contract in. I happen to know about them because my severely handicapped daughter attended one of them from the age of five to the age of nine. It took two years to teach her to walk, albeit with support, and I was very grateful for that. However, she had to move elsewhere due to her extreme difficulties.
There are 25 Steiner schools in the United Kingdom plus a number of kindergartens. They are 1286 nonsectarian and have pupils from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds. Their teaching, as the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie, mentioned, stresses moral values. For those who are fortunate enough to be able to take advantage of the academic teaching, their standards, are among the very best. The schools would like maintained status while retaining their independence; under the present law they cannot do so.
I hope that my noble friend Lady Blatch will not express agreement with the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone. I feel bound to say that the strong epithets used by the noble Baroness in relation to the Bill were not appropriate to the debate or indeed to any debate in your Lordships' House.
§ Baroness Blackstone
My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord could illustrate to what he is referring. I am a little bemused by his statement.
§ Lord Renton
My Lords, I do not want to repeat the expressions used by the noble Baroness. They will appear in Hansard tomorrow. I intended to say that some of the points made by the noble Baroness were contradictory. For example, she said that the Bill would be an irresponsible use of public expenditure. On the contrary, to the extent that the Bill would enable 1.5 million places in school buildings to be taken up, that would be a good use of public money. It would enable better and more full use to be made of school buildings.
The noble Baroness asked why private schools should be allowed in at the expense of state schools. The answer is that there would be no need to do so if the state schools met the public demand. I hope that the noble Baroness does not suggest that there should be a monopoly of state education.
§ Baroness Blackstone
My Lords, I made it perfectly clear in my speech that there should not be a monopoly of state education. I said that it was the right of parents to make sacrifices to purchase places in independent schools if that is what they wanted to do. I made that absolutely clear.
§ Lord Renton
My Lords, I am glad that I brought the noble Baroness to her feet to explain that. I took a note of her words, which were, "Why let private schools in at the expense of existing state schools?" That is a very strange comment. Within the state system there exist the voluntary aided schools, which are to that degree independent, and some maintained schools would be independent also. However, tempted though I am—I have a great many notes of what the noble Baroness said—I shall leave your Lordships and the outside world to read what she said in Hansard.
My noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway, with whom I nearly always agree—though it is in the nature of those of us who happen to be concerned with the law sometimes to disagree—and others, overlooked the significance of the words "include" and "including" contained in subsection (3) of Clause 1 of the Bill.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, perhaps my noble friend will give way. It is a matter of small print. I concede the point before it is made. Time is moving in.
§ Lord Renton
My Lords, I am afraid my noble friend will not shut me up as easily as that. I shall briefly make the point. It is relevant to our debate.
When the Secretary of State is given a duty to include religious factors, it does not prevent non-secular schools from being given maintained status. I agree that that is not as clear as it should be in the Bill but that is the position and intention as I understand it.
I conclude by saying that the Bill is, among other things, an extension of religious freedom about which I am glad the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, agrees. It increases freedom of choice by parents as to how and where their children should be educated. Education is evolving. Although the Bill will not make any further progress in this Session of Parliament, this valuable debate should be regarded as an expression of the next steps which might be taken to secure the better evolution of our education system.
§ 9.14 p.m.
§ Lord Peston
My Lords, it is the usual courtesy to thank, in this case the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for introducing the Second Reading of a Bill. I stand second to none in my desire to be courteous and so I thank her. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, listens to my words precisely. I have listened to the noble Baroness's speech, which I believe to be misguided and immensely damaging, in particular to the cause of religious education in this country. I hope the noble Lord heard those words because I mean to speak plainly.
The 1988 Act on the subject of religion and religious education was a compromise. Some of us thought that it went too far in one direction; others that it did not go far enough. In the end we did our best and produced a compromise. I strongly oppose this debate and I am sorry that it is taking place. I do not believe that it has been helpful. My judgment is that we should allow the compromise several years more to see how it works in terms of religion. Despite the protestations of the noble Baroness, this debate has been about religion, religious schools and religious education. When a noble Lord rises to demand that we extend voluntary-aided status to a humanist school that will be the day on which I withdraw that kind of remark. This debate is about religion and money for it. In my judgment we should still give the 1988 Act a chance to work.
