HC Deb 20 July 2004 vol 424 cc1-24WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Vernon Coaker.]

9.30 am
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North) (Lab)

I am pleased to have secured this debate as it offers the opportunity to discuss the role of faith schools in our society. In particular, it gives me the opportunity to highlight some of the current challenges facing faith schools with regard to education policy. It allows me to respond to some of the unfounded criticisms made by Members of this House, Select Committees and the wider media when addressing the role of faith schools in society.

I speak in today's debate from my own personal experience as a Christian, an alumnus of a faith school, a former teacher, a school governor in my constituency and a Member of Parliament for 38 years who has seen and admired the continuing contribution made by faith schools over those years. Although most of my speech will be based on my experience of Catholic schools, the principles that I am outlining appertain to other denominations, Christian and non-Christian. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to their sterling work.

To start, I want to express my opposition to calls to water down or undermine the role of faith schools, not only in improving education standards but in the wider community. That is not to say that one particular type of education is beyond criticism. There is always scope to perfect existing services.

There are those in our midst who want to abolish faith schools. They have tried many times over recent decades, and they will use every modern fad to rehearse the same old tired and lame arguments. They are seeking not the end of prejudice or discrimination but their reintroduction. They want to impose their secular beliefs. They want choice removed from the equation. They want to undermine one of the longest-established traditions in our education system and a basic human right: that children should be educated in accordance with their parents' wishes, as far as is compatible with the effective use of resources.

Such an aim was outlined in section 76 of the Education Act 1944 and repeated in section 9 of the Education Act 1996. Our aim as legislators must not be to replace the role of the parent within the state; it must be to help parents to do their best to raise their children. Indeed, the historic role of the Churches was in pioneering popular education, long before the state intervened. Our role as legislators is to build a pluralist, not a secularist society. Secularism is the French way, not our way.

Secularism overrides individual rights, freedom of expression and free will in favour of uniformity. It dictates what people can wear and where they can wear it. That may be the French way. To do things differently, and to deny children the right to a religious schooling because of their faith, would not he our way. It would be a retreat from long-held principles and would raise questions about our human rights obligations, which commit us to ensure that

No person shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.

That is article 2 of the first protocol of the European convention on human rights.

Referring to education provisions, the UN declaration of the rights of the child states:

The best interest of the child shall be the guiding principle of those responsible for his education and guidance; that responsibility lies in the first place with his parents.

Those instruments outline the concept that parents are first and foremost educators of their children, and that the state, while properly setting educational standards and ensuring the proper use of public funds, should be a facilitator to ensure that all children, as far as is practical, can be educated in line with their parents' religious and philosophical convictions. We must continue to maintain that right.

There have been calls from Members of the House and others for faith schools to be forced to admit a quota of those of a different faith or of no faith. That would be an unwelcome and unnecessary intervention on the part of the state and I caution against it. First, it would mean excluding children from their own faith schools, denying parental choice. Imposing a fixed quota would have serious practical implications. In some places the demand for places in faith schools outstrips supply, and imposing a quota would have huge implications. To meet demand, schools would have to increase provision for pupils who have been displaced. Catholic dioceses and, I suspect, others would that find very difficult and expensive.

Secondly, there would be a knock-on effect on community schools, with a reduction in demand for places in those institutions. Introducing a quota is likely to be unpopular with providers of faith schools as well as with those responsible for community education. Many faith schools already have considerable numbers of students from other faiths. In 2003, on average, one in five pupils in Catholic secondary schools were not Catholic.

Thirdly, a more effective approach would be to let local faith schools work in partnership with the local community and to respond to local circumstances rather than setting targets in Whitehall that ignore local needs and situations. To support that view, it is worth mentioning the decision taken by the Leeds diocese, which, after local consultation in Bradford, implemented a new strategy for Catholic schools. Instead of closing one school and leaving two schools fully subscribed with Catholics, the decision was taken to keep all three schools open, with each school taking a percentage of non-Catholic, usually Muslim, children. At the same time, there was a drive to develop an ethos to enable children of other faiths to feel at home. Prayer rooms were made available and provision was made to meet the need of Muslim girls for appropriate school uniforms. The idea of twinning Catholic schools with other schools with a significant Muslim intake was also proposed as part of this strategy. That, to put it simply, is the practical way of doing things; it is practical common sense applied at the local level. Adopting such a voluntary approach is far more effective than imposing a national quota.

Some of my colleagues have argued that one of the main reasons for the academic success of faith schools is their strict selection procedures. That is quite wrong. They do have high academic and social standards, but the sole criterion that guarantees admission to the school of which I am a governor is a baptismal certificate. Figures for one of the largest faith school providers in the United Kingdom, the Catholic Church, contradict the popular myth. First, the figures for the ethnic and cultural mix of pupils who attend Catholic schools reflect our diverse society far more than do those for the non-faith sector. For example, 70 per cent. of pupils in Catholic schools are, on average, white and British—a figure that jumps to 81 per cent. for all other schools.

Madeleine Bunting's recent article in The Guardian highlighted the rich diversity in Catholic schools in Hackney. She had observed seven-year-olds taking part in a school assembly on friendship. She said that there were 40 different nationalities, over 20 different languages—and one faith. Nigeria, the Philippines, Colombia, Eritrea, Vietnam, Portugal, Italy, Ireland: what goes on in this Catholic primary school is an extraordinary process of integration that makes the public debate about the divisiveness of faith schools appear absurd. This is evidence of the diverse cultural and ethnic nature of faith schools, which bring together children and parents of different backgrounds, social classes and nationalities who are committed to their children's education and to the needs of the local and wider community. We should do all we can to encourage such an approach; we should not attack or undermine it.

Faith schools have become renowned for their educational achievement and have gained a reputation for high standards and educational attainment—a view that is supported by the evidence. In general, attainment in Catholic schools is higher than that in other sectors. An analysis of GCSE results achieved by both 11 to 18-year-olds and 11 to 16-year-olds between 1996 and 2001 found that, for nearly all levels of disadvantage based on free school meal eligibility, a higher percentage of pupils in Catholic schools than in other schools achieved the required standard each year, despite the fact that many families live in poverty. One has only to consider initiatives such as the programmes for African-Caribbean boys in Gunnersbury school in west London, or the work done by the Zacchaeus centre in Birmingham, to see the commitment of Catholic schools to improving the attainment level of underachieving groups. We should be trying to expand and support that work, not attack it. What happens in Catholic schools happens in the schools of other faiths. Given those achievements and that community involvement, the Government should try to support faith schools and ensure that they are not disadvantaged when they participate in the Government's education agenda.

