Page 3, 15th February 2002

15th February 2002
Page 3
Page 3, 15th February 2002 — MPs see off selection threat to faith schools

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MPs see off selection threat to faith schools


THE. COMBINED -might of Labour backbench rebellion and a Liberal Democrat threeline whip failed to halt the Government's Education Bill as it passed through its third reading in the House of Commons last week. Controversial amendments, proposed by Labour MP Frank Dobson and Phil Willis. the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, to limit the selection rights of religious schools were defeated by a margin of 405 votes to 87. Voting in favour of the amendment was split: 45 Labour, 37 Liberal Democrat. 3 Plaid Cymru, one Independent and one Ulster Unionist. But the row now threatens to translate into votes after a leading member of the Church hierarchy warned politicians against "offending Catholic voters". A spokesman for Archbishop Vincent Nichols, chairman of the Catholic Education Service in England and Wales, said he was "delighted" that the amendments were defeated. But he urged Catholics to be vigilant because the backbenchers would "try again". He said: "This had very little to do with education and a lot to do with people who are anti-religious. "Some MPs object to a religious education in principle. The amendments would have severely undermined Catholic schools and will offend every Catholic voter in England and Wales. "With local elections coming up, candidates in marginal seats should be wary of offending Catholic voters." The amendments would have forced Catholic schools to offer a quarter of their places to non-Catholic pupils and would have prevented schools from stipulating that religious observance was a requirement of entry. Government ministers joined with Conservative supporters to defeat the backbench and Liberal alliance. Secretary of State for Education, Estelle Morris, reaffirmed the government's commitment to faith schools and condemned the amendments for proposing "division and selection" where previously it had not existed. She told MPs she respected the right of faith schools to maintain their ethos and she commended their "shared values, a sense of purpose and a sense of mission". But she indicated that she had "little personal interest" in promoting their expansion. That responsibility would fall to parents and local education committees, she said. Catholic MP Paul Goggins reminded the House of the academic success of religious schools which dominated Ofsted's recent top 250. Mr Dobson's contention that faith schools were divisive was an opinion not tested with the electorate, he said. His comments were echoed by the shadow education secretary, Damian Green, who attacked the proposals as "hugely damaging". He said: "I was educated at a Catholic primal), school in Wales and being educated at a Catholic school did not cut anyone off from the wider community." He made the "simple pragmatic observation that the church school is the good school". He told MPs that, historically, church schools in Britain were set up to provide an education for an underprivileged class suffering racism themselves. And he raised the "ridiculous possibility" that the amendments would allow failing schools to be 100 per cent faith-based, but for oversubscribed schools "would destroy the very ethos that had made them successful". He said: "Parents know better than politicians what is good for their children. This is arrogance of the worst kind." The controversy is set to continue. In a newspaper article last Friday. Mr Dobson urged Labour MPs to "share my concerns and change the law to promote inclusion".

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