Education: the academies bill

The Academies Bill has finished its rapid passage through the Lords and has moved to the House of Commons. Crucial secularist amendments in the Lords — such as those made by Baroness Massey of Darwin — were given short shrift.

The prelates from the Bishops Bench, on the other hand, have much to celebrate and had little need to table their usual self-interested amendments. The Bill requires faith schools converting to Academies to retain their religious character, but there is no matching provision in the Bill to prevent community schools adopting a religious character when converting. This is likely to lead to a greater proportion of faith school places, despite a decline in religious belief, putting non-religious people at an even greater disadvantage and in some cases being deleterious to cohesion. Furthermore, religious schools converting to academies will be able to retain their existing admissions arrangements even if these result in every one of the pupils being selected on the grounds of religion (or purported religion), whereas until now academies with a religious designation have had their religious selection capped at 50%.

Efforts were made by secularists in the Commons to mitigate some of the religious privileges that will flow from the Bill. Prominent among the challengers was Dr Julian Huppert, the new (LibDem) MP for Cambridge. He made several interventions and put down probing amendments addressing the likely increase in the proportion of religious places. Dr Huppert’s fair and sensible proposals did not please Dr John Pugh, who described himself as speaking for the “non-secular” wing of the LibDems, nor, more importantly, did they find favour with schools Minister Nick Gibb. In responding to Dr Huppert, Mr Gibb did however make a commitment that: “entirely new faith academies — by that I mean those that do not have a predecessor maintained school with a religious character — will be required to offer 50% of places to pupils from the community with no test of faith”.

The Government’s treatment of religious schools in the Academies Bill and its rejection of any secularist amendments whatsoever confirm fears that this Government is even less secular-friendly than its predecessor. The Bill will revolutionise the education system in this country, particularly in its relegation of the role of local authorities. The Government’s determination to push through the Bill with indecent haste has understandably led to criticism that a Bill making such sweeping and far-reaching changes requires much more examination.

Tony Akkermans

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