Ministers place their faith in Education Bill

3rd November 2006 at 00:00
When Lord Baker of Dorking - who, as Kenneth Baker, designed the Thatcherite school reforms - appears as an apostle of progress and enlightenment, we clearly live in strange times. Lord Baker is trying to restore an amendment to the Education Bill, which the Government abruptly dropped. It would compel a new faith school to reserve a quarter of its places for children of a different faith.

By the time you read this, you should know whether Lord Baker has been successful. This has been one of those autumn dramas where legislation is rushed through in time for the end of the parliamentary session which, confusingly, is almost immediately succeeded by the next. Quite why, when ministers and MPs have all year to consider a bill, it should end with this frenetic rush, I have never understood. But that is how it is.

This year's fuss over the Education Bill is particularly odd because hardly anybody admits what it is really about. The strongest argument for making faith schools more open is that it would stop the schools monopolising children from supportive, stable homes. Such homes are often, but not always, middle-class in the socio-economic sense; the important thing, from a school's point of view, is that the children are likely to behave, and the parents to back teachers in disciplining them. In its new admissions code, the Government has commendably forbidden schools from identifying such families through interviews and so on. But church attendance is a good proxy for the qualities schools prefer.

However, that was not the chief reason why ministers introduced the amendment, which would not, in any case, have affected existing faith schools. Their concern was about Muslims. They are increasingly worried about the growth of private Muslim schools, some financed from Saudi Arabia.

They fear such schools becoming breeding grounds for terrorists, inflammatory preachers and veiled women. Ministers would rather get Muslim schools under state control, whereby legal powers can be used directly and more speedily. Moreover, they calculate, probably rightly, that the vast majority of Muslim parents would support schools that were in most respects the same as other English schools, but provided Muslim worship and required relatively modest standards of dress.

It is thought more than 100 Muslim schools might come into the state system. But ministers do not want them to become ghetto schools, or at least to be accused of creating such schools. That is why they proposed quotas for children of other faiths or none. I find it improbable that many Anglo-Saxon parents - or, indeed, Hindu or Sikh parents - would have taken advantage, but ministers were between the proverbial devil and deep blue sea and saw this as the best available solution.

The Roman Catholics killed the amendment. They apparently feared it might eventually be extended to existing schools. As a minority religion, fear of dwindling church attendance is in the Catholic church's DNA. Unlike the Church of England, it does not have a lucrative sideline in marrying, baptising and burying the secular masses. The prospect of a school place keeps many Catholics in the communion, filling the collection boxes on Sundays.

The Catholics organised a letter-writing campaign to Labour MPs. They are good at that kind of thing, being more cohesive than most other religious groups in England, including Muslims. Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, met a delegation of 39 backbenchers and duly backed down.

That is the best explanation I can find for this curious sequence of events.

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