Caroline Spelman MP highlights the role of church schools in promoting excellence and social integration

On 8th November 2016 the House of Commons debated a motion from Labour’s Lisa Nandy MP “That this House notes recent proposals by the Government to expand the role of grammar and faith schools; and calls on the Government to conduct a full assessment of the evidence relating to the effect of grammar schools and faith schools on children’s learning.” The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Rt Hon Dame Caroline Spelman MP, spoke in the debate about the important role of Church of England schools:

Caroline SpelmanThe Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): I rise to speak on behalf of the Church of England in this important Back-Bench debate. The Church has a long and successful history of educating children in our country. It provided education before the state did. In fact, it is still the largest provider of education besides the state. It has 4,700 schools, most of which are primaries, with 200 secondary schools. Some 84% of its primary and 74% of its secondary schools are good or outstanding.

Many of the remaining schools are in remote rural locations, although I should point out that there are some excellent rural schools. The challenge of trying to sustain a class for each year group in a remote rural area and the difficulty in attracting teachers there make it hard to achieve higher standards in those schools. The Church is committed to raising standards, and with the help of digital means and remote learning methods, it is possible to bring the best teaching to such schools. The Church has fought to sustain these schools for the sake of social cohesion, where other institutions might by now have given up. I am sure that hon. Members with rural constituencies will immediately identify with the importance of the village school, which, with the parish church, may be the only institutional hub for such communities. That underlines the importance of keeping them sustainable.

I want to scotch the myth that Church schools are forces for segregation. That could not be further from the truth. In fact, most Church schools do not practise selection at all. Where faith-based criteria apply, they do so only when schools are over-subscribed and alternative educational provision exists, so such selection applies in only a very small proportion of Church schools. The composition of Church schools reflects the social geography of their area. Some Church schools, such as those in Bradford and Blackburn, are 95% Muslim. Conversely, schools in rural areas are inevitably more likely to be less diverse, mostly as a function of patterns of migration to and settlement in urban areas. Professor Cantle, for whom I have the highest regard, observed in his recent report on ethnic segregation that inner-city people are more likely than ever before to live near those of a different ethnicity. The Church of England’s policy of being open to all therefore promotes better cohesion and understanding.

The Church sees its role as one of nurturing people to live life to the full, educating young people for hope and aspiration, and to embody an ethos of living well together. We must be getting something right because, after all, Church schools are sought after by people of all faiths and none. In September, the Archbishop of Canterbury said something important about the times we live in:

“Religiously motivated violence and extremism are…presenting a challenge…not seen for a couple of hundred years. In such…circumstances, religious literacy is key: understanding the motivations and ideas of those who commit violence is essential, even if we, rightly, condemn it.”

I want to emphasise that the Church of England is firmly committed to delivering outstanding education and promoting academic excellence, and it is more committed than ever to training up creative and innovative school leaders, but it has not yet expressed a formal position on grammar schools. In the interests of transparency, I should declare that I am the product of a grammar school. I will be eternally grateful to the Hertfordshire and Essex girls’ grammar school for the excellent start in life that it gave me. At that time, however, there was a binary choice between grammar and secondary modern schools, whereas there is now a much wider range of secondary education.

I could not agree more with what the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), said about the potential of university technical colleges. I listened carefully to the speech of the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), who is not in the Chamber at the moment, including her comparison with other comparable advanced industrial economies with selective education. By observation, having been a German language school exchange pupil, I might say that technical education was already a much stronger alternative in that country, which promoted selective education, when I first did a school exchange at the age of 14. We now have university technical colleges in this country.

On the council estate in my constituency—its secondary schools, none of which had previously managed to get more than 20% of their pupils up to five GCSEs, are now all academies—attainment levels have risen to nearly 50%. We very much welcome the fact that we are to have a new academy for engineering. That provides an answer to the Select Committee Chairman’s question about what we are educating today’s children for. With the digital economy upon us, we need to rethink which skills and aptitudes will be needed by the next generation of the workforce if they are not to be digitally disadvantaged.

In an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, I touched briefly on pupils who cross borders from one education authority area to another. In the Metropolitan Borough of Solihull, we educate more than 8,000 pupils from across our borders with Birmingham and Coventry. That is a force for cohesion and integration. I firmly believe, however, that the money should follow the pupil, as it is only fair that education authorities providing an excellent education to pupils from other education authority areas see the resources that would have been allocated to that pupil had they been educated in their own area.

Returning to faith schools, parents of all faiths and none choose Church of England schools because of the broad and rounded education they provide. I want to finish with a little anecdote that perfectly illustrates the role that Church schools can play in addressing some of the difficult challenges of social cohesion and integration in our society. Every year, I hold a carols-and-mince-pies evening in my home. Last year, I was asked by a young lady of Asian origin doing work experience whether she could bring her mother and sister. I accepted with alacrity, not least because the sister was a professional cook, and hers were the best mince pies by far. That evening, as we stood together around the piano, singing carols, I saw them singing at the top of their voices, and I was really impressed. They turned to me and said, “What did you expect, Caroline? We went to Church schools and learned all these carols by heart.”

That is a powerful illustration of the openness of Church schools, and the important contribution that they make to some of the most serious challenges we face. I urge colleagues to remember that, and the secular world to remember that faith schools offer a great deal to people of all faiths and none. Out of courtesy to the House, and because I have now revealed that I enjoy singing, I must inform you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I cannot be here for the winding-up speeches, as the Parliament choir has its dress rehearsal for its autumn concert at 4 o’clock.


Extracts from other speeches:

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): One way in which funds can be spent appropriately is through faith schools. In Leicester we have St Paul’s Catholic School, the Hindu Krishna Avanti Primary School, the Sikh Falcons Primary School and the Madani Muslim schools. It is important that if parents wish to send their children to faith schools, they are allowed to do so, but such schools should be vehicles for integrating communities; they should not be exclusive, but open.

