According to reports in today’s newspapers (including The Telegraph) former Tory Chairman Kenneth Baker is determined to press ahead with his plans for new faith schools to be obliged to take up to 25% of pupils from outside their designated religion. Only on Thursday did Education Secretary Alan Johnson perform, according to Lord Baker, the "fastest U-turn in British political history" by abandoning similar plans. Lord Baker has warned of educational ghettoes if something like his plans are not introduced.
The Tory frontbench has largely been absent from the battlefield during this debate. At one stage there was some talk of Tories resisting the initial Labour plans for 25% quotas but allowing local authorities to decide quota arrangements with faith schools. Empowering local authorities in such a way would have producing very inhospitable environments for many faith schools. Talking to today’s Telegraph Nick Gibb MP, shadow schools minister, distanced the party leadership from the Baker plan, saying:
"It has always been our view that these issues are matters for schools to decide. It is a matter of social responsibility rather than a matter for central Government and legislation."
The Gibb view is much closer to a truly liberal worldview than that set out by Lord Baker. The attack on all church schools hides, of course, the real worry – Muslim schools that live outside of British social norms. As Vincent Nichols, Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, writes in this week’s Tablet newspaper, the assumption behind the quota idea is that Catholic schools are socially divisive when the evidence suggests otherwise. In an article for today’s Times, Matthew Parris has to admit that faith schools usually deliver better academic results.
The Archbishop (who also wrote an influential article earlier this week in The Telegraph) is worried that Britain might be drifting towards a new, less tolerant form of secularism. His Tablet article quotes Ben Rogers of the Institute for Public Policy Research:
"As reported last weekend, Ben Rogers, associate director of the Institute for Public Policy Research wrote: "Very crudely, there are two sorts of secularism. One attempts to marginalise religious belief – holding that it is all just a private matter, shouldn’t be discussed in the public realm and should be kept strictly out of politics and education. That breeds resentment. The other sort allows public expression of religious identities, while publicly affirming the supremacy of basic liberal democratic values like freedom of expression, equality of women and human rights … that I am completely in favour of." This second style of "secularism" is the one to which we are accustomed. Partnerships between the Government and the Churches are long-established and fruitful. They have given rise to excellent schools and a long tradition of voluntary work, motivated by faith. I see no reason why this model should not be continued and extended to new partners. This is no time to lose nerve. The disciplines of such partnerships are real. Through them Churches and faith communities must be open to public accountability and inspection; the Government must respect the integrity of religious faith and not seek to manipulate it. These are the foundations of partnerships. Negotiation is the way forward."