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Last modified:Monday, 25 April 2005



Tony Blair has introduced legislation to extend "faith schools" in England.

Former health secretary, Frank Dobson has led a Labour Party revolt. He wishes to for free faith schools to accept children of different religions. He has tabled two amendments to the government's education bill which was discussed on February 4. He is supported by Phil Willis the Liberal Democrat Education spokesman. This is the debate which has been covered with a code of silence in the Australian media:

The Guardian had this to say on Tuesday February 5:

"It was a bad idea from the beginning, based on anecdote rather than research. But the prime minister (Tony Blair) spurred on by the experience of his children's education at a Roman Catholic school, persisted with the idea of expanding faith schools.

Then came last summer's race riots and later September 11. The Ouseley report into Bradford's race relations concluded that fragmentation of its schools on racial, cultural and faith lines had played a key role in heightening racial tensions. He went further, suggesting "schools are a key part of the failure -.."

Ethnic loyalties, cemented at segregated primary schools, remain fixed through secondary education. A government intent on building confident socially integrated, multicultural communities should not be fostering such fragmentation. "

Mrs Mahon has this to say in Parliament:

"I speak in support of the new clause introduced by my right Hon. friend, the Member for Holborn and St. pancras (mr Dobson) because I want to put children and their education for the future at the centre of our lives. The most important thing we can do is to help them to live together in understanding - not segregated and attending different schools. We shall then have a more cohesive and decent society.

I also want to speak up for the 40 per cent of people who admit to no religion. By and large, they have been excluded from the debate until now - and possibly from our manifesto.

I am the child of humanist, socialist parents. I went to a Church primary school because it was the only school in the village, so I had early experience of how it feels to be treated differently in school - because my parents were different. For many, many years I was quite intolerant of Church schools.


I then went through another phase. Like the right Hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr Gummer), I have found that I changed my mind as I went through life. However, during the past 10 or 15 years, I have turned back to my other views.

In 1989 the UK signed up to the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. It stated:

"the child shall have the right to freedom of expression: this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds."

This is a strong basis for education.

Like the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my right Hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham Yardley (Estelle Morris), I want a level playing field, but perhaps mine would be different; I want all our schools to be secular. Newfoundland has just got rid of its Church schools. That is a good thing and will enhance integration. I realise that that course is not possible for us, but my right Hon. Friend's proposals will  help us to progress to greater integration.

I challenge the notion that religion is a precondition for morality. It is not. A child brought up without religion can be a moral human being who knows the difference between right and wrong. We must challenge the notion that religion and morality are necessarily the same.

My experience of life shows me that many agnostics, atheists and humanists are often more tolerant than religious people. Many of my non-believer friends do not believe in capital punishment and do not want to drop bombs on civilians. However, I have many friends who are Christian or Muslim or from other faiths who hold the opposite view. We should not assume that just because people are religious they are superior to us. If we extend the number of faith schools, we are making the assumption that their religion makes them superior.

I want to address the argument that faith schools have a reputation for delivering better education - especially in the secondary sector. There is selection in faith schools: by their very nature they select. By selecting, they cream off pupils. They take less than their share of deprived children and more than their share of children from middle-class backgrounds.

I am from Halifax. I went through the whole saga of the Ridings school. Anyone who wants to study selection should go to Halifax. At the top of the pyramid are two grammar schools which select. Then there are two opted-out Church schools which also select. We are left with two secondary modern schools and the Ridings school. That is how selection works.

... In October, I tabled an early-day motion, which was signed by about 80 Hon. Members. It pointed out that faith schools are not only about selection but about the exclusion of children.


My right Hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras touched on another issue that I want to raise. I want to sing the praises of teachers in community schools. Their moral values are no less than those of someone who opts to teach in a religious school. We should praise those teachers for their teaching about humanity and human value. When they talk about inclusivity, we should praise them - not denigrate them.

I have three more points. First, more faith schools will be damaging to racial and religious relations. About 8 per cent of the people of Halifax are Muslim, not one of them has asked me to support them in setting up a separate Muslim school. I have held many discussions with them about education. Like all immigrant populations, they realise that education is the way to get on and to achieve integration. They are trying to better themselves and their children through education.

I have never been asked for a Muslim school in Halifax and I am pleased about that. Incidentally, we were not consulted about the inclusion of the manifesto commitment on faith schools so I did not feel that I had to defend it during the general election.

I ask Hon. Members to read Lord Ouseley's report: "Community Pride not Prejudice, Bradford Vision 2001". The report was commissioned before the Bradford riots and was published just after they took place. It asked several questions, one of which was:

"Why is community fragmentation along social, cultural, ethnic and religious lines occurring in the Bradford District?"

The conclusion was that the answer lies party in education.

The young people of Bradford spoke for themselves about what had gone wrong. They complained that there was polarisation of communities along racial, ethnic and religious lines; that there was limited or non-existent interaction between schools; and that there was "virtual apartheid" in many secondary schools.

In his conclusion, Lord Ouseley noted:

"What was most inspiring was the great desire among young people for better education, more social and cultural integration...Young people realise that being taught in religious ghettos is not a good preparation for life in a multi-cultural society."

Those are the words and conclusions of those young people. They are not mine. Why cannot we listen to those voices?

My second point is about Northern Ireland. We cannot smooth over it and pretend that it does not exist. Anyone who witnessed little girls running the gauntlet of hatred as they tried to go to school- some of them for the first time - must reflect on the wisdom of segregation based on faith. We cannot ignore that problem.

My third point relates to the Cantle report, which makes it clear that separate education leads to lack of cohesion and integration. The report notes:

"The development of more faith-based schools may, in some cases, lead to an increase in mono-cultural schools."

Of course it will. It says that it will be a big problem for the future, so it is irresponsible to promote the idea any more. Faith schools are a big mistake.

I recognise that I am in a minority in the House in saying that I want secular education in all our schools. Obviously, we will not get it with the new clauses and the amendment. Faith schools are about division and I have had personal experience of that. They are also about selection. They encourage parents to lie about attendance at church. Only 8 per cent of adults attend church in this country. People who do not agree with faith schools and do not want any more of them often ask me why the rest of us should pay to indoctrinate children in only one religion when our churches are empty. They ask why the churches are not doing their job. If their religion is so good, let them fill the churches.

I will support the new clause in the Lobby. I urge the Prime Minister to listen to this debate and to those of us who have spoken against having more faith schools. Let him, for once, listen to us, especially after 11 September. The last thing that we want is more division and segregation in society.

Hasmin Alibhai-Brown, a well respected journalist and Muslim, recently wrote these words of wisdom. She said that many people think that

"traditional multiculturalists believe that equity means that funding Church of England, Roman Catholic and Jewish schools must also mean state funding for Muslim and Hindu schools where there is sufficient demand...we need a different approach-to fairly represent the society we live in without breaking it up further into minority groups aided and abetted by the State. "

She is completely against state funding for religious schools, saying

"there should not be state funding for state schools of any religion."

I totally agree.

In my life, I have gone on a journey through various points of view, some based on my early experiences, but in the past 10 years I have come to believe that in 2002 we must try to work towards a secular state education system that is bothered about education and not indoctrination.