Opinion: The voluntary ethic can make our schools better

Julia Neuberger

St Paul's School, alma mater to both my father and my son, is to go 'cash-blind' in its selection policies, creating a huge endowment that will enable boys from modest backgrounds to go to the school if they are bright enough. Newspaper reports have suggested this is because of the 'public benefit' test in the new charity legislation, with public schools being compelled to think how they could describe what they do as a public benefit at all. But the legislation has not yet forced the public schools to do much at all, in fact.

At the same time, Government was proposing - until Alan Johnson's surprising U-turn on the subject last week - to force new faith schools to take at least 25 per cent of their pupils from other faiths. Had the original proposals gone ahead, Muslim schools would have been taking Jews, Catholic schools Sikhs and so on. In one way, this would have been excellent - schools should educate children to live in our multi-faith society. On the other hand, these 'voluntary-aided' faith schools have loyal governors who serve as volunteers, and loyal fundraisers who help to build better facilities, who look askance at the Government interfering with anything other than educational standards. The Secretary of State has said that he is convinced the schools will do it by voluntary action, having been given assurances to that effect - even though some will take children of a different faith only if there are spare places no one of their own faith wants.

We are caught between two conflicting public policy objectives. The first is to educate our children in as mixed a way as possible to stop ghettoisation.

The second is to encourage voluntary activity in the setting up of specialist or faith-specific schools, which are to be self-governing to some extent.

I am no fan of single-faith schools, but the Government could achieve its objectives by providing the funding for multi-faith schools to be set up, with religious organisations working together.

So isn't there a different message for the Government? Don't tell the schools who they have to take. Don't even be taken in by all these guarantees reached by voluntary agreement - faith schools have always taken others if they cannot fill their places, and not otherwise. Let's just be clear that government money is there only for mixed schools. The Government has understood it cannot force existing faith schools to change in such a way that they lose their voluntary support, and it knows that voluntarism is valuable. It's a conundrum for government and society, but we should be persuading voluntary organisations to open out from within, as the Church of England has said it will do in its schools, rather than imposing rules. And we should be monitoring it. We will never create a better society if we don't keep the voluntary support and enthusiasm of parents. And we will create a better society only if money for faith schools is witheld unless they fulfil their promises about becoming mixed. The U-turn, with its less than good guarantees, helps no one.

Julia Neuberger is a Liberal Democrat peer and chair of the Commission on the Future of Volunteering

AND WHILE WE'RE ON THE SUBJECT...

- There are 2,500 independent schools educating 615,000 children in the UK. The Independent Schools Council says there is "a widespread and wrong belief" that independent schools educate a self-perpetuating class.

"The reality is that most schools are keen to repair educational disadvantage," it says.

- The Department for Education and Skills says there are about 7,000 faith schools among the total of more than 21,000. About 600 of them are secondary schools and 6,400 are primaries.

- All but 48 of the faith schools are connected with the main Christian denominations. Of the 48, 36 are Jewish, eight are Muslim, two are Sikh, one Greek Orthodox and one Seventh Day Adventist. Approval has recently been given to establish two more Jewish, three more Muslim and two more Sikh schools.

- The Church of England has recently announced that it will make at least a quarter of places in its new schools available to non-church pupils.

The Government has dropped its plan to require all new faith schools to do the same, saying that it thinks it can be achieved by voluntary means.

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