The Education Bill 2002 was debated in the House of Commons on 6 February. Although there was no mention of faith schools in the Bill itself, they were discussed at length because of widely publicised amendments introduced by former cabinet minister Frank Dobson (Labour) and the Liberal Democrat education spokesperson, Phil Willis. The intention of one amendment was to "require all religious schools to admit 25% of their pupils from families of other faiths or of no faith". The other (moved by LibDem front bencher Dr Evan Harris) was to repeal the legislation permitting religious discrimination in the employment of teachers in faith schools. The National Secular Society has been working closely with the LibDems in relation to both these amendments. The two largest parties (Labour and Conservative) whipped their MPs to vote against the amendment, and only Liberal Democrat Party members were whipped to vote for the amendment. The amendments were therefore doomed in the Commons. Regardless of their own views, the Conservatives maintained their historic antipathy to voting for any measure that their constituents may view as being at all disrespectful of religion.

The case for the selection amendment

Mr Dobson nailed his colours to the mast early on. "I am a person of no religious belief whatever, but I was brought up by my Anglican mother and my unbeliever father to respect the religious beliefs of everyone."

He argued: "Some [supporting the amendment] would question the very basis of a Church-state relationship in which the taxpayer funds religious schools at all. Money taken from taxpayers of all faiths and of none is handed to various groups who knowingly discriminate against certain children and exclude them on the basis of religion. … People would agree that if we substituted the words 'race' or 'colour' for the word 'religion', such discrimination would be unacceptable."

He proceeded to demolish arguments that "religious schools perform better and get better results" if differing intakes are taken into account. He attacked selection by religious schools from their own religious group: "Inevitably, that means the rejection and exclusion of children from families of other faiths and of no faith. I emphasise the latter as it is important, because more than 40% of the population of England and Wales subscribe to no organised religious belief. They are just as entitled to send their children to the school of their choice as anyone else.

"It is inevitable that separate schools promote division. … It is part of the function of establishing high morale within the school. It promotes an exclusive sense, suggesting, 'We are great people in this school. We are not like that school down the road.'

"If we add more and more divisions — on the basis of religion, race, or colour — we will see a geometric, not an arithmetic, progression of such problems."

Mr Dobson also referred to Northern Ireland. So did LibDem David Rendel, most movingly. He recalled politicians rejecting integrated schools there 25 years — a generation — ago because they wanted a much quicker solution.

As co-mover, Phil Willis made an excellent case and Alice Mahon's contribution was particularly powerful. She was the author of a recent Early Day Motion highly critical of faith schools. She declared that she wanted "to speak up for the 40% of people who admit to no religion. By and large, they have been excluded from the debate until now — and possibly from our manifesto." "I am the child of humanist, socialist parents. … My experience of life shows me that many agnostics, atheists and humanists are often more tolerant than religious people." Mr David Chaytor "came out" as "religiously neutral. …. I have been an atheist and I am probably now a humanist."

The usual fault lines disappeared

A fascinating aspect of this passionate debate was that it cut across party lines, and religious ones too. To their credit, a number of religious MPs argued strongly for the amendments. Given the "broad church" of those supporting the amendment, there were marked differences in the degree of enthusiasm for faith schools. Some, such as LibDem front benchers (and Christians) Simon Hughes and Phil Willis, clearly favoured faith schools, but wanted less discrimination in admissions or the employment of teachers. Mr Willis went so far as to say: "There are honourable members who would frankly like such schools to go altogether. They have that point of view and they support the secular society. I do not, and that is not Liberal Democrat party policy." Others, less keen about faith schools and perhaps with an eye to their constituencies, were anxious not to be seen as too hard line. Glenda Jackson had made some excellent secular interventions but vociferously rebutted Conservative accusations that the motive of those supporting the amendment seeking to open up school admissions was "based on some sort of hatred of religion. … Nothing could be further from the truth", she said.