I am concerned about home-school transport provision and how that affects faith schools. It is worrying to see an increasing number of local education authorities trying to reduce costs by removing school transport provision for children attending such schools. Proposals to end transport provision for such children are being discussed by East Riding of Yorkshire council, which is to reach a decision tomorrow. The arguments for that are based on subjective judgments and highly questionable notions of social gain, and they probably border on some sort of underlying hostility to faith schools, if not on sectarianism.

If agreed, the changes will have a profound impact on many families who choose to send their children to faith schools, particularly those on low incomes. The implications of the proposals go beyond East Riding and into my constituency in Hull, where many pupils from East Riding attend schools. The proposals would affect the 136 secondary school pupils from East Riding who attend St. Mary's college, of which I am a governor and which is in my constituency, and would have a profound impact on admissions to the school.

It is clear that the draft School Transport Bill, currently being considered, might discriminate against parents who wish to send their children to a faith school, although that may not be the Government's intention. That would be unacceptable and could be a Trojan horse for attacking the very principles and existence of faith schools.

It is worth remembering that the physical location of many Catholic schools has already been agreed with the local education authority, sometimes a number of them, and encouraged by former Governments—indeed, the sites have almost been designated by Governments. Then, transport costs and subsidies were among the factors considered and the fact that there were subsidies meant that the Churches could accept the sites. Catchment areas for faith schools, therefore, are often considerably larger than the equivalent areas for community schools. Catholic schools located in rural areas have been specifically sited, with Government and LEA encouragement, so as to have the widest possible catchment areas; the introduction of charging for school transport would bear down more heavily on the children who go to such schools and their parents, and would thus be discriminatory.

Essex county council is introducing a charge for home-school transport of £100 per term at St. Benedict's secondary school in Colchester, and applications for that school's 2004–05 intake have reduced by approximately 30 per cent. The school is located to serve the widest possible rural area.

It is clear from such evidence that school transport charging has an impact on the possible future development and continued existence of some faith schools. It is possible that misguided notions of education policy are guiding the introduction of the charges as a way of getting faith schools closed. The Government need to address the problem urgently. Pupils of faith schools cannot be discriminated against in this way. If necessary, central Government must intervene to stop the local education authorities abusing their powers vis-á-vis faith schools. Faith schools cannot be sacrificed merely to cut costs.

Urban Catholic schools provide education to a wide diversity of ethnic groups and children with economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Although the proposals in the draft School Transport Bill ensure financial assistance for children in receipt of free school meals, many families just above that threshold will incur a significant financial cost. Large families, for example, could be severely affected, and the ability of families to access their preferred education could be jeopardised.

I welcome the assurance given me in a written parliamentary answer from my right hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, in which he stated that It is important that parents can choose a school in accordance with their religious convictions and in approving schemes, we will not expect LEAs to disturb well established arrangements for denominational transport, particularly where they are associated with local agreements or understandings about the siting of denominational schools."—[Official Report, 20 April 2004; Vol. 420, c. 472W.] However, I would be obliged if the Minister could confirm that that will be made clear in the Bill and that the Government will stop any proposal, such as those of Essex and East Riding, to introduce discriminatory school fees. The introduction of charging and the draft School Transport Bill run the risk of forcing parents to make a choice in respect of their children's education on the basis not of their philosophical and religious beliefs but of their financial means. Such financial coercion will hurt those who can most benefit from faith schools: the poor. I would be greatly saddened if that happened under a Labour Government, particularly given the proud record of previous Labour Governments, and indeed this Government, and the fact that the proportion of capital costs that faith schools are required to provide was reduced to 20 per cent. in 1967 under Wilson, to 15 per cent. in 1975, again under Wilson, and to 10 per cent. in 2002 under Blair.

The aim of the welcome "Building schools for the future" programme is to ensure that pupils are taught in well designed schools that motivate teaching and learning and provide the education that is expected in the 21st century. That is something from which faith schools would want to benefit—as indeed does my constituency in Hull, for which I put in a special plea for the next round of funding.

Although the fund is widely welcomed, there are specific implications for faith schools. As my hon. Friend the Minister is aware, the diocese is required to make a 10 per cent. contribution to capital investment in building costs and major school repairs. The Catholic and other sectors are committed to sustaining that, but there are clearly huge financial implications for all dioceses and other faiths if their secondary schools are to benefit from the "Building schools for the future" programme over the next 10 to 15 years. Finding the 10 per cent. contribution—estimated at about £250 million for Catholic schools alone—will be difficult for many dioceses. The funding of such programmes is complex and, just like LEAs, the Church cannot transfer funds between dioceses.

There is a danger that a two-tier system could emerge from "Building schools for the future", with Catholic and other faith schools being excluded owing to financial constraints and thus not benefiting from this welcome programme. I understand that there are further difficulties for Church and other faith schools with private finance initiatives—such schools are charities, and that creates some problems for the Treasury. Officials at the Department for Education and Skills have been in communication with the Catholic Education Service and other interested groups on that issue. I urge the Minister to do everything possible to find a way of overcoming that obstacle to ensure that all secondary schools can benefit from the programme.

The Children Bill offers the biggest reforms of children's services in a generation. That is an area in which faith schools can make a valuable contribution to realising the Government's vision for change. However, some elements of the reforms may not be acceptable to governors of a Catholic school. For example, when looking at the proposals for extended schools, Catholic schools are unlikely to accept on-site pregnancy advisory services as part of their extended school, although many extended school activities are and will continue to be important to Catholic schools.

We have only to look at the support that Catholic schools give to parents at present—for example, offering parenting classes—to see that they are already providing things provided by extended schools. Parenting services are already provided by Notre Dame, Southwark and St. George's secondary, Maida Vale. Those parenting classes are not limited to the Catholic community but are advertised locally in libraries and health clinics for the wider local community.

It is better for extended schools to be based on the needs of their local communities. I know that Catholic schools want to participate in providing extended schools and wider opportunities where possible, but they should not be expected to supply services or offer advice or counselling contrary to their core values.

I shall now address the findings in several recent reports that single out faith schools as one of the main causes of segregation, conflict and riots in local communities. That was one of the conclusions of the Cantle report, and was more recently echoed in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Committee report on social cohesion. Findings that are based on ignorance and prejudice, ignore statistics and play to the somewhat prejudiced London sectarian gallery should be treated with caution. Compared with the state sector, Catholic schools have greater social cohesion in terms of class, race and ethnicity, and one in five of the students in Catholic schools come from other faith groups or has no faith. Rather than criticising, some commentators might do better to figure out how some of the non-faith sector could adopt the model of success found in many faith schools.