My views on the subject of religion are well known. I went enormously out of my way to argue for the compromise and for religious tolerance. Because it is part of the tradition of our country I took the view that it was reasonable and right that all children who attend cur schools should know something about the Christian religion. I speak as someone who does not remotely believe in the Christian religion but I thought it overwhelming that it was important in education. That is the position I maintain.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I spoke only on the secular aspect. I am absolutely flabbergasted to hear the noble Lord, for whom, as he knows, I have 1288 the greatest respect, say that this debate is only about religious education. That was not my true understanding of the intention of the Bill.
§ Lord Peston
I thank the noble Lord. If that is what he says he was talking about, I entirely accept it. All the speeches that I have heard have been concerned with religion except that of the noble Lord. I admit that his speech had some slight problems for me because there were technicalities of a legal nature in it which I could not understand. What I have just said is my main position.
I wish to state another matter most forthrightly in support of my noble friend Lady Blackstone. The Labour Party is opposed to this Bill on the basis of one of the most fundamental issues of party policy.
§ Lord Peston
Perhaps I may finish what I am saying so that my noble friend understands me. Then he can interrupt what I am saying. The party's position is that we are opposed to spending public money on private schools. We do not disguise that from noble Lords and we have never done so. As someone who buys the liberal tradition in all matters of discourse, I do not seek to dissuade or prevent my noble friends from taking a different view. It is an undoubted fact that we are opposed to spending public money on private education. My noble friend Lady Blackstone was entirely right in saying that we oppose the Bill. That does not stop any of my noble friends or any noble Lord from saying what they wish to say. One would not wish to do that. That is our party policy.
§ The Earl of Longford
My Lords, my noble friend is wrong. He is entitled to his view because he is an important man here. But I consulted the Leader of the Labour Peers in this House and also the Chief Whip. I was told that there is no party policy applicable here and we are all on the same footing. That is what I have been told. I cannot do more than that.
§ Lord Peston
My Lords, I take the point. I simply repeat my point, and I am not going to argue it any further. Out of respect to my noble friend Lord Young, I point out that the party is opposed and has been opposed for a great many years, and as far as I am concerned will continue to be opposed, to using public money for private education. Other noble Lords can say they favour it. I am merely saying that that is Labour Party policy.
§ Lord Young of Dartington
My Lords, I have the greatest sympathy for what my noble friend has been saying about humanist schools and the like. However, I cannot see how he squares what he has just said with the Labour Party policy document from which I quoted at some length.
§ Lord Peston
My Lords, if my noble friend will give me a moment I shall get to that. It is another characteristic of logical discourse that one is supposed to do things one at a time, and I was dealing with one point. We have said that we are opposed to the Bill. I hope that we shall at least get a forthright statement from the Government. I ask the Minister point blank: are the Government opposed to this Bill? I should like 1289 an answer to that question. That is the least that we can expect.
Perhaps I may deal with the point made by my noble friend Lord Young of Dartington. He quoted from our document that we are sensitive and believe schools ought to be sensitive to the cultural needs and aspirations of individuals and parents. That is true, but our party's policy is that that should be, can be and will be done within the maintained system. The difference between our party and some noble Lords opposite is that we support the state system. We do not make speeches undermining the state system; we do not accuse teachers of being atheists, Marxists and so on. We are supporters of the schools to which we ourselves went, to which our children go and to which we hope to see our grandchildren go. That is the policy of the Labour Party. My noble friend Lord Young of Dartington and I have argued a great deal over the years about freedom of choice in this area. He may one day win the argument, but I have to tell him that for the moment he has lost it.
