The Education Bill has had its Second Reading in the House of Lords, and Peers highlighted a range of concerns about how the Bill as currently constituted could allow schools, and notably faith schools, to operate in narrow and exclusive ways.
Baroness Flather, a cross bench Peer, highlighted her worry that the greater autonomy of Academy schools with a religious character, and other changes proposed by the Bill, could lead to greater social division.
She declared: "When you think about the Bill more clearly, you can see very divisive aspects hidden in it which will emerge as time goes on and lead to division rather than cohesion ... if the autonomy has a religious basis, you could discriminate against people who are not of your faith in admissions, employment and the appointment of governors ... [faith schools] do nothing but segregate children. Do we really want segregation in this country? ... I cannot understand why Ofsted's power to look for community cohesion in schools has been taken away. It is the most important aspect of this issue. A school is not just for itself but is also about providing for the whole community, not only for the governors or the pupils. Ofsted's power to look for community cohesion is fundamental and should never be removed."
The Labour Peer Baroness Massey of Darwen highlighted her fear that the Bill would lead to schools continuing to operate in narrow ways. She noted that "[t]he new centralising power of the Secretary of State could permit [more] religious discrimination in employment in academies that convert from being voluntary controlled schools. Prospective pupils can be discriminated against on the basis of their parents’ religion. Staff can be discriminated against on the grounds of religion or belief. In 2008, the schools adjudicator found that 3,500 faith schools were in breach of the admissions code. There will be no repeal of the duty on schools to participate in a daily act of worship which is 'broadly Christian' in character, despite the new freedoms proposed for schools’."
Lord Parekh also noted that "... there is almost complete silence on race equality issues in the Bill, the White Paper and ministerial speeches. Ofsted has normally reported on the ethos of the schools and what they do to encourage better relations between different ethnic groups. Apart from a passing reference to that, there is very little about it in the Bill."
Meanwhile, the Lord Whitty urged Peers to learn lessons from the heavily segregated school system in Northern Ireland. He commented: "In terms of educational attainment, the schools of Northern Ireland are actually pretty good; in terms of their contribution to community cohesion, they are absolutely a cause of many of the problems of the last 100 years. Some of the roads we are going down in terms of the autonomy of schools' decisions on admission policy are moving in that direction. It may not be dramatic but it is the logical conclusion."
During the debate, the Conservative Peer and former Secretary of State for Education, Lord Baker, asked the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd John Pritchard, who is the Chair of the Church of England's Board of Education and Episcopal spokesperson on education in the Lords, if the Church of England had followed up on a commitment it gave to the Government in 2007 that its schools would admit at least 25 per cent of pupils that were not of a Church of England faith background.
The Lord Bishop of Oxford admitted that "... in our admissions advice we give no particular figures. That 25 per cent is on the books but it is not in the current advice."
The Chair of the Accord Coalition, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain MBE, said "the Second reading debate showed that the Accord Coalition’s concerns about the Education Bill are widely shared on the Government, cross and also opposition benches. We now urge the Government to take heed of these concerns and retain Ofsted’s duty to inspect how school’s promote community cohesion, local authority’s duty to establish an admissions forum, and the freedom of the school adjudicator to changes any aspect of a school’s admission arrangements."
He continued: "The Church of England’s commitment in 2007 that its schools would select at least 25 per cent of their pupils from other religion and belief backgrounds was much trumpeted at the time. However, The Lord Bishop of Oxford’s response that the Church of England is not making sure or even actively recommending that its schools adhere to this undertaking only reinforce how vital is the need for legislative change to ensure that faith schools are brought into line so they do not discriminate and provide a broad education about the beliefs of others, as well as how important it is that existing statutory safeguards are retained."
Ekklesia is a a founding member of the Accord Coalition, which brings together people from religious and non-religious backgrounds to work for the reform of faith schools to ensure that they are open, fair, inclusive and accountable in all aspects of their operation.