Harrogate day 2: keeping the faith

Saturday was the day for the schools debate and the controversial topic of faith schools. The daily announcements showed 3 different amendments on faith schools. I put in a card to speak – so had everyone else.

But that was for the afternoon. First I went to hear Simon Hughes on the fight for fairer fuel bills. Then according to my reminders, it was Lorely Burt launching the small business survey on level 4 of the conference centre. Except in my text, she’s Lordly Bust. And level 4 turned out to be on the ground floor. Strange are the ways of conference.

Then it was over to the Holiday Inn with our Euro candidates, to meet up with Vince Cable. Anyone who says Lib Dems don’t do religion should see the queue for Vince.

Then back to the main hall for another cult figure, Howard Dean. Ed Davey reminded us of Howard’s early opposition on Iraq, and his breakthrough use of the internet in campaigning. Every speaker seems to reference Obama this conference, but Howard is entitled. He made the point that Obama deliberately reached out to groups like evangelical Christians on issues of common interest: poverty, climate change, Darfur. And that nothing beats repeated face-to-face contact.

In search of the same, I trotted across town to make it to the candidates’ meeting with Governor Dean (venue turned out to be called the William and Victoria. And there was me asking for the William and Mary). Governor Dean developed his theme of no no-go areas: and he urged us to fill the void left by a failing Labour party, as we filled our void with some lunch.

Back to the hall for Chancellor Vince. And then it was the schools debate. Our schools policy proposes radical action – freeing schools from Whitehall control, cutting class sizes, extra money for the poorest with the pupil premium – which will transform schools and reactivate social mobility. So far so good. But how do we handle faith schools? Often our conference debates are interesting but rarely a genuine conflict. This time there was a real decision to make.

The motion proposed requiring faith schools to phase out any selection by faith within five years. That wasn’t enough for the secularists who wanted no faith schools but too much for others who found it offensive to their Lib Dem faith of localism. Why would we pass a policy that decentralises all education decision making except admissions policy for some schools? And then imposes a single option that local communities might not want. Would a faith school with no members of that faith community within its walls in either staff or pupils be more than a soulless logo? As Jonathan Davies argued, I do not want to impose my faith on you, but do not impose your secularism on me.

We had many Islington voices in the debate. James Kempton proposed the policy, with Farhana Hoque in support (she pointed out that as a Muslim girl in a Catholic school, she had ended up an atheist: so much for the brainwashing power of faith schools). Arnie Gibbons spoke for the secularists, Meral Ece for those who value the faith element in schools. After a nail-biting counted vote – literally too close to call – the amendment allowing councils to decide was passed. I’m happy with that: the real enemy of equity in our schools not faith, but class.

Social mobility has gone into reverse under Labour. And I’m proud that our party is doing something to change that.

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