Schools Bill: Bishop of Bristol speaks on amendments in committee

On 13th June the House of Lords continued to debate the Government’s Schools Bill in committee. The Bishop of Bristol spoke in the debate, on behalf of the Bishop of Durham:

The Lord Bishop of Bristol: My Lords, I speak in place of my colleague, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, who unfortunately cannot be present today. I declare his interest as chair of the National Society.

I rise briefly to welcome Amendment 40 in this group, which offers real clarity on the issue. We welcome the recognition it shows that the religious body must be involved in giving an interim trustee notice to the proprietor of an academy school with a religious character. We are grateful for the Minister’s continued work on this and hope this might provide a little encouragement at this point.

Baroness Barran (Con): As the noble Lord heard me say, this was agreed through the usual channels where we could have discussed that, had serious concerns been raised. The point has been heard loud and clear but I wanted to give the context. A number of points have been raised which I will aim to address, but I start by thanking the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol for her support on Amendment 40.


The Lord Bishop of Bristol: My Lords, I rise to speak in place of my noble colleague the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, who cannot be here today, to his Amendment 33 and to declare his interest as chair of the National Society, and also to speak against Amendment 34A.

Amendment 33 to Clause 3

“ensures that the religious designation of church schools could not be removed by secondary legislation.”

The Church of England provides 4,700 schools, so we take seriously our vision that we are deeply Christian and serving the common good. This vision is for the whole community but is built on the firm foundation of the character of our church schools, which is central to that vision. I again pay tribute to the Minister for the way that her department has valued this character and worked with us to ensure that it is safeguarded in this legislation. We believe that this amendment strengthens that intention and provides a further safeguard.

A necessarily broad approach is undertaken in this Bill in applying legislation for maintained schools to academies through amending regulations. While we can appreciate the need to do this, it is unusual to see primary legislation which enables power to be applied or disapplied by secondary legislation. This short amendment would ensure that the “religious designation” of

“schools could not be removed by secondary legislation.”

I appreciate that Clause 3(3) provides for the protection of the status of an academy “with a religious character” by prohibiting regulations for

“arrangements for collective worship and the provision of religious education”.

However, these are just some of the outworkings of the religious character of a school, and we believe that this additional safeguard is necessary to safeguard the very designation of its character. It would be inappropriate to allow secondary legislation to have such impact on the designation of character of so many schools. This is a significant issue for our schools, and I will be listening with interest to any assurances on this topic that the Minister can provide.

I want also to speak against Amendment 34A. While I support this amendment in principle, as drafted it does not include stakeholders in the list of relevant bodies for consultation. Church schools are not included, but they represent a third of the sector and therefore should be included in the consultation.

Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Baroness Wilcox of Newport (Lab): We see that this group concerns the Secretary of State’s power to make regulations for any education legislation to apply to academies. Thus, some may see this as redressing the balance between academies and the maintained sector.

I am speaking to our amendments, beginning with Amendment 34A, which prevents the Secretary of State using these

“powers to apply or disapply education legislation”

until they have been consulted on with

“headteachers, governors, academies, and pupils”.

I will pick up the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol’s point, which could be a useful addition, so I thank her for raising it with us. Of course, consultation is the key to good governance and, if there is a sense of imposition from a distant central source, then legislation will never be as good as it could be or implemented in the way it should be.

Furthermore, our Amendment 35 removes the Secretary of State’s power to apply legislation

“relating to further education colleges to academies”

by removing “further education” from “the definition of ‘educational institution’”. As it stands, these clauses signal a further power grab, empowering a future Secretary of State unilaterally to remove religious designation from a faith school, as noted in the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham’s Amendment 33.

Baroness Barran (Con): Turning to Amendment 33, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol for moving this amendment on behalf of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. As she knows, the Government are a strong supporter of schools provided by the Church of England and by other religious bodies. We believe strongly that they bring great richness and diversity to our school system. That is why we have included measures in the Bill to ensure that statutory protections are in place for academy schools with a religious character, to ensure that their unique powers and freedoms are appropriately safeguarded. The power to designate a school with a religious character is already enshrined in existing legislation. I give a clear commitment that the Government will not use the powers in Clause 3 to affect the designation of academy schools with a religious character.

I appreciate that the right revered Prelate’s concern extends beyond the intentions and commitments of this Government. However, we are committed to ensuring that schools with a religious character remain an important element of our school system in the future. I offer my reassurance that we will give further consideration to ensuring that the powers in Clause 3 could not be used to undermine this.

The Lord Bishop of Bristol: My Lords, I shall speak against Amendment 35A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Knight. The amendment—for obvious reasons, given what he has said today—does not account for voluntary, aided and foundation schools. This is not a recent provision; they have always acted as their own admission authorities as maintained schools. As set out in the School Admissions Code, academies with a religious designation must also consult the diocese and the board of education and have regard to the advice of the diocese.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Baroness Penn (Con): I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Knight, and others that close working between trusts and local authorities on these duties is essential. Through the proposed powers in Clause 1, we will create a new collaborative standard, which will require trusts to collaborate with local authorities and encourage better co-operation. Amendments 160 and 162, however, propose making the local authority the admission authority for all schools. This would prevent school leaders making decisions that are most appropriate to their community, including, as we heard from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol, for voluntary aided schools, which have had long-standing control over their own admissions.

Lord Knight of Weymouth (Lab): I say to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol that it was not my intention at all to interfere with the admission arrangements for voluntary aided schools. I am scarred from my time as Schools Minister from a moment when we heard the shadow Secretary of State, a young David Cameron, say that we might want to loosen up admission arrangements for faith schools. So the then Secretary of State, Alan Johnson, and myself announced that maybe that was a good idea and we then had priests preaching against us on Sunday and MPs in the Division Lobbies beating us up, saying, “We are going to lose the next election if you go ahead with this” and we performed a very delicate U-turn. I really did not want to go anywhere near interfering with the admission arrangements of voluntary aided schools.

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