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Thursday, 7 February, 2002, 07:23 GMT
Faith school rebels defeated
The Guru Nanak Sikh School, Hayes
Pupils at the first state Sikh school, opened in 1999
The government has defeated the biggest backbench rebellion this Parliament, over plans to promote further faith schools in England.

An alliance of Labour backbenchers and Liberal Democrats was voted down by a margin of 405 votes to 87 in the Commons on Wednesday.

A total of 45 Labour backbenchers rebelled against the government stance but ministers still secured the overwhelming majority, helped by Conservative support.

The government is committed to creating more faith schools, where there is demand from parents - a policy that was challenged by Labour rebels led by former health secretary Frank Dobson.

Frank Dobson
Frank Dobson argues that schools should not promote division

Mr Dobson put forward an amendment to the Education Bill which would have limited the selection rights of schools with religious affiliations.

This would have required faith schools to offer at least a quarter of places to children of another or no religion, with the aim of creating greater inclusivity and lessening the risk of social division.

But the Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, said this argument for quotas and limits was deeply flawed and was scapegoating faith schools for problems that lay in society rather than in the education system.

The selection of pupils according to religion was not acceptable when places were funded by all taxpayers, Mr Dobson told the House of Commons.

Estelle Morris
Estelle Morris says that faith schools should not be made a scapegoat for ethnic divisions

"If you were to substitute race or colour for the word 'religion', it would be unacceptable," said Mr Dobson.

He used the example of the disturbances outside the Holy Cross primary school in Belfast to show how segregated schooling can aggravate conflicts.

Appealing to parents

Rejecting the amendment, Estelle Morris said that faith schools benefited from "shared values, a sense of purpose and a sense of mission".

And the head teachers of such successful schools should not be denied the right to maintain such an ethos, she said.

Damian Green
Damian Green says that faith schools are often successful and popular with parents

In mainstream schools there were many examples where almost all the pupils were Muslim or white - and she said that if similar strictures on mixed intake were imposed on all schools, this raised the prospect of bussing pupils and racial quotas.

And she attacked the linking of faith schools to the type of social divisions made apparent by riots involving Asian youths in northern towns last year.

Faith schools should not be "made a scapegoat for all the ills in a multicultural society".

But in defending the selection rights of faith schools, she also indicated little interest in promoting their expansion.

Ms Morris told MPs she would not be "spending one minute of my time or one ounce of energy going out there and promoting more faith schools".


Also speaking against the amendment, the Shadow Education Secretary Damian Green attacked the "unfair denigration" of faith schools.

And he made "the simple, pragmatic observation that the church school is often the good school".

For many parents, he said, the only chance of a good education was through their local faith school.

As evidence, he cited this week's annual chief inspector's report on schools, in which over a third of the most successful schools identified by Ofsted were faith schools.

Faith schools were often academically successful and popular with parents and so should be able to expand, he said.

And the "hugely damaging" amendment would not "improve the education of a single child", he said.

Mr Green also defended the right of the Muslim community to have their own schools and reflected on how impressed he had been by his own visits to Muslim state schools.

Socially diverse

The amendment was also criticised by Labour MPs, who defended the record of social inclusivity of faith schools.

There were arguments that faith schools were often more racially and socially diverse than mainstream state schools, which take pupils from a narrow catchment area.

Paul Goggins said that already in Roman Catholic schools an average of 20% of pupils were non-Catholics.

And he criticised the logic of a proposal that would mean "Jewish children would be turned away from Jewish schools".

There were also claims that in the northern towns affected by riots involving Asian youths last year, the least racially integrated schools were often mainstream state schools.

Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrats' education spokesperson, said the amendment was not an attack on church schools, but an attempt to make them more inclusive.

"If faith schools are excellent, they should be available to all pupils," he said.

But Mr Willis's support for the amendment was dismissed by the shadow education secretary, as showing that the Liberal Democrats were now "the Labour party circa 1975".

'Distinctive ethos'

The government has a longstanding commitment to developing faith schools as a successful example of diversity within the state school system.

And it has argued that the "distinctive ethos" of faith schools has helped them to succeed academically and to make them attractive to parents.

The Education Bill would be likely to lead to a particular increase in the number of Church of England secondary schools - and would open the way to more faith schools of other denominations.

There are currently Church of England, Roman Catholic, Muslim, Sikh, Jewish and Greek Orthodox faith schools.

The BBC's Sean Curran
"Much of Frank Dobson's speech appeared to be an argument for secular education"
See also:

22 Nov 01 | Education
Call for U-turn on faith schools
12 Feb 01 | Education
Religious schools to increase
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