Lisa Nandy: I agree with my right hon. Friend’s point about integrating communities. This highlights the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman). There are many types of school that provide a good education, and provided that they are inclusive, have a broad curriculum and work hard to serve the needs of their community, they do very well by their children.

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): My hon. Friend [Neil Carmichael] is making a powerful speech. Does he agree that the third issue should also be about social cohesion? Does he share my concern about some of the proposals on faith schools? I recognise the contribution that they make, but can he think of a single reason why the child of an atheist parent like myself should be excluded from a school because of their parents’ lack of faith? Does he also share my concern that 100% selection by faith risks driving communities into further segregation and does nothing to improve social cohesion?

Neil Carmichael: I thank my hon. Friend for that instructive intervention. It goes off the issue of grammar schools, which I was hoping to talk about, but she is right that the issue of faith schools should be addressed. I say two things. First, we must have an inclusive society; we cannot parcel people up in that sector and say, “That’s you—off you go!” That is not acceptable. We must make sure that our faith schools do not do that and instead are all embracing. It is the outward-looking school, of whatever faith, that will do a good job.

Keith Vaz: I have mentioned successful faith schools in Leicester. My first school was a convent school in Aden, Yemen, and atheist children went to that school. The point made by the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) is right: although such schools are faith-based, they need to be able to take people from other faiths. Many members of the Hindu faith attend Catholic St Paul’s school in Leicester. Faith schools can be a powerful force for integration as well as providing faith for those of a certain religion.

Neil Carmichael: One day I will have to get to Leicester, given that it had such a good football team, and all the experiences that the right hon. Gentleman has highlighted. It is important for people of faith and atheists to learn about each other. That has to be the guiding light when we are talking about such schools and communities.

The Education Committee held an evidence-check session this morning because we believe in evidence, which must be the cornerstone of policy making. Of course, values matter too.

Mike Kane (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab) [extract]: The freedom to practise faith and to educate children in a faith—or not—of our choosing is one of the cornerstones of the free and diverse democratic society we enjoy. The right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) made a strong defence of faith and faith schools in our system. The grammar school row has been a distraction from the lifting of the 50% cap rule on faith schools. This policy was brought in by the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove). One of his first acts as Education Secretary was to require all new schools of a religious character to be open to admitting 50% of pupils from outside their faith. The measure was aimed primarily at Muslim schools, but paradoxically it had almost no impact on them. The right hon. Lady alluded to this point when she talked about the situation in Blackburn. This measure did, however, prevent the expansion of other faith schools, which has led to real shortages and a lack of choice in many parts of the country. The policy has been an abject failure. Governments must consider more sensible approaches to integration, such as establishing effective twinning arrangements with schools of different faiths, considering setting up mixed-faith academy trusts, and considering that a member of a different faith or none can sit on a governing body.

Dame Caroline Spelman: The point I was trying to make is that social geography is what determines the profile of the pupils drawn from the catchment, and there are fundamental reasons in society why particular groups tend to live in particular areas, often not unrelated to the cost of housing. But the Church of England’s open-to-all policy should mean that pupils of all faiths and none have access to the school that is nearest to them.

Mike Kane: Faith schools also generally draw from a wider catchment area, which means they often draw pupils from a poorer subsection of society. Over 80% of them are doing well or outstandingly well, so it is no wonder that parents currently want to send their children to them. I take on board the right hon. Lady’s point, however.

The Minister for School Standards (Mr Nick Gibb) [extract]: …Faith schools make up around a third of all mainstream schools in England. As the Second Church Estates Commissioner, my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) said, the Church has 4,700 schools. Faith schools are more likely than non-faith schools to be rated as good or outstanding, with 89% of primary faith schools reaching those standards. The current rule, designed to promote inclusion by limiting the proportion of pupils that oversubscribed new faith free schools can admit on the basis of faith, has not worked to combat segregation. Worse, this burdensome regulation has become a barrier to some faith groups opening new schools. Most markedly, it is preventing the establishment of new Catholic schools. The absurdity of the current rule is exposed when we consider that Catholic schools are more ethnically diverse than other faith schools, more likely to be located in deprived communities and more likely to be rated good or outstanding by Ofsted. There is growing demand for them in this country. If this restrictive regulation is removed, the Catholic Church hopes to open up to 45 new schools by 2020, and the Church of England has said that it hopes to open up to 100 new schools in a similar timeframe.

With this greater freedom will come strict rules to ensure that every new faith school operates in a way that supports British values. We will also explore ways to use the school system to promote greater integration within our society, such as requiring new faith schools to establish twinning arrangements with other schools not of their faith….


…We want all those areas to achieve even higher levels of EBacc attainment, but the lowest-performing areas are our concern. Establishing new selective schools and new high-performing faith schools will help drive up academic standards in those areas. It cannot be right that in 65 local districts fewer than half of the secondary school age pupils are within 3 miles of a good secondary school. It cannot be right that there are still 1.25 million pupils in schools that are simply not good enough.

The motion asks this House to note the Government’s proposals to expand the role of grammar and faith schools, as set out in our consultation document “Schools that work for everyone” and

“calls on the Government to conduct a full assessment of the evidence”.

That is what we have done, that is what we continue to do and that is what we will do as we consider all the responses to the consultation document when that consultation closes on 12 December. Hon. Members should be under no misapprehension: this Government are determined to ensure that every child has the quality of education that helps them fulfil their potential. That is the drive behind all our reforms over the past six years, and it is the objective behind the proposals to end the ban on new grammar schools and the restrictions on new good school places in our faith schools.

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