Saturday, 5 July 2008

Ed Balls is "100% committed" to the continuing of faith schools in Britain

Those readers of this blog who have good memories will recall that I posted in March on the action of the Secretary of State at the Department for Children, Schools and Families with regard to releasing data about schools not complying with the new Admissions Code. If you look at this post, I clearly speculated that Ed Balls had released unverified data about breaches of the Admissions Code the day before representatives of Catholic education were to appear before the Commons Select Committee for the DCSF to be quizzed about the role of Church schools in the state education system. I was certainly correct in saying that the release of that data completely set the agenda for the questioning of Bishop O'Donoghue - this will be very clear to anyone who consults the Parliamentary record.

On Monday of this week (30th June), Cristina Odone wrote an opinion piece in the Times in which she accused Ed Balls of launching a "witch-hunt against faith schools". This refers to the action of the Secretary of State about which I posted. I have to say that, whilst I do not know enough about the detailed activity of the DCSF since Ed Balls took over as Secretary of State to make a definitive judgement, Cristina Odone's attack did appear to come from a well founded evidence base. I certainly have had the feeling that the position of Church schools in the state education system was less secure under the Gordon Brown/Ed Balls regime than it had been previously.

But an interesting letter from Ed Balls appeared in the Times on Friday 4th July. He defended himself against Cristina Odone's accusation of a "witch-hunt", saying that this is "absolute nonsense". After discussing exactly what action he has taken on the Admissions Code, Ed Balls writes:

Secondly, faith schools are popular, successful, thriving and the oldest established part of the schools system - I am 100 per cent committed to that continuing.
So far as I am aware, this is Ed Balls first clearly expressed support for Church schools. And he cannot go more publicly "on the record" than in the letters page of the Times. (Well, I suppose a Commons statement could be argued as being more strongly "on the record" ...)

There is no doubt that faith schools play a leading role in fostering understanding and integration in their communities.

Again, the political import of this is huge. Church schools are most often attacked by their opponents as undermining social integration. Such a view was expressed in the letter from the Director of the National Secular Society, published alongside Ed Ball's letter. Ed Balls has clearly put himself on the record as gain-saying that point of view.

One of the first actions I took in this job was to sign the Faith in the System statement, alongside all the large faith groups. It is the first time any government and all the leading religions in England had ever set out a long-term joint statement about faith schools' wider role in society and the importance of nurturing young people in their own faiths.

It is a little disingenuous for Ed Balls to claim credit for this statement. It was there, ready to go, as a result of the work of his predecessor. He did not really have any choice about signing it, and it has certainly been seen by me as reflective of the position of the pre-Gordon Brown/Ed Balls regime rather than of the present regime. But Ed Balls has now come out and clearly indicated that it is a kind of manifesto for faith schooling that is supported by the more recent regime.

So, if one takes a positive view of this: congratulations to Cristina Odone for "smoking out" such a public commitment from the Secretary of State!

Or, if one takes a less positive view: is this really as good as it looks, or is there some hidden disingenuity that will emerge at a later date?

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