The row we never had
For me theme of the weekend turned out to be the impact of Obama and the lessons to be learnt from the US election campaign. For many conference representatives however it would have been the policy moves we were making on education. If I felt these debates seemed overshadowed by other issues that is probably because of ‘the row we never had’.
Until the Federal Policy Committee, very sensibly, decided to step in and settle the matter this conference was being built up to be the one where we had a huge argument about tuition fees. Given that this would have been unnecessary, made little political sense, and would have resulted in ‘the leadership’ being heavily defeated I am glad that it didn’t happen. As a result of FPC’s decision prior to conference to reaffirm our existing policy (indeed on Saturday we extended it) we had a very different, and better, conference than the one some may have been expecting.
The row that did happen
Given that we weren’t going to have a row about tuition fees – we decided to have a row about faith schools instead.
Those familiar with the Liberal Democrats long-standing and torturous struggle with this issue over the years will not be surprised to learn that we had a complex and confusing debate but one of excellent quality. Conference had to contend with several putting forward different positions and that were capable of different interpretations.
As a general rule I am opposed to the state funding of faith schools. However, I accept that this is not the clear cut issues that some see it as. So I would have been happy with the original wording of the motion if it had been passed. But in the end I voted for the amendment (that part of it) that was, narrowly, accepted by conference.
My main reason for doing so was that it very clearly puts local authorities in the driving seat. It will be LEA’s who take on the responsibility for the way faith schools relate to the wider community and are given the sanction if needed of withdrawing funding. This will lead to difference in the way faith schools are dealt with from place to place but I don’t really have a problem with that.
Policy at last!
However, for me the details of the policy aren’t really the point. After years of not having a policy on faith schools, years of education spokespeople not knowing what to say on the issue, and several high quality passionate and intensely fought conference debates that resulted in … er … no decision, I am delighted that we finally have a policy. To some extent I don’t really care what the policy is – I am just glad that we have one! We’ve finally made up our minds. Alright, it may be a bit of fudge. But a fudge is better than a blank space on an issue as important and sensitive as this one.
The wording of the policy we have adopted is as follows:
d) On faith schools:
i) Allowing parents to continue to choose faith-based schools within the state-funded sector, and allow the establishment of additional faith schools.
ii) Requiring all existing state-funded faith schools to come forward within five years with plans to demonstrate the inclusiveness of their intakes, with local authorities empowered to oversee and approve the delivery of these plans, and to withdraw state-funded status where inclusiveness cannot be demonstrated.
iii) Ending the opt-out from employment and equalities legislation for staff in faith schools, except those responsible for religious instruction.
iv) Requiring schools who choose to hold assemblies to ensure that any act of collective worship is optional for pupils who are old enough to decide for themselves and otherwise for parents.
This content was originally posted on my old Process Guy blog.