Although it would be wrong to state that religion is never the cause of conflict, there is no evidence to suggest that faith schools are a major cause of social unrest in this country, or indeed in Northern Ireland. Those who believe that such schools are a cause of social unrest often give the example of Northern Ireland, but they clearly misunderstand and oversimplify the causes of its problems. Are they seriously suggesting that integrated education would have prevented the riots, stand-offs and killings? It is perhaps easy for a mainland British audience to blame religion, but those who look more carefully will see that the issue has far more to do with politics, human rights and national and community identity. We in this country cannot get ourselves off the hook that easily.

Rather than blaming faith schools for Britain's modern urban ills, we should look at the high levels of poverty, unemployment, poor housing and discrimination, as well as the lack of opportunity, in many of our areas. Those problems are common throughout this island and Northern Ireland.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD)

The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that when the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Committee went to Oldham to look at the schools, it found that pupils in some community schools were almost entirely white and English, while those at other schools were entirely Bangladeshi or from the wider Asian community. The disjunction between those schools had little to do with religion, and a lot to do with feelings in those communities.

Mr. McNamara

Yes, I understand that.

Faith schools are not the problem; they are part of the solution. One of the main causes of social segregation is ignorance of difference and fear of the unknown—perhaps that is the reason for the situation that the hon. Gentleman described. The guidance given to Catholic schools in the document "Catholic Schools and Other Faiths" clearly spells out the role that they can play, stating that they should be ready to share resources with other schools and with other faith communities—especially if the Catholic school is situated in an area of deprivation and racial tension. That attitude is shared by other faith schools, and I gave the example of what is happening in Bradford.

Inter-faith relations have progressed over the past few years. Now is the time to step up the inter-faith dialogue, and faith schools have an important role to play in it. We should be working to give Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs and others the opportunity to establish faith-based schools where there is demand. Abolishing, watering down or undermining faith schools will only push religion to the periphery of society, increasing ignorance, prejudice and bigotry. We must reject pressures to do so.

I would like to put on record my appreciation of the Catholic Education Service, which often works professionally with representatives of other faiths and effectively raises issues and concerns relevant to faith communities. The continuation of faith schools is important not only to ensure parental choice and education standards but to overcome the challenge of prejudice and intolerance. In that respect, the CES is making a significant contribution to the debate.

When he was Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said that he wanted to "bottle" the ethos of faith schools, and I hope that he intended to pour it over the whole of society. I also hope that the Minister shares that view.

9.54 am
Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/Co-op)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) on obtaining this important debate at just the right time. I intend to make a reasonably short contribution. Many of my remarks will be appropriate to the Catholic sector, although they apply to all the different faiths.

I should declare that my wife was head of religious education at a Catholic secondary school in Rochdale for 15 years. My daughter has taught in a Catholic primary school in Nottingham and is now an educational psychologist. I have a son who was doing teacher training in a large Catholic secondary school in London, but he has changed his mind and is setting off on another career.

I welcome this opportunity to discuss the role of denominational schools and the challenges that they face. I have recently received letters from head teachers in my constituency who are worried about the damaging effect that the proposals for faith schools may have. My hon. Friend listed those issues so I do not intend to go into them in detail.

I live in an area where there are immigrants from Pakistan, India, Ireland, Poland, Romania, Ukraine, Italy, Latvia and Croatia—and I must mention Scotland, because I am one of those immigrants. I understand the value that the Scottish bishops place on the Catholic education system in Scotland, where Catholicism is a minority faith. Minority faiths across the world have the same problem.

Recently there has also been an influx of people from various African countries to my area. They are beginning to appear in my constituency. We also have many travellers who stay for a few months and move on—but they use the Church schools, and the Catholic system in particular. The local central Catholic primary school is in the middle of the borough of Rochdale. The oldest Catholic church in the town is next to the railway station. It was built to serve the needs of the wave of Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine, and it is adjoined by the school.

Last year I was invited to a nativity play. It was a wonderful event, performed by children from all the countries that I have listed. The story of Jesus's birth was enacted with carols and music from different countries, sung beautifully by those children. Their parents were there and were really proud of what they were listening to. What I am describing is a multicultural, multi-faith society, where people of different faiths and cultures can exist peacefully and happily together. That is not unusual nowadays. In most Catholic schools, as my hon. Friend mentioned, about 20 per cent. of the pupils are non-Catholic.

Historically, the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 gave the Catholic Church a new role in England. At the same time, because of Irish immigration caused by economic conditions, there was a huge increase in the number of Catholics in the country. When the hierarchy was restored in 1850, Catholic schools were given the same rights and financial help as other Christian schools, although much less than the board school grants that were then available. It was under the leadership of Cardinal Wiseman, who was appointed the first Archbishop of Westminster, that the bishops decided that rather than building more churches they would build more schools. They saw that as the vehicle for strengthening and maintaining the faith of the population.

From the time of the Education Act 1870, which introduced universal elementary education, there were, thanks to the great financial sacrifices of the mainly poorly paid working-class Catholics, about 100,000 children in Catholic schools. The right that Catholics had struggled for, to bring up their children according to their religious beliefs, was conferred by the Catholic emancipation Act, but the financial cost was enormous.

By the time compulsory schooling for children up to 10 was introduced, Catholics had paid more than £4 million in donations and collections and through private means. By 1900 there were 1,054 Catholic schools. The Education Act 1902—the Balfour Act—abolished school boards. Local authorities were then allowed to give Church schools grants from the rates. In 1905 the Catholic Education Council was set up. It showed great firmness of purpose and the schools continued to expand. The Education Act 1944—the Butler Act—brought about a dual system giving grants to Church schools, with shared administration.

The original schools survived thanks to the support of the parents, the religious orders that provided teachers and helped to found many schools, and the commitment of the hierarchy. As a result of that determination to overcome prejudice and discrimination there is a strong and well respected Catholic education system in England and Wales and an educated Catholic laity.

Why would people who had not two halfpennies to rub together struggle to finance a system of education to run alongside a free system? Should the underlying principles that have dominated the maintenance of Catholic education remain unchanged despite the problems and influences of society, or should they be modified to suit changes in society?

Catholic schools were set up first and foremost to pass on the Christian faith. There should be no apologies for, no fear of and no embarrassment about that. The Catholic school is sure of its stance on faith and morals; that is what makes the faith school distinctive. The basis of the Catholic school is the revelation of God through Jesus, according to the tradition and teaching of the Catholic Church.

