House of Lords rejects quotas for religious schools

Jewish leaders worked with other faiths to defeat legislation.

uk rabbi sacks 88 (photo credit: )
uk rabbi sacks 88
(photo credit: )
Jewish leaders in Britain have welcomed the defeat in Parliament of a bill this week that would have required new state-supported faith schools to set aside up to a quarter of their places for members of other religions. The House of Lords rejected the amendment to the Education Act, sponsored by former education minister Lord Kenneth Baker, in a 119 to 37 vote after both the Labor government and the opposition Conservative Party dropped their support for the measure following intense lobbying by religious groups and a threatened revolt by backbench MPs. The result was a "triumph for common sense," Britain's chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, said in a statement. Baker charged the government with the "fastest U-turn in political history" and said it "abandoned their principle and their policy" after seven days of lobbying. On October 18, Education Secretary Alan Johnson publicly backed the Baker amendment, saying, "Schools should cross ethnic and religious boundaries, and certainly not increase them, or exacerbate the difficulties in this sensitive area." Working closely with their Roman Catholic counterparts, the Board of Deputies of British Jews mounted a campaign against government support for the bill. Community leaders lobbied their MPs while members of the Board and Sacks took to the airwaves. Their effort climaxed last Thursday when Anglican, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh leaders met with Johnson and told him the quota legislation was "ill-thought-out, unworkable, and counter-productive in promoting community cohesion." Later that day Johnson announced the government would not support the bill, saying he had "listened carefully to colleagues on this issue and recognized we all share the same goal for a more cohesive society where faith schools play an important part in building understanding and tolerance of other faiths and communities." His remarks followed a meeting with 39 Labor MPs who warned their seats were at risk from a voter backlash over the issue. Early signs of support from the Conservative leadership also evaporated after backbenchers voiced their displeasure. Without government backing, Baker conceded his amendment would fail. Nevertheless, he told Parliament on Monday that the issue was not one of "freedom of worship," but concerned the "the shape of our society in the course of the next 10 or 20 years." Sectarian schools would create "isolated communities," he said, leading to social segregation through demands that the government accommodate religious practices. "They will first ask for a separate inspection," then "modifications to the curriculum," and will end with demands for "an observance of family Sharia law," he said. "The whole lesson of immigrant communities in our country is that they prosper when they mix and merge and mingle," Baker said Monday. "The Jewish community shows that time and time again." Lord Robert Skidelsky said requiring Muslim schools to admit non-Muslims would be a "check on any tendency to extreme separation." However Lord David Alton said he doubted non-Muslims would want to enroll their children in Muslim schools. "We will see change through patience and generosity and by working with the Muslim community in this country" and not through quotas, he said. Lord David Waddington said, "This amendment would not cure a social ill; it would create a great injustice." Henry Grunwald, QC, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said the quota scare had unified the Jewish community. "The entire community came together as one, to fight the challenge posed," he said, allowing us "to speak with one loud and clear voice." The defeat of the Baker amendment has ensured the survival of