§ Lord Peston
My Lords, the debate has also been something of a peculiarity. On the one hand I thought we were debating the Bill, except that we are not going to debate the Bill because it is no longer a Bill. On the other hand, we seem to be debating voluntary aided schools, which is a different subject. It is an interesting subject and it is one for which I must admit I do not have a simple and straightforward answer. Anyone who goes back to the 1944 settlement—my noble friend said that it should not be set in concrete—must appreciate that it did not remotely envisage that we would be extending the range of religions for which we provided voluntary aided schools; nor did it envisage that the number of voluntary aided schools would rise to the large number we now have.
One of my reasons for objecting to the introduction of these matters by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, is that she called into question, as I did when I interrupted the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, the whole future of voluntary aided schools. If we are to ask these questions then others who disagree are entitled to ask, as my noble friends have asked, whether we need to spend any state money on religion at all. I wonder whether the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, wants to place that issue before your Lordships and the public at large. She may find that the answer will not be what she wants. I should have thought that the kind of pragmatic compromise which we have had over the years and which I understand at least suits the Church of England might be one with which we could blunder on for a few years more. So I ask the noble Baroness to think a little about that.
The question of money has come up. I must admit that I find it odd that noble Lords opposite who have been so keen on financial probity and the care of public funds do not see a problem when it comes to this matter. I state again our position. If there is any money around for education this is not where I or my noble friends want to spend it. I ask the Government 1290 again; if there is any money around, are they willing to find the money to finance these private schools? Is that where the Government's priorities lie? I ask the question. It will be interesting to know. We do not wish to go down that line.
Perhaps I may say a word on a question which also relates to being sensitive to the needs of parents. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, referred to at least two declarations of parental rights. She knows that neither of those declarations is other than about parents' rights to choose using their own money. Nothing in those declarations says that the state has to find public money in order that parents can make choices that they want to make. The noble Baroness may argue that she thinks the state ought to find such money, but the idea that those declarations of parental rights are to do with state money is simply a misunderstanding.
Perhaps I may just finish this point on money. It is odd that I should be advising noble Lords opposite who are supporting the Bill. But one thing follows from state money, and that is state control. If noble Lords really want to finance these schools using state money they ought to reflect on the fact that Secretaries of State change, times change and whoever provides the money interferes with what goes on. Again, I do not want to advise noble Lords on where they want to go, but I am not clear that people who support independent schools should really wish to go down the line of taking state money.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I shall be very brief in what I have to say. Article 2 of the protocol, into which we entered with substantial reservations, bound the United Kingdom as regards state and private education. I sought only to correct the noble Lord on that point.
§ Lord Peston
My Lords, as I understand it, the protocol bound the United Kingdom, to use the words of my noble friend, to be sensitive to parental desires; it did not say that the state should finance private education. That is the point at issue. Of course, many states do not do so as it is illegal in some countries. I should add that such countries do not stand second to us on the issue of religion. However, that is yet another matter. Nevertheless, I ask noble Lords to reflect on such considerations.
I do not have much more to say because the Bill is to be withdrawn. But whatever view one takes of Clause 1(3) the fact remains that it states:The Secretary of State shall by order designate".I noticed that, when it was suggested that all sorts of weird religions could be included under that clause, the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, said she would rely upon the Secretary of State to decide the matter. Again, I wonder whether within our tradition of education we really want a Secretary of State who decides what is a religion, a philosophy or an appropriate ethos. We have managed to get ourselves out of such a position. I am not sure that I want us to return to it. I repeat the point that I have already made; namely, that Secretaries of State change.
I have spoken for longer than I originally intended, but that is because the subject is inclined to encourage 1291 one to become a little worked up. It is always interesting to discuss education in your Lordships' House and it is equally interesting to discuss religion. Although I know that I am in a minority, I must conclude by saying that I do not believe the discussion has served any useful purpose. I hope that it will be quite some time before we have another such debate.
§ 9.27 p.m.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, my noble friend Lady Cox spoke persuasively in support of the Bill. However, I believe that she has been seriously misinterpreted during the course of this debate, especially by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone.
