HL Deb 18 December 2001 vol 630 cc136-8

3.1 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

What consultations are taking place on the proposal to increase the number of faith schools.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland)

My Lords, the Green Paper, Schools: Building on Success, and the White Paper, Schools: Achieving Success, set out our policy on faith schools and were the subject of wide-scale consultation. Ministers continue to hold meetings with interested parties and listen to views on the implementation of the White Paper proposals and related matters. In addition, any proposed new maintained school, including any faith school, must be the subject of local consultation.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of how little enthusiasm there is outside the Churches for the huge increase in the number of faith schools? Despite what the Government have repeatedly said, is it not evident that such schools can be divisive? We need go no further than Northern Ireland to see that.

My noble friend will be aware that the issue of higher standards in faith schools is often discussed. Does she agree with the findings of the recent independent Civitas report which states that there is an enormous and unacceptable variation in standards in both Church schools and local authority schools?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, it is important to be clear that, under school organisation committees, faith schools will be subject to the same rules as other schools. Therefore, they would come into being only where there was clear backing from local parents and the local community. That is a fundamental and important part of the policy.

I do not see hundreds of new schools coming into being, but it is important that we look clearly and sensitively at issues connected with the introduction of faith schools where parents and local communities want to see them.

As regards standards, there are differing views. The information which I have seen shows clear signs that some faith schools have been able to work effectively with pupils to their benefit. In education, we are recognising that schools should have a clear and distinct ethos and that schools which are able to find new and interesting ways of working with their pupils are successful.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one aspect which is so admirable in faith-based schools is their culture of hard work and discipline? Therefore, would it not be more widely beneficial to the country at large if, instead of encouraging the setting up of more faith-based schools, there were the encouragement of the spread of that culture throughout the school system?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, many schools have a culture of hard work and discipline, in the best sense of that word, for their pupils. In terms of culture, the introduction of the citizenship agenda into the curriculum is very important.

Like good schools of all characters, good faith schools have long taught the value of inclusion, tolerance and the ability and need to work alongside people from all walks of life and to recognise the contribution which every individual pupil should and must make to our society. We believe that making citizenship a compulsory part of the curriculum in secondary schools from next September will be a valuable and important tool in that process.

The Lord Bishop of Gloucester

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the policy of the Church of England is that, while being clearly and distinctively Christian, our Church schools should be inclusive and serve the whole community in all its diversity? Is she further aware that a large number of diocesan boards of education, including my own in Gloucester, are in discussion with their partner local education authorities about increasing the number of Church secondary schools in particular?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I am not aware of those specific discussions but I am aware of the role of the Synod and the Church of England in discussing the issues with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills. It is important that Church schools consider very carefully their role within communities. In many cases, such schools have provided for a diverse range of pupils to the great satisfaction of all.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, does the Minister agree—

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, may I—

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, on the Liberal Democrat Benches rose first.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, does the Minister agree that every state school in receipt of state funding should serve the whole community in which it is located and not discriminate as regards access in respect of any faith or no faith at all? Furthermore, as regards this matter does the Minister agree with her right honourable friend the Prime Minister or her right honourable friend the Home Secretary, because they do not appear to agree with each other?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I am receiving great advice on the question from my noble friend behind me. However, I agree with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, to whom I am responsible, that it is very important to ensure that schools recognise the contribution they make to a community. We have no plans to introduce admission quotas to schools but we want to encourage all schools to ensure that their intake reflects the local communities in all their diversities.