The government's education Green Paper has been around for a few weeks, and we have had time to reflect on its content. Much of the comment has rightly railed against the proposed return to selection, but far less has been written on the proposed expansion of faith schools.
The government wants to replace the "cap" for faith-based free schools – of only 50 per cent of oversubscribed places being admitted on a faith basis – with a "series of strengthened safeguards to promote inclusivity, thereby allowing free schools with up to 100 per cent faith-based admissions".
It is clear from the consultation paper that this is a measure largely designed to suit Roman Catholic schools which are unwilling to dilute their faith-based admissions and have therefore steered clear of free schools.
I know, to my cost, from 10 years ago when I was a Labour schools minister, how touchy the Catholic Church is on this subject. When the then Tory education spokesman, David Cameron, suggested that the Churches should weaken their faith admissions from 50 per cent, it was well received. As ministers, we spotted the political opening and proposed something similar as a government. The following Sunday, priests preached against us from the pulpit and the feedback from Labour MP's the following week was not pretty. We performed a delicate and rapid three-point turn.
This illustrates what a sensitive political issue faith schools are. I've always taken a pretty pragmatic view.
I am an atheist who passionately supports freedom of worship, but who would like a secular state, including in schools. The "Trojan Horse school" episode illustrates some of the issues, because if we allow one faith to have schools we must allow all to do so – as long as they abide by the statutory curriculum.
But we are where we are, and secularising – ie, nationalising – them all would be at huge cost as we would have to buy the building and land of the 7,000 faith schools in the country. The educational return on that huge cost would be next to nothing.
I have also visited some wonderful faith schools, such as the Guru Nanak Sikh Academy in Hillingdon, west London. As a parent, my preference was for non-faith schools but on two occasions the local school was an Anglican one, and we opted for proximity over our lack of religious conviction.
Like with grammar schools, I have therefore always concluded it is politically too difficult to constrain faith schools and instead we should just constrain any further expansion.
The consequences of expanding faith schools
What then could be the consequences of this new expansion of faith schools?
The government believes this policy would expand the choice of good school places for parents. It believes it can safeguard against the obvious fears of ghettoisation by faith.
Let's look at the safeguards. New faith free schools would have to:
- Prove that there is a demand for school places from parents of other faiths;
- Establish twinning arrangements with other schools not of their faith;
- Consider setting up mixed-faith multi-academy trusts;
- Consider placing an independent member of a different faith on the governing body.
I immediately discount anything that starts "consider" as that has no weight at all. Assuming this applies to all faiths, it may also create problems with less inclusive, more evangelical denominations making "non-believers" feel able to join the governing body. The first requirement is there in case the school is undersubscribed, but this whole proposal is about oversubscription and therefore that can also be discounted.
Finally, there is the notion of twinning. Done well, this could promote inclusion, but in reality it could easily be just a token measure that does little more than underscore difference, rather than create common bond.
In the absence of strong safeguards on inclusion, we are left with the divisive ghettoisation of education.
This year has been marked by a public debate that has too often strayed into foreigner-bashing. We have also seen a rise in racial and religiously motivated attacks. We are an increasingly divided nation. The last thing we should be doing right now is to exacerbate that by dividing our children. Number 10 needs to discover the political art of the three-point turn.
Lord Knight is chief education adviser to TES Global, parent company of TES, and a former Labour schools minister. He tweets as @jimpknight