Sunday, 8 March 2009

Harrogate Conference: Faith Schools

As part of the debate on our proposals for education, there was much discussion on the issue of faith schools. This is an issue which excites a lot of passion among liberals, with people of faith lining up against committed secularists and plenty of positions in between.

The main proposal was a compromise one which sought to allow people the freedom to choose state-funded faith schools but which sought to abolish schools being able to select pupils on the basis of their faith.

The first amendment was to try and delete all reference to faith schools from the motion, in other words to allow the existing situation with regard to faith schools to continue, with all the potential unfairnesses that implies.

The second amendment sought the abolition of all state-funded faith schools within five years, probably an unrealistic option given that a third of schools in the UK are faith schools. As several speakers pointed out, if you were designing an education system from scratch then it's questionable to what extent you'd have a system of faith schools, but that's not where we are and you can't just wave a magic wand and make the faith schools vanish.

The third alternative was another compromise which sought to make sure that faith schools demonstrate their inclusivity or face the loss of state funding if they don't, with the decision taken at a local level.

Despite, or perhaps because of, having gone to a faith primary school, I'm not a big fan of faith schools. I think in general separating kids out by their religion is not a great idea. Nevertheless, if people do want to choose the option of getting their kids educated at a faith school, that's a choice they should have.

In the end, following an excellent summation speech by Tim Farron MP, I voted for the third amendment, which was successful. However, conference rightly voted down a part of this amendment which would have extended the ability to discriminate on religious grounds to the appointment of senior members of the school's leadership, rather than just those giving religious instruction.

This was an excellent debate and ultimately the correct decision was made.

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