Yet further around the spectrum were two Asian MPs, Piara Khabra and Dr Ashok Kumar, who expressed severe doubts about the wisdom of expanding faith schools in our increasingly multicultural society. Finally, several MPs such as Evan Harris and Alice Mahon, courageously spoke out strongly against faith schools in principle. Some supporters of the amendment were goaded for their stance, but I think only by the Conservatives. Their Andrew Turner fulminated that Evan Harris and other Liberal Democrats "want to end not only exclusivity in church schools, but church schools altogether".

Opposition to the selection amendment

As secretary of state, Estelle Morris was obliged to oppose the amendments, but she did not do so with the expected gusto. Her tone was conciliatory and plaintive. She was refreshingly candid about her own faith. "I am a confirmed member of the Church of England but, to be open about it, I do not attend church regularly; I go only at Christmas and [a remark which amused the House] for constituency carol services." She may privately have accepted that, despite the whip, this issue really was a matter of conscience. Also, the Westminster rumour mill suggests that the government's almost defiant encouragement of faith schools emanates from the No.10 policy unit, rather than her own department.

Could another reason for the charm offensive have been that the members she was most anxious to win over were the potential rebels in her own party? One of their number, Jon Owen Jones, rather let the cat out of the bag when he referred to "the numerous calls that I and other [Labour MPs] received at the weekend. The government are clearly somewhat sensitive about how we might wish to vote on the matter of faith schools." So, during much of her speech there was the extraordinary spectacle of her turning round to address members behind her, rather than the Conservatives opposite.

Apart from Estelle Morris's rebuttal of the amendment, the longest and most sustained attacks on it were from the Conservative benches by Andrew Turner and John Selwyn Gummer (a former cabinet minister, former CofE Synod member and a late convert to Roman Catholicism). He considers, "It is important for the House to understand that for many people the religious content of education is the most important part of education. …To deny children the right to go to a school where that is the central tenet upon which all depends is a very sad denial of freedom."

He also asserted, contentiously, that: "all major social advance in this country has been carried through by those who have been motivated by their religious faith…" The Established Church's representative, MP Stuart Bell, referred to the Church's "historic partnership with the government" and the concordat of 1944.

Mr Dobson characterised the main criticisms directed at the selection amendment as being:

1."an unwarranted, draconian interference, which would cause huge problems and a major upheaval"; and

2."are wholly unnecessary because religious schools are already doing what we propose.

"One or other of those propositions might be true, but both cannot be, and as it happens, I think that they are both wrong", he insisted.

The Teacher amendment

The second amendment was to repeal Sections 58 and 60 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. These sections permit faith schools to discriminate on religious grounds in the employment of teachers. The amendment was introduced by Dr Evan Harris. He told the House that he was an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society, as was one of his constituents, Professor Richard Dawkins — and then courteously thanked the Society for its help in connection with the amendment. (We had provided him and Phil Willis with considerable background material on both amendments and made a number of suggestions about amendment wording.)

Evan Harris eloquently illustrated the manifest injustice of denying teachers publicly funded jobs just because they are not of the requisite faith. He argued: "it is possible that teachers in some localities, especially rural ones, will have difficulty in obtaining employment unless they are or claim to be of the requisite faith. … What matters to the education of our children is having the best teacher at that subject and not the church attendance of a teacher. How religious in any school does one need to be to teach mathematics, French or science? Does one need a working knowledge of Genesis to teach geology?

"Given that there is such a short supply of teachers — and, I would imagine, a specific shortage of faith-based teachers given the small proportion of the population who are members of the Church of England, for example — there is a worry that teachers who are not as good as others will be appointed, especially if the number of faith schools increases."

The conduct and outcome of the debate

A word of sympathy for those moving the amendments. They must have felt crestfallen when many of their arguments were barely listened to by the government front bench and especially when the guillotine (deliberately?) precluded a government response to the points made during the debate. The division on the selection amendment was lost by 87 votes to 405. There was no vote on the teachers' amendment.

In the event, the level of rebellion was nil or minimal within the Conservatives, but in the Labour ranks it was in the 40 - 50 range and was probably the largest Commons Labour rebellion of this government.

Let us hope the Bill fares better in the Lords, and that peers listen to the public who have spoken out with unprecedented opposition in the past year against faith schools. A recent Observer poll, for example, showed 80% opposition.