In many respects the Government share the objectives which the Bill is intended to promote. We wish to see a strong and thriving grant-maintained sector. We wish to see parental choice increased and a strong and healthy voluntary-aided sector. But, in considering how best to further those objectives, we must take account of the reforms that have already been set in hand, of the needs of the education system as a whole, and of the public expenditure implications that would flow from the proposals that are before us. I should like to consider each of the proposals set forth in the Bill to identify those issues to which careful thought needs to be given before we reach a view on whether or not to give it our support.
The first clause of the Bill would extend eligibility for grant-maintained status to certain categories of independent school. Subsection (4) excludes from this category independent schools that are already well endowed financially or are likely to continue to have adequate private income. By their nature, independent schools are self-financing and are expected to be able to attract sufficient private funds through fees and other means. No responsible organisation would establish a private school without first assessing its financial viability. The intention behind the establishment of the grant-maintained sector was therefore not to enable independent schools to obtain public funding but to enable schools already in local authority control to opt out, taking with them the recurrent funding which they would have received from their local education authority.
The availability of grant-maintained status, recently extended to primary as well as secondary schools, was designed to strengthen the position of maintained schools by giving them the opportunity to achieve greater autonomy. The independent sector has a different role and we have to consider very carefully a proposal to offer independent schools a status which would, inevitably, give them less autonomy, in return for the financial support of the taxpayer. There could be a significant additional burden on public funds and we would need to be sure that it was a high priority.
The question here is whether the taxpayer should be invited to assume responsibility for supporting schools which are currently self-financing and parents who have chosen to meet the cost themselves. There are already pressures for additional funding for a range of public services. In particular, there are many 1292 calls for increased funding for the education service. But resources are necessarily limited. Therefore, one must consider whether it is sensible to add this new burden to the taxpayer. If the schools are good and are meeting parental wishes they are likely to be able to fund themselves.
The alternative is to try to squeeze these extra schools into the public funding total without an overall increase in resources; but that could only be done at the expense of other schools within the maintained sector.
It is true that there are large numbers of surplus places in the maintained system and, in principle, funds could be redeployed. I understand that the figure is 1.8 million—780,000 in the primary sector and approximately 1 million in the secondary sector. If those children opted into the state system individually the money would have to be found to educate them. The parents of those children are paying their taxes in order to fund the public services.
However, it should be recognised that the dividend from removing surplus places takes time to realise. In many cases we are not talking about entire schools just waiting to be closed down so that the full amount of their budgets can be redeployed. Many surplus places are in fact to be found scattered across large numbers of schools which remain viable in their own terms, but each of which has rather more places than pupils; a point made by the noble Baroness.
We would also want to look at the consequences of supporting a Bill which would encourage a host of applications from schools which would be unable effectively to provide for the national curriculum and which the Secretary of State would accordingly be compelled to reject. There is a balance to be struck between encouraging diversity and raising unrealistic expectations on the part of the prospective GM schools.
As noble Lords will know, the second clause of the Bill is intended to make it easier for schools to obtain voluntary aided status. To achieve this the Bill proposes that two changes should be made in the way that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science considers proposals for voluntary aided status published under Section 13 of the Education Act 1980. I should like to consider each of these proposed changes in turn.
I believe that the European Convention on Human Rights was raised by my noble friend, but noble Lords opposite did not respond although invited to do so. The European Convention on Human Rights requires the Government to respect the right of parents to ensure that education provided by the state is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions. However, I am advised that it does not require the state to provide education in accordance with particular religious or philosophical convictions. It follows that the European Convention on Human Rights does not place an obligation on the Government to shoulder the cost of providing schools 1293 currently outside the state system. Nothing in the Government's current policy or practice is contrary to the convention.
First, the Bill proposes that the Secretary of State may approve proposals submitted under this section even where the maintaining local education authority objects; and in taking his decision he shall take into account the need for a diversity of schools within the maintained sector in a particular area.
I can assure your Lordships that the Government's existing powers under Section 13 of the Education Act 1980 are already sufficient to allow my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science to approve proposals which are contrary to the views of the local education authority; though its views must be taken into account on any analysis, since an LEA inherits significant financial responsibilities when a new school is established. Not only must the authority meet the cost of the teachers' salaries, it has to pay for other items such as the provision of playing fields, dining rooms and kitchens, and must also thereafter maintain the internal fabric of the school.
Voluntary aided schools traditionally enjoy a certain level of independence of local control, but it is vital that they work in partnership with their local education authority. It would therefore clearly be inappropriate for the Secretary of State to take a decision without giving any consideration to the views of the local education authority. Indeed, this Bill does not suggest that he should and, therefore, in fact goes no further in this respect than the provisions of Section 13 of the 1980 Education Act.
I can also assure your Lordships that in taking his decision about particular proposals the Secretary of State already gives very careful consideration to the wishes of parents. That is why the existing procedure under Sections 12 and 13 of the Education Act 1980 provides a two-month period for local government electors for the area, the governors of a voluntary school affected by the proposal and any other local education authority concerned to submit their objections to any proposals published under the Act. As DES circular 3/87 makes clear, in considering proposals the Government are committed to giving the fullest possible effect to parental preferences for particular schools. But that commitment is not entirely open ended: it has to be tempered by considerations of the efficient use of resources and the limits on public expenditure.
A large volume of expressed parental commitment to a particular school will be a consideration, sometimes a very telling one, which the Secretary of State takes into account in deciding proposals. But as is implied by the wording of Clause 2, it cannot be an overriding consideration if the educational and/or financial arguments point the other way. The Secretary of State has made it clear that there are particular aspects of parental preference which he is anxious to preserve where demand warrants it. Among those are preferences for selective schools, denominational schools and single-sex schools. Such 1294 schools need, no less than others, to be educationally effective. The existing procedures under the Education Act 1980 provide ample opportunity for the Secretary of State to take account of those factors before reaching a decision on a particular proposal.
The second change proposed is that a surplus of other places within the maintained sector shall not be a sufficient reason for the Secretary of State to reject a proposal for the establishment of a new voluntary aided school. Also the Secretary of State may direct an authority to reduce any surplus places in its maintained schools and may direct that such surplus places shall be made available for a proposed voluntary school.
I understand the thinking that has led to that proposal. As your Lordships will know, the Government have made considerable efforts to persuade local education authorities to rationalise their existing school building stock in order to reduce the number of surplus places. We recognise that there is still much more that could be achieved by authorities and the promoters of voluntary schools. But in the Government's view the time is not ripe to alter the present balance of responsibilities in this matter. More open enrolment and the funding arrangements for the local management of schools could make it easier for LEAs to identify failing schools and to demonstrate the cost of maintaining them.
We also need to recognise that the removal of surplus places is not always the simple issue that it might at first sight appear. To start with, we are only just beginning to see the effect of the far-reaching educational reforms that we have introduced. Those for the national curriculum will place increased demands on the premises currently available to schools.
Secondly, although an authority may have a considerable number of surplus places they are in many cases not conveniently parcelled together in one school. To achieve a reduction in the number of surplus places it will often be necessary for an authority to publish complex reorganisation proposals. That may involve closing schools or making a significant change in their character—perhaps by a change in the size of the school or a reduction in its age range. It would be inconsistent with the duties of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for him to be responsible both for issuing directions to the authority and for reaching an impartial view on a particular closure proposal that might itself be fiercely resisted by another group of parents who equally believe they should have a right to the school of their choice.
The Government certainly want to see surplus places removed where that improves efficiency and effectiveness. We take every opportunity to make that clear. But in the Government's view it would not at present be practicable to direct an authority on the use to be made of its spare accommodation. The authority may have determined a legitimate and worthwhile 1295 purpose for vacated school property, bearing in mind its duty to serve the interests of the community as a whole.
The requirement that an authority should free redundant property for a new aided school would not reduce the burden on the taxpayer since the cost of providing the premises of a new voluntary aided school rests with the proposers and not with the LEA. The Secretary of State pays grant aid of up to 85 per cent. of the cost of purchasing premises for any new aided school. Even where the ownership rested with the local education authority, the providers of the school would need to purchase these premises at a cost to the voluntary aided schools budget of hundreds of thousands of pounds. Those of your Lordships with a special interest in voluntary aided schools will know of the considerable demand for funds beyond that which is available.
Perhaps I may clear up one or two points raised in the course of the debate. My noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway suggested that there was no means of challenging decisions taken by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State on voluntary aided proposals. I am happy to say that that is not correct. If those putting forward proposals consider that my right honourable friend has in reaching his decision acted unreasonably or otherwise unlawfully, they are free to challenge his decision on public law grounds in the courts through the judicial review process.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, will my noble friend give way? I apologise, but she is speaking from a departmental brief which is inevitably inaccurate in this regard. The situation is simply that what she calls and what is written as "unreasonableness" is something that in practice is impossible to prove. Those who gave her the instructions well know that to be true.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, I am not talking about the difficulty of proving unreasonableness. I say that there is a right to challenge unreasonableness in the courts. What the courts do about it is very much a matter on which to test the merits of the case. It is of course correct, as my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway said, that apart from the financial requirements set out in the 1944 Education Act, the factors which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State should consider are not set down in legislation. However, I must stress that each case is considered on its individual merits. There is thus no fixed ordering or weighting of the factors since individual circumstances will differ. In reaching his decisions the Secretary of State will have before him the views of parents and others, including statutory objections submitted in accordance with the procedures of Section 13 of the Education Act 1980. Thus we believe that he is well placed to make a judgment on each proposal.
Potential proposers for voluntary aided schools are told, if they ask for the information, of the various factors that the Secretary of State will consider in order to assist them in preparing their proposals and applications. These factors are not intended to be an 1296 exhaustive list, but when a decision is made the Secretary of State will indicate the reasons for the rejection of a proposal.
The noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, queried the 100 per cent. costs of voluntary aided schools. He is of course right. The recurrent costs are met in full by the local education authority. However, he also suggested that financial difficulties have never been greater in our state schools than they are now. I have to say—and this is not a departmental brief, it is my own information that I have gleaned over the years —that teachers' pay in real terms is greater than it has ever been, pupil-teacher ratios are the highest they have ever been, spending per pupil is greater in real terms than it has ever been and class sizes have continued to improve over recent years. The real crisis was prior to 1979 when not only pupil-teacher ratios, teachers' pay, class sizes and spending were worse in real terms, but there was no national curriculum, no assessment, no financial management and no identifiable framework comparable with that of the Education Reform Act 1988.
The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, overstated her case, I believe, to the point of distorting many of the objects and intentions behind the Bill. Much of what was said by my noble friend Lady Cox showed that she intended that any school entering the state system by way of this amendment would be subject to the Education Reform Act in its entirety. If the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, ever has the opportunity to see a television recording of this debate, I believe she will see that the tone that she set was most unfortunate. As I understand it, any school that would be subject to entry to the state system under the terms of this Bill would be bound by the national curriculum. Additionally, it would have to satisfy the Secretary of State—my noble friend Lady Strange mentioned this—on such matters as viability and suitability as regards fulfilling the requirements of the legislation.
The noble Lord, Lord Ritchie of Dundee, posed rather a provocative question. He asked whether it was the policy of this Government to cut LEAs down to size. He further asked whether we were waging a war of attrition, and whether we really believed in democratic involvement at a local level. Only a week ago we had more than six hours of debate on these very issues and whether we believed in local government. We discussed the role of LEAs in that debate. A review is under way, but I made it absolutely clear that the Government believe very strongly in local government. I also stated that the Government believe that local education authorities have a very important role in local government.
I repeat a point I made earlier, that the power already exists to introduce into the state system new aided schools. It is open to any school, including those supported by my right honourable friend, to discuss proposals for voluntary aided status with its local education authority to determine whether it would be in the common interest to transfer an existing school 1297 into the state system by making use of premises that would become available as a result of local rationalisation.
As I have said, I have fully accepted that my noble friend Lady Cox intended that any school applying for entry into the state sector under the legislation, as amended by her Bill, would be fully subject to the terms of the 1988 Act. On behalf of the Government I have sought in my response to point to some of the practical difficulties that could or may be presented by the assimilation of the Bill into the Education Reform Act. I invite your Lordships to take account of the points that I have raised when considering this Bill. As requested by my noble friend Lord Renton, I shall draw the attention of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science to the views and concerns expressed by your Lordships in the debate this evening so that he may consider the Government's position.
§ Baroness Blackstone
My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, I hope I may ask her exactly what the Government's position is on the Bill. I found some of her comments ambiguous. I was also rather surprised by her comments on my speech as we seem to be in agreement on a great many matters. Most of the criticisms that I made of the Bill have also been made by the noble Baroness speaking on behalf of the Government. As regards my tone, I should say that I believe this Bill is misguided and wrong. I further believe that it is not terribly well drafted. When I make such comments, I make them with conviction.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, I believe the tone of the noble Baroness was unfortunate as she concentrated on different points to the logistical points that I made. My noble friend Lord Renton has already referred to one or two areas of contention between noble Lords on the Opposition Benches and noble Lords on these Benches.
It has always been the convention of all parties in both Houses to remain neutral on the outcome of Private Members' Bills. I have asked the House to consider seriously some of the consequences of accepting the Bill and some of the practical difficulties that would need to be thought through if the Bill were to progress through this House and another place.
§ 9.50 p.m.
§ Baroness Cox
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. I have been deeply encouraged by the support which has come from many noble Lords on different sides of your Lordships' House. I and my colleagues will benefit greatly from many of the criticisms which have been made. I believe some of those criticisms will help us in reformulating subsequent initiatives. We are grateful for the criticisms too. We shall be wiser for them and profit from them.
However, there are some criticisms which we shall not be able to accommodate: those springing from what is essentially an antithetical philosophy of education. The debate has highlighted a polarity of positions. First, there are those who wish to maintain 1298 very largely the status quo and to send everyone, as far as they can, to local state schools. That is a position which in essence represents a form of imposed integration.
The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, accused the Bill of being insensitive. I might reply—and I believe that other noble Lords share the same perception—that the somewhat strident denunciation by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, was itself a little insensitive to the many parents and teachers who have fought so hard to set up these schools. Her speech may appear to exhibit a callous unconcern for those parents and teachers who have made such sacrifices to try to obtain an education for their children.
§ Baroness Cox
Perhaps I may finish my sentence because I believe that the noble Lord himself adopted that precedent at great length. They have made great sacrifices to set up and run those schools, sometimes out of desperation. Parents feel trapped in a state system which fails to give their children the education which they believe they need. I am delighted to give way to the noble Lord.
§ Lord Peston
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness. The debate is getting a little out of hand. This will be my last intervention. If the noble Baroness reflects she will realise that she is criticising my noble friend for something she did not say. My noble friend paid tribute to those people. She simply said that it was not the duty of the state to provide the money to do so. I repeat that. I too am impressed by people who do things on their own initiative, but it is not the duty of the state to provide the money to do so. That is a different point and the noble Baroness ought to try and understand it.
§ Baroness Cox
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord because he has just shown how impetuous he is. My next sentence addresses that very point. Perhaps if he will just listen he will find that I have understood the point.
§ Lord Peston
My Lords, I was simply trying to defend my noble friend. Accusations have been made several times against my noble friend and it is about time they stopped.
§ Baroness Cox
My Lords, perhaps I may address the point that I intended to address before that intervention.
The point has been made by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, the noble Lord, Lord Peston, and others, that there is no requirement on the Government to fund such initiatives and education which is in accordance with parents deepest convictions. One of the points that I made in my opening speech, a long time ago, was that to pay to set up, run and send their children to such schools is beyond the financial means of many parents. Therefore, in some respects that is a spurious freedom because it presumes a freedom to pay. Some parents cannot afford the fees even for those schools which run on faith and a shoe string and are therefore in effect denied that freedom.
1299 I should also like to say to the noble Lord, Lord Peston, that it is very unlikely that the request that he put forward for humanist schools would be forthcoming from these Benches, or from any other quarter, because at the moment many state schools provide that kind of education very adequately, and I speak as someone with personal experience of the state sector. That may be one reason why parents have left the state sector in order to set up schools which respect spiritual and moral values. That is one of the reasons behind the Bill.
That brings me to the alternative position which the polarity I mentioned earlier adopts. That is the commitment in broad terms in educational philosophy which respects diversity and choice and the de facto rights of parents to education for their children in accordance with their deepest convictions. It is impossible to reconcile those fundamental conflicting philosophies. It is very useful that the debate has highlighted that fact. It may help us to clarify that distinction and the implications of those different commitments. I am most grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford for drawing out those issues in a most helpful and constructive way.
I have been challenged by two noble Lords opposite about my decision to withdraw the Motion at the end of the debate. Perhaps I may explain why I was prevailed upon so to do. The reasons are largely logistical and due to continual changes of date, to which I made reference at the outset. Some of those changes were made for the convenience of your Lordships' House. The initial date would have meant that your Lordships would have had to sit very late, given the amount of interest that the Bill has generated and the number of noble Lords who wished to speak.
I was not going to be churlish enough to mention the reason for the second change of date but I am now provoked to do so. It was prompted by a request from noble Lords opposite to enable noble Lords, and particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, to take part in the debate. In order to accommodate the noble Baroness I agreed to that change in the date of the debate and in the process lost some speakers who would have spoken very strongly in support of the Bill, including the noble Lord, Lord Coggan, and the noble Lord, Lord Jacobovits, It was on the advice of my seniors and betters with regard to the logistics of the parliamentary timetable that, given the delays, there was no way we could go through all the stages and that it would be more of a waste of your Lordships' time to proceed to Committee and Report than not to continue and to ask for leave to withdraw the Motion for Second Reading. That explains why I have adopted this position. Perhaps I may add that I am surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Peston, 1300 expressed surprise over this matter, since I informed him last Thursday that that was the decision I should be taking.
I conclude by saying that I am most grateful to my noble friend the Minister for responding so fully. I think it is helpful to all of us to know the Government's position. I still dare to hope that my noble friend the Minister and her right honourable friend the Secretary of State will on reflection be able to seek further ways in which the Government may be able to help some of the excellent new schools we have been discussing to obtain the funding which they need and which I believe they deserve, thereby enabling them to enhance the quality of the state sector of education in this country.
§ Lord Sefton of Garston
My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, perhaps I may ask whether she realises the difference between moving a Second Reading and the procedure to have a debate in the House? If, as is usual, we had had a debate in the House, the mover of the debate would at the end have thanked the rest of the Members of the House and sat down. The noble Baroness has now had the privilege of replying to the debate. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, tells me that is not true. Perhaps he will tell me what is true.
§ The Earl of Longford
My Lords, the truth is that when people reply to debates they ought to make final speeches.
§ Lord Sefton of Garston
My Lords, they do but it is against the traditions of the House. Normally, when someone puts down something for debate the mover merely replies formally and thanks the people who have spoken in the debate. What the noble Baroness has done is to establish a precedent. From now on, if anybody wants a debate he or she will be able to move a Second Reading.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, can we not call it a day? We have had a debate. Let us part in good humour.
§ Baroness Cox
My Lords, on the strength of that may I say that it was on the advice of my seniors and betters, given through the usual channels, that I adopted the line I took? Therefore, deferring to that wise advice and in a spirit of humility and gratitude, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Second Reading.
Motion, by leave, withdrawn.