The ideal is a synthesis of faith and life, in which the tenets of faith have relevance to the problems of living in the modern world. I have no problem with parents wishing to educate their children in schools of another denomination if it supports and helps them in their task of bringing up the children in their own faith. I fully support that. It is obvious that if parents are interested in their children's education, the children will do well. The Catholic bishops of today are encouraging the sharing of resources with other schools and faith communities. I see that in my own community.

Perhaps the way forward is for all schools to focus on their raison d'être. Perhaps the values that parents want taught to their children should be the starting point for the debate on education, so that all those involved share the values that permeate the school's entire curriculum. Faith schools have proven their worth and gained a reputation for good discipline and high educational standards. We can see that in the number of parents who want to send their children to such schools. The schools have not remained static but have taken up the challenge of meeting the needs of our modern, secular, multicultural and polycentric world.

As my hon. Friend said, various arguments have been advanced suggesting that the segregation of children according to faith leads to conflict and riots. He mentioned Ted Cantle's report on the riots in Oldham three years ago, which suggests that that was a main cause of conflict, when in fact the segregation was in nothing more than housing. I could identify a state school in a borough of Rochdale where Pakistani and Kashmiri people live, and nearly 95 per cent. of its pupils are of ethnic origin because that is where those people live. Ted Cantle's suggestion was totally off the mark. He also said that segregated schools in Northern Ireland have been blamed for the bigotry and conflict, yet segregated schools in England have not provoked that problem.

It is too simplistic to put the blame on schools when so many causes of conflict can be seen in both of the examples that I cited. Ted Cantle said that poverty, racism, under-development and housing also contribute to the problem. For instance, children in Yugoslavia were taught in integrated secular schools but that did not prevent conflict between communities. How can the restriction of parental choice in education guarantee peace and harmony?

Parents have the right to choose a faith-based education for their children. As we can see from the difficulties in establishing faith schools, that right was hard won. It would be a brave Government who attempted to change the system without agreement and take away those hard-fought-for rights. It would be a brave Government who took on the huge pressure group that supports faith schools. I applaud my hon. Friend for raising the issue this morning.

10.3 am

Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree) (Lab)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) on raising this important matter at such a pertinent time. I agree with almost everything he said. We often hear that we live in an age of choice. Choice is very much the word of the moment. Governments and political parties would be ill advised to take away parents' right to send their children to the school of their choice, based on their faith or religion.

There is no doubt that Church schools, be they Catholic, Anglican or otherwise, are extremely popular with parents. The Anglican Church has far fewer secondary schools but an enormous number of primary schools, particularly in rural areas. There is often a great desire on the part of parents who live in towns to send their children to Church of England schools in villages. The same applies to schools of the Catholic faith.

The idea that there needs to be a quota for a Church or faith school is not only unwise but goes completely against the principle on which such schools are based. By their nature, they are comprehensive schools, within the terms of their religion. Taking away the baptismal certificate and replacing it with another test for entry would favour the children of the better-off and the better educated. Church schools would no longer be all-embracing community schools but would become increasingly selective, and the selection would not be based on anything other than heredity or wealth. Therefore, far from making society more equal and open, the quota would work in entirely the opposite direction.

One of the reasons for the importance of faith or Church schools is that they are a counterbalance to the prevailing materialism of our time. The Government in their wisdom have rightly concentrated on encouraging secondary schools to specialise in a particular area, whether it be mathematics or the arts. The Government seek to put an ethos into schools, so that there is a raison d'être for a school. That philosophy already exists in the Church school system. There is a particular reason for going to a certain school—because that is the school of one's faith.

My hon. Friend made a number of points, one of which touches on my constituency. He referred to the policy of Essex county council, on which both the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) and I have sat at various times in our lives. The council has introduced a policy of ending free school transport to denominational schools in our county. He referred to St. Benedict's in Colchester—a school that I have visited, which is held in enormously high regard in north and central Essex. He stated that schools were situated to serve rural areas. That is especially so in the case of St. Benedict's, which serves an area that runs all the way from my constituency on one side to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Henderson), on the other. Children travel large distances to go to that school, because it is the school of their choice. For decades, the county of Essex has provided free school transport to the nearest denominational school.

There was another reference, I think in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Jim Dobbin), to the 1944 Act. The Butler Act, as it is known, was introduced by R. A. Butler, who was my predecessor in that he represented part of my constituency. Indeed, only on Saturday I spoke at a rally in defence of maternity services in our area with his stepson, Julian Courtauld. That tradition of liberal Conservatism, if I may put it that way, is still strong in certain parts of the country, although it does not seem to be as predominant as it once was at the top of certain public institutions.

Let me return to the school transport situation in Essex. Ending free provision for distances of more than three miles is discriminatory in a number of ways. Free provision still obtains if the parents choose to send their children to the nearest school beyond three miles, although that school is highly likely not to be a Catholic secondary school. As a consequence, parents face the choice of either paying to go to the school of their faith or receiving free transport if they opt out. That seems to be an abomination, in terms of human rights and our history of freedom of religious choice.

The situation goes beyond that, however. The county is discriminating against children from poorer backgrounds. Better-off parents, with their four-wheel-drive cars, will drive their children to whatever school they choose, because they can afford to do so with ease. If one is not in that privileged position, one has to make hard choices.

My hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton mentioned that the Churches have survived for many centuries on the support and donations of poor people who have shown the strength of their faith by overcoming the poverty in which they live. I should not have thought that, in this century, we should put that obstacle in the way of people exercising the choice to which they are entitled.

Another point that flows from that is that the Catholic Church has paid considerable lump sums for the construction and maintenance of the schools. When built, 25 per cent. of the schools' costs were normally paid for by the local parishes; I believe that to this day 10 per cent. of external structural work is still paid for by the parishes. In that sense, education is subsidised and cross-subsidised by the religious communities.

In these times, we need to pay more attention to matters that rise above pure financial self-aggrandisement. Church schools offer a focal point at which such matters can easily be discussed. That is not to say that all schools make strong efforts to direct minds away from the current fashions and advertising campaigns—some schools base their school uniforms on designer labels rather than on blazers—but it is a fraction easier with the overriding community purpose that is found in church schools.

I hope that the provision of Church schools will be not only preserved but expanded, so that everybody has the right to choose which school they go to, and other denominations or faiths will consider whether to bring schools into existence along the lines that the Catholic Church and the Church of England have devised over a long time. That diversity will strengthen education and our communities.

10.12 am
Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate, and to take up a couple of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), whom I congratulate on securing the debate.

I will continue the Catholic flavour for a while. My hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Jim Dobbin) mentioned Catholic immigration from Ireland. My surname betrays my links with that immigration: I understand that it means "the wild hairy one" in Gaelic—obviously, some of those genes have been lost over the years.

