Yesterday, the Cornerstone Steering Group met with a fascinating group of young Catholic priests to talk about areas of mutual concern.
The issue I raised was the future of church schools. I am greatly worried that under Gordon Brown, the Labour Government will throw a sop to its own backbenchers and seek to curb or restrict the nature of our church schools. Even Tony Blair, with his children until recently at church schools in my constituency, did some damage, with, for example, ending grant maintained status in 1998 for schools like the London Oratory and in last year’s Education Act to prevent schools from interviewing, even if only to establish the religious devotion of the parents and children. Nevertheless, with Blair, there was always a sense that the damage he could do was a little limited by the probable charge of hypocrisy, given his own family’s patronage of them.
One less noticed aspect of Brown’s leadership in its early days has been his sop to Leftists in Labour over rented social housing, with his move away from creating balanced communities under Blair to a more traditional Labour emphasis on far more social housing for rent. I fear Brown wanting to do more to placate the Left, and church schools might be the issue. A move may even come under the cover of “integration”, as attempts are made to show – wrongly – that church schools are a barrier to mixing communities of different racial backgrounds, mainly in northern towns and cities, but also in London.
Such a battle would find its front line in my constituency, home of two of the very best church secondary schools in the country, the (Catholic) London Oratory, which educated three of the Blair children, and (Church of England) Lady Margaret School, which rejected one of them.
We have our own issues in Hammersmith & Fulham with secondary education. Despite these excellent schools, there are far too few places in good schools for local parents. Our Borough has the fastest rising rate of independent school attendance in Britain – up 19% since 2000. Parents are voting with their feet. The new Conservative Council is taking action, setting up a schools commission to look at the issue afresh, and to design solutions. A new academy, or academies, may well be offered. Next door in Chelsea, we will have a new Church of England Academy, sponsored by the local authority, the first of its kind in Britain.
It is right that David Cameron is giving the issues around secondary school standards and organisation such attention. I agree with him on academies. A coherent and far-sighted plan for our secondary schools will need more than top quality church schools, but they will at least be a big part of the solution.
Greg Hands is MP for Hammersmith & Fulham