Peers debate the place of ‘faith’ schools in society

21 July, 2011

Yesterday saw the eighth day of the Committee Stage of the Education Bill in the House of Lords. Topics debated included the new presumption that all new English schools, including ‘faith’ schools, will be less accountable Free Schools or Academies, as opposed to state-maintained schools; and the removal of the duty for Ofsted to inspect specifically on community cohesion.

The Education Bill introduces a new requirement that, if a local authority wants to set up a new school, it must first of all invite third parties to bid to open a Free School. All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG) Secretary Baroness Massey of Darwen tabled an amendment to remove this . Baroness Massey argued, ‘This new requirement is likely to aid the proliferation of state-funded religious academies and free schools, among others. Academies and free schools are particularly attractive, not only to mainstream religious groups but to minority groups. This is because they are largely unregulated and there is nothing to stop groups with extreme agendas from applying to run these state-funded schools. Are we really not concerned about this? Academies and Free Schools with a religious character can discriminate against students and parents in their missions and against staff on the grounds of religion or belief. They can also opt out of the national curriculum and choose not to provide even the most basic sex education biology or to teach creationism.

The Education Bill also proposes to stop Ofsted from inspecting schools specifically on their contribution to promoting community cohesion, a requirement first introduced following the 2001 race riots in Oldham and elsewhere. APPHG Vice Chair Baroness Flather tabled an amendment to reverse this. Baroness Flather said, ‘I have been sent a letter by the Minister which says that inspections will be related to schools’ “core responsibilities”. Why community cohesion should not be part of the core responsibilities is again not clear to me. Our country now encompasses many different types of people, cultures and development. If ever there was a need for community cohesion, it is now and for the future. To withdraw that seems to be spitting in the wind. We have schools which are different; we have faith schools. We need to know whether faith schools in particular are encouraging community cohesion. One can be faithful to one’s faith, but community cohesion is for all of us, of whatever faith we are. I would have thought that that was an integral and important part of any faith school.

This amendment was even supported by the Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, who said, ‘It is interesting that the chief inspector has to report on safety but not on stronger communities as the legislation stands. The way in which schools contribute community cohesion over the whole of a city such as Leeds seems to me to be crucial to the way in which the city develops.’ The Government opposed the amendment, arguing that the inspection process should be simpler, and that schools themselves are still under a duty to promote community cohesion.

BHA Faith Schools Campaigns Officer Richy Thompson commented, ‘It is amazing to see the Government, who have talked about the importance of community cohesion, ending this duty on Ofsted. And it is also disappointing that ‘faith’ schools will continue to open at alarming rates, but in the future be less accountable than ever before. Amendments at Committee Stage are not voted upon, however it is hoped that both these areas will be readdressed at the Report Stage that will follow in the autumn.’


For further comment or information, please contact Richy Thompson on 020 7462 4993.

Read the BHA’s briefing for the Lords Committee Stage of the Education Bill.

Read the House of Lords debate, Education Bill Committee (Day 8).

Read more about the BHA’s campaigns work on ‘faith’ schools.

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of ethically concerned, non-religious people in the UK. It is the largest organisation in the UK campaigning for an end to religious privilege and to discrimination based on religion or belief, and for a secular state.