I want to take up two of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North: first, the attitude of the Catholic diocese of Leeds to Catholic education, which has been progressive, and secondly, the subject of East Riding of Yorkshire and school transport. My family has been very much involved with Catholic education in Yorkshire down the years. My late father spent many years working as a teacher in a Catholic school and trying to build it up—forgoing his pension rights and getting the kids fish and chips on a Friday because there was no school kitchen. My brother is the chaplain to a school in Bradford that the Catholic diocese of Leeds has kept open as a contribution to inter-faith relations in Bradford, even though the number of Catholic children attending it probably would not justify doing so. Children from several faiths attend the school, which is one place in Bradford in which there is some dialogue between faiths.

One of the most depressing surveys in recent days was one that found that few people of any age in our society have friends in different ethnic groups. The Catholic diocese of Leeds is conscious of that problem in Bradford, and there is a real mission to contribute to inter-community relations there, which is not always easy. Often, the young people in my brother's school show interest in other faiths. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North said, there is provision for Muslims—an imam can come into the school and so on—and my brother even jokes that there could be problems if there started to be conversions; at that point, parents might begin to make representations! It is not without problems, but on the whole it is a positive experience that I thought was worth sharing when my hon. Friend brought up the subject.

I should like to ask the Minister a couple of questions about school transport in East Riding of Yorkshire, which is a very topical issue. If he does not have the answers to hand, perhaps he could write to me. All the education authorities in the north of England are waiting to see what is decided in East Riding. Its policy is largely officer-based, and I hope that councillors there will revolt against their officers and show some sort of political control. As my hon. Friend said, because it is a rural area, what happens there impacts on neighbouring counties and districts. In my constituency, the Holy Family Catholic high school at Carlton has 432 pupils on roll, 207 of whom live in East Riding. The East Riding authorities have consulted on a proposal that from September 2005, only children who live more than three miles from their local catchment school, or if that is full the school to which they are allocated by East Riding, will get free transport.

Mr. McNamara

Is my hon. Friend aware that a decision is supposed to be reached tomorrow night?

Mr. Grogan

Indeed. I am aware of how current this is, and how important the decision is. I urge councillors to think very carefully in the next 24 hours and also to consider two legal implications. It is not clear to me that the council can adopt such a blanket approach. I understand that section 509(4) of the Education Act 1996 requires it to form a judgement, in relation to any particular person, as to whether it is necessary for the Council to make arrangements for free transport for that person. In forming that judgement, the Council is"— I understand— required to have regard to any parental wish that the pupil should be educated at a school where the religious education or training provided is that of their parents' religion or denomination. In other words, there is a considerable body of legal evidence to suggest that councils have to consider the matter case by case and that a blanket ban would be inappropriate and possibly legally inadvisable.

I also draw attention to the admirable Department for Education January 1994 circular. Can the Minister tell us whether it remains in force and whether, given the debate in East Riding and the Government's general support for denominational schools, it is worthy of reissue? It was stated then: The Secretary of State hopes that LEAs will continue to think it right not to disturb well established arrangements … He continues to attach great importance to preservation of the opportunity to choose a school or college in accordance with religious convictions". That is fairly straightforward, and as I understand it, it has not been rescinded. Can the Minister comment?

Finally, I appeal to the councillors in East Riding. Their officers are saying that a child should automatically go to the nearest school in the catchment area. That denies the whole agenda of choice. Take the Holy Family school again. It is passed by just one bus—going from Goole to Selby. A lot of Catholic children at school in Selby are from the East Riding, and there is no way they could all get on the one bus. East Riding would be saying in effect, "If your family does not have a car, or is not very well off, you cannot make a denominational choice." That is a scandalous proposition. If the councillors think carefully in the next 24 hours, they will realise that in East Riding of Yorkshire, and in the neighbouring areas, there is strong support among the electorate for the continuation of denominational schools, which have contributed so much to local communities. I hope that councillors will kick out their officers' proposals tomorrow night.

10.20 am
Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) on securing the debate.

I want to start by laying my cards on the table. My children went to a Catholic comprehensive school, I am the governor of one and I taught at one in the inner-city area of Bootle—strangely, it was largely staffed by old boys from St. Mary's, Crosby, which is the hon. Gentleman's former school. The debate is clearly a thoroughly incestuous occasion, and one dreams of my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) showing up at the last minute to break up, if not the Liberal consensus, at least the Catholic consensus, which is alive and well.

Denominational schools have a distinct position in our society. Many countries do not have them, and severely separate religion and education. They allow religious education, but not at the state's cost, for fear that the state could be seen to favour or promulgate a particular religion. The United States is a classic example of that.

For largely historical reasons, Britain is different. The state took a late interest in education, and the Churches had largely got there first. Essentially, the state absorbed the existing Church system. That arrangement was controversial, and it has always been fairly favourable to the Churches. At the start of the last century there were lively political battles, featuring slogans such as "Rome on the rates". Since the Butler Act, however, peace has largely reigned, and the issue of religious education was relatively uncontroversial until quite recently. It was accepted that the arrangements were fairly stable and that they should exist to allow Church members to have their children educated in Church schools. New schools could also be set up where there was demand for denominational places, so it was not just a question of the state absorbing a pre-existing system; to some extent, the arrangement helped to promote the supply of denominational places.

As I understand it, a denominational school is set up primarily to provide an education flavoured in a way that is appropriate for members of a given Church. The essence of denominational schools is that they are part owned and part run by Church representatives. They are justified if they provide a distinctive ethos and education. The state can support them—in many cases, one could argue that it should do so—if their ethos and objectives are not inconsistent with or contrary to the state's ambitions for its citizens.

To some extent, I part company with the hon. Member for Hull, North when he says that it is the state's job to cater for every philosophical persuasion. There are some very odd philosophical persuasions, which the state would not wish to cater for, and he would not want it to. It must have a view, and it need not cater for all philosophical or religious persuasions. The question is whether they are consistent with its aspirations for its citizens.

Contingent on that is the fact that denominational schools in many places have high educational standards. Indeed, there is an argument in education at the moment that suggests that denominational schools generally are more likely to have high educational standards, although we should acknowledge that some do not. Whatever denominational education is provided, however, the fundamental point is that it should not conflict with the state's legitimate ambitions for pupils.

Some hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon in the debate on his ten-minute Bill, have alleged that that is exactly what denominational education does. People have said that the presence of denominational schools frustrates the state's legitimate desire for social cohesion. It has been well argued in this debate that that is not the case—unfortunately, my hon. Friend is not here to hear it.

Opponents of denominational schools have also argued that they encourage social division and selection. One could make a fair case for saying that about some parts of the country, but that is not the case in Merseyside, where I come from, or anywhere in Lancashire. If those are features of denominational schools, they are contingent features that can be remedied. Denominational schools have taken an unfair share of the blame for social division where it exists; Oldham, for example, has been well covered in this debate.

There are, however, issues of which the state needs to be mindful. If it is true that denominational schools favour denominational pupils, which is a fair point to make, or that non-religious parents have rational objections to denominational schools, which I believe we would all accept, the state could, in certain circumstances, be said to be offering a better or wider choice to some citizens, who are religious, than to others, who are non-religious. That must not happen.

Non-religious citizens of our country do not regard the option of a religious school as a real choice, so their choice as non-religious people should be at least as good and in no way diminished by the presence of denominational schools in their area. That should be an agreed principle between secular people and religious people. I am not completely convinced that the Government have understood that. In certain circumstances, they may be guilty of trying to promote denominational schools in the absence of demand and on advantageous terms. The crucial point is that if they are seen to be doing that and are not catering for demand, there is almost a link between their activity and proselytising. Clearly, those things should be separate. They should not promote denominational schools in a vacuum without there being demand. It is not sufficient to say that good education is provided in the process—I am thinking in particular of certain academy projects—as the state can clearly provide good education in other ways that do not have a denominational context or flavour.

That is my caveat about current procedures, and it is a legitimate and reasonable one. If the archdiocese is going to scour over the details of the debate, I make a particular plea that relates to some extent to the academy projects. I come from an area that is struggling very hard to deal with surplus places. Part of the problem is that very acceptable high-performing primary schools are under severe threat. St. Teresa's infants school in my area is full to capacity, yet it is scheduled to close. The archdiocese must agree or disagree in some way to that project. Simultaneously, it is promoting an academy in which it is investing funds, although the reason for closing the infants school is that funds are tight.

There is an obligation on those who run denominational schools to ensure that it is a priority that the base service be provided and sustained in the community. There are circumstances in which the misguided promotion of new ventures can seriously harm effectively run current ventures. It will be a very sorry day when that occurs.

10.29 am
Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) on securing this debate, which is turning out to be one-sided, with great consensus. I agreed with almost every word he uttered, and I am happy to join the serried ranks of supporters of denominational schools.

We—the Opposition, not the royal "we"—are strongly in favour of denominational schools, which form a popular and essential part of the spectrum of education provision in the country. We believe that schools should be as varied as the demands of parents and should suit pupils' needs. In particular, denominational schools provide a choice for the large number of parents who seek places for their children at schools with a religious ethos, and it is right that those places should be available to them.

Most denominational schools are heavily oversubscribed, and for that reason alone must turn away pupils who fit their admissions criteria. That is certainly the case in Upminster at both primary and secondary level. Competition continues to grow for places in many of London's denominational schools, especially in those that dominate the league tables. In some cases, such as Monken Hadley Church of England primary school in Barnet and St. Paul's Church of England primary school in Camden, three applications are received for every place. That necessarily means a lot of disappointed parents. It is an extremely traumatic experience for a family when their child is refused a place at the school of their choice and allocated a place at another school which, however good in other ways, does not have the denominational ethos that is important to them. Having sat on admissions appeals committees in the past as a district councillor, I can attest to that.

The issue of free school transport has been raised by several contributors to the debate. As a former Essex county councillor, I have defended free school transport for denominational schools in the county on many occasions. I would therefore like to defend Essex county council, as I am sure that this unwelcome policy change is being led by budgetary pressure rather than a desire to withdraw free transport for denominational pupils.

The impressive examination results achieved by many excellent denominational schools on a comprehensive intake are testimony to their success and one of the two main reasons for the growing demand for places. The 19th report of the Public Accounts Committee concluded that faith schools and single-sex schools do better than average, and the Local Government Association report on the impact of specialist and faith schools on performance concluded that Jewish schools performed exceptionally well and Church schools performed consistently well in English. In general, denominational schools outperform maintained schools consistently, but of course results are not the only reason for their popularity; it is the whole package that parents find attractive.

The other main reason for the popularity of denominational schools is the ethos shared by parents, staff and Church, which is recognised in the community. That shared ethos between like-minded people provides pupils with a secure learning environment that brings out the best in them and encourages them to achieve their full potential. Shared ethos is the key to the success of denominational schools.

I know about the issue from personal experience as a former local authority governor of the De La Salle school in Basildon, as a current governor of the Sacred Heart of Mary girls school in Upminster, and as a Christian but not a Roman Catholic. Sacred Heart is a secondary, single-sex Catholic comprehensive school with a flourishing sixth form. It is a prime example of a school with a shared ethos. It also teaches tolerance and understanding of other faiths. The school comes consistently very high in the annual national league tables, and it has a truly comprehensive intake with its fair share of special needs pupils. Do not assume that they are all from comfortable middle-class homes; not that that should ever be held against a child, as children are quite unable to influence their parents' financial circumstances—but prejudice against the middle class has become fashionable in middle-class circles.

By an historic arrangement, part of each cohort at the school comes from the neighbouring parish of Dagenham, where the community is less advantaged. Nevertheless, those girls feature prominently among the highest achievers in terms of exam results and positions of responsibility in the life of the school, which are achieved on merit and without social engineering. Pupils flourish under an ethos that insists on high standards of behaviour and effort. Interestingly, this single-sex Catholic girls school is also attractive to Muslim families who require a protected disciplined educational environment for their daughters. Although the faiths are different, there are many shared social values, such as the importance of marriage and the family as the basis of a stable society and of high educational achievement, which are an integral part of the ethos of the school.

Already over-subscribed, Sacred Heart receives four to six calls every week from families moving into Upminster who want a place for their daughters. Denominational schools have, uniquely for providers of generalist education in the maintained sector, been permitted to interview applicants and their parents in order to ascertain religious affiliation and commitment where that is explicit in the admission requirements. There have been suggestions that the procedure has, from time to time, been used to make a selection based only ostensibly on faith. On the balance of likelihood, there are probably a few examples of that, but it would be unjust and damaging to ban interviewing for all because of a suspicion that a few interviews may have been unfairly conducted.

There is no evidence of widespread abuse of admission interviews, and schools receiving two or three applications for every place must decide which pupils are to be offered a place. The whole point of denominational schools is that everyone who is part of that school, whether pupil, parent or teacher, shares a denominational background and core values. That is what gives the school its special character.

Such is the level of demand that there can be no justification for the introduction of quotas, which force schools to accept pupils who do not fit their criteria while refusing places to others who do. If that were to happen, the school would no longer be a denominational school. There has to be a way of determining adherence to the faith of the school, and ticking boxes on an application form is likely to give a less reliable result.

Of course, where there is spare capacity many schools accept pupils who are not of the same faith but share their ethos. Admissions criteria for denominational schools, and all others for that matter, should be set by the schools and should fit local circumstances. They are a matter for head teachers, governors and parents, not for central Government. Schools should be wooing parents, persuading them that what they have to offer will be highly beneficial to their children, rather than parents chasing too few school places.

Denominational schools have an established winning formula. It works well for the pupils and their parents support it. If a denominational school is achieving better results, has better discipline and a higher reputation than its neighbours, the answer is to make the others better, not to change the formula of the successful school. We need to see levelling up to the highest common factor, not down to the lowest common denominator.

Let the other schools adopt an ethos worth sharing, secular if that is their choice. Let them consult parents and establish an ethos that will engender pride in belonging to that school, ambition and a determination to succeed. That is the way to drive standards up in less successful schools so that parents will choose to send their children there.

It would be quite wrong to destroy successful denominational schools by changing their admissions criteria on the old socialist maxim that if everyone cannot have something, nobody can have it, thereby driving standards down. Just like the doctrinal objection to grammar schools and the abolished assisted places scheme, which gave able pupils from disadvantaged homes the opportunity to widen their horizons—

Mr. McNamara

You are spoiling it now.

Angela Watkinson

I stand here as living proof, as an old grammar school girl from a poor working-class background. The winning formula of denominational schools will be destroyed if the Government meddle in their admissions procedures. They should leave well alone and concentrate on raising the standard of other schools to meet those of denominational schools.

10.38 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Stephen Twigg)

I join colleagues of all parties in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) on securing this debate on an important issue. He has clearly brought his considerable experience, educational and political, to the debate.

As others have said, the debate has been characterised by remarkable consensus on an issue that we know to be contentious, for some of the reasons that have been set out. I also echo my hon. Friend's tribute to the Catholic Education Service for the excellent job that it does. I pay tribute to the other faiths that are part of the system, as he did.

I want to put it clearly on the record that we regard faith schools as playing a very important part in our education system. As a number of hon. Members have said, there is a long and proud tradition of faith-based education in this country. For many years, we have acknowledged parents' wishes to educate their children in mainstream Christian schools.

Since 1944, faith communities have been able to apply to set up schools in the maintained sector in response to demand from parents. Given our multi-faith, multicultural society, it is only right that such opportunities should be available for parents and communities of other faiths, and that they should have similar opportunities to educate their children in accordance with their beliefs. I strongly support what my hon. Friend said in distinguishing the pluralism of our society from a secularist approach. I associate myself completely with his contrasting of our attitude with that of France on such questions. That is an important philosophical point that connects well to some of the community cohesion issues that he and others referred to.

Faith schools have an important and positive role to play in protecting and enhancing the pluralist character of our society. They are very popular with parents and typically play a valuable role in enhancing standards of education. As my hon. Friend said, they also play a valuable role in their local communities—the faith communities themselves, and more broadly.

Faith schools usually have a distinct ethos and mission. We know from evidence and common-sense observation that such things tend to be at the heart of school improvement—the schools that do best and provide the widest range of opportunities tend to be those with that clear sense of ethos and mission. My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) talked about specialist schools. Part of the reason why they tend to do well is that they have that sense of drive, ethos and mission, and the same applies to faith schools.

In the 2001 White Paper "Schools—achieving success" we made it clear that we welcome faith schools in the maintained sector when parents and the local community want them. As a Government, we are certainly not campaigning for more faith schools. I take issue with the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) and any suggestion that we would seek to establish faith schools in communities where there is not that demand. In many respects there is an opposite issue, to which the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) referred, of there being far more demand than the number of places and therefore scope for further faith schools.

Dr. Pugh

The issue between us is how the demand is assessed. If large numbers of people in Gateshead were already members of fundamentalist Churches and wished their children to be educated in a school with a fundamentalist ethos, that would fit in with what the Government say. If, on the other hand, somebody promoted a school that represented only a minority faith in the area but still attracted pupils who came largely from other faiths or no faith at all, that would be a different kettle of fish. How do the Government assess the demand for another faith school?

Mr. Twigg

I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring specifically to one of the academies—to be fair to him, he said that in his opening remarks. The academy programme is very new; for it to succeed, clear support from parents and the local community is required. Otherwise, the schools concerned will not attract the pupils and will not achieve the improvement in standards. A very substantial investment of money is going into the programme—predominantly public money, with some private and charitable money. The clearest test of whether that is a worthwhile investment will be demand—that is, take-up—and improvement in standards. If standards do not improve we shall have to consider that.

Dr. Pugh

Are parents being offered the choice between an academy and an academy with a fundamentalist ethos? Are both those offers, or just one of them, on the table? If people want an academy, do they have to have one with a fundamentalist ethos?

Mr. Twigg

I quarrel with the description of the academy as having a fundamentalist ethos. I have not visited the academy in Gateshead, but my understanding from colleagues who have is that the school's ethos is impressive and the quality of education high.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important, broader issue, which I do not want to dwell on now, but which I am sure we shall return to in future debates: how we fully engage communities, by which I mean not only the local authority but the broader community, including parents, in questions of the ethos and nature of new schools in general, and academies in particular. He makes a legitimate point in that respect.

I was trying to make the broader point that we do not want to campaign for more faith schools but that where there is demand or support for them in communities we welcome that as an aspect of diversity and of real choice. From my experience as a Minister and a constituency Member, I feel that there is a great deal for us to learn from faith schools. I have been hugely impressed by what I have seen.

As other hon. Members have said, about three in 10 state schools in England have a religious character. There are about 7,000 faith schools, of which 600 are secondary and 6,400 are primary. Of course, the majority of those are associated with the major Christian denominations. However, in recent years other faiths have promoted schools. There are now 34 Jewish schools, one of which, Wolfson Hillel, is in my constituency; it is an excellent Jewish primary school. There are four Muslim schools, two Sikh schools, one Greek Orthodox school—St. Cyprian's in Croydon—and one Seventh Day Adventist school.

I believe, from my discussions with the communities in question—perhaps most notably the Muslim community—that non-Christian minority faith communities have a growing interest in the possibility that some of the independent schools that already exist in those communities could become part of the maintained sector. I warmly welcome the interest that is being shown, and the Department is doing its best to enable that to happen, where it is appropriate, and where there is support in the communities locally.

When we set out our departmental five-year strategy two weeks ago, one of the five key principles that the Secretary of State maintained was that we should promote greater personalisation and choice, placing the wishes of parents and pupils centre stage. I am confident that faith schools can, should and will be part of that choice for parents and pupils.

I want to discuss some of the issues that have been raised today about admissions and the character of faith schools. I also want to talk about community cohesion. However, first I want to respond to the points that have been raised about school transport. There are two separate but related issues. One is the draft School Transport Bill referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North, which is intended to revisit the existing arrangements for home-to-school transport, which, as hon. Members will know, date back to 1944.

We are considering whether to change the law to allow local education authorities to run trials of alternative packages of school transport. The draft Bill has been open for consultation. Pre-legislative scrutiny has been carried out by the Education and Skills Committee and the Department is considering the results. I have met representatives of the Catholic Education Service and the Church of England, and they expressed some of the concerns that my hon. Friend set out today.

I believe that the pilots, through a possible transport Bill in the coming Session, could provide an opportunity to deal with some of the issues that have arisen in the debate. The Bill could provide a vehicle for authorities to improve the availability of transport to denominational schools.

On the second set of issues raised by a number of my hon. Friends, what is happening in Essex and in East Riding is happening under existing legislation, and in that sense it is nothing to do with the draft School Transport Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) reminded the House of the circular of January 1994. I am pleased to be able to inform him that that circular is still operational. We have not changed it, but we will reconsider it in the light of recent consultation on school transport. The circular remains in force for tomorrow night's meeting. I share the concerns that he and others set out in respect of East Riding and Essex. They have sent a clear message to those councillors who have to make a decision tomorrow. It is true that such decisions are made locally under the framework of the 1944 legislation, but I reaffirm that what is set out in the 1994 circular still stands. The East Riding and Essex examples demonstrate some of the iniquities of the present system of school transport. I would argue that a case should made for exploring alternatives, which is what we seek to do through the draft Bill.

Mr. McNamara

Do we need to explore alternatives? Should we not simply establish a principle: that parents choosing denominational schools should have school transport, provided that they meet the distance criterion?

Mr. Twigg

If we were to go down that route, it would require changes to the 1944 Act. One of the features of the existing situation is that what my hon. Friend described happens in some authorities but not all. As he and others have said, the tendency is to move away from such policies. Providing more flexibility in the broader system of school transport may allow more children and young people to benefit from free or subsidised transport, including transport to denominational schools. However, going down the route that he described would be a radical change, and it would require primary legislation to make the necessary changes.

As we proceed with the draft Bill, I am keen that the pilot schemes test the impact of transport policy on the accessibility of denominational schools. I was interested in some of the examples given of the impact of charging on access to certain schools. I make it clear that we would not want the policy on charging to result in parents being deterred from sending their children to their first-choice schools. If that is happening, the subject will be included in our further consideration of the draft Bill.

The other issue raised by my hon. Friend was the building of new schools. The Catholic Education Service and the Anglican Church have raised the matter with us. We are convening a new working group, to which we shall invite the Catholic Education Service, the Church of England and other faiths. It will have its first meeting shortly, when it will consider the question of the 10 per cent. requirement with respect to capital costs. My hon. Friend has placed that issue firmly on the record, and I shall ensure that that is made clear to the working group.

In the remaining five minutes, I shall refer to some of the broader issues. We know—the subject has been explored this morning—that faith schools are popular with parents. In the light of that, hon. Members will want to know more about the Government's commitment to providing more places in popular schools. We have already introduced new funding incentives to enable popular and successful secondary schools to expand. So far we have been able to agree to support six schools, of which two are faith schools, and we are considering a number of other applications.

We have amended our guidance to school organisation committees and schools adjudicators, so that when they consider proposals there is now a strong presumption in favour of approving such expansions. We will build on those measures to streamline the process of approval, which should give popular and successful faith schools that want to expand the potential to do so. That is important in providing the diversity and choice for which I think all speakers in this debate have shown their support.

Community cohesion is an issue that often arises in discussions about denominational schools. As hon. Members have said, segregation is a challenge in our society that is caused by a broad range of factors. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Jim Dobbin): in many of the communities covered in the Cantle report, the key issue is housing policy, although sometimes it is discrimination or patterns of employment. It would be entirely wrong to regard faith schools as bearing the main responsibility in that regard. As a number of hon. Members have said, in many urban areas there are schools that have a preponderance of pupils from a particular ethnic background but are not faith schools and simply reflect the patterns of local housing.

I agree that faith schools can make an important contribution to community cohesion, by promoting inclusion and developing partnership with schools of other faiths, and non-faith schools. The Government want faith and other schools to work together to break down barriers and bring together children of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, in order to promote understanding between different sections of our society. Since June 2003, promoters of new schools, whether faith or non-faith, have been required to show how their proposals will help to promote community cohesion. School organisation committees are required to take that into account when they consider proposals for new schools. All maintained schools are expected to promote good relations among different racial groups and, of course, to eliminate unlawful racial discrimination.

The code of practice on schools admissions allows faith schools to admit pupils based on religious affiliation, but as a number of hon. Members have said, many faith schools admit pupils who are not of their faith. The Church of England has a tradition of providing schools not only for Anglicans but for the community as a whole, particularly in rural areas. The Archbishop of Canterbury has committed all Church of England schools to give priority, for at least some of their places, to children of other faiths or none. My hon. Friends the Members for Hull, North and for Selby mentioned the Leeds diocese. Many non-Catholics attend Catholic schools, particularly in inner-city areas. We do not want faith schools to keep places empty when there are insufficient applicants for those places from pupils of their own faith or denomination. We took action to prevent that in the Education Act 2002, with the support of both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England.

The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 requires admission authorities for schools to review their policies in order to ensure that they eliminate racial discrimination, promote racial equality and encourage good race relations. That includes assessing admissions policies to ensure that pupils from particular racial groups are not unlawfully discriminated against, and monitoring the admissions process to ensure that it is administered consistently and fairly to children from all racial groups. We encourage faith schools to be more inclusive in the ways that I have set out.

Some faith schools achieve greater inclusiveness by designating some of their places as faith places and some as open places, with non-denominational criteria. That is not a specific requirement and is still a matter for the schools' admissions authorities to decide for themselves. We would not wish artificial quotas to take precedence over parental preference. That would cause greater dissatisfaction among parents from all sectors of the community and could still result in places remaining unfilled.

We have had an excellent debate, in which many of the benefits of denominational schools have been well set out by hon. Members of all parties. I am sure that this debate will continue. Faith schools contribute very much to the excellence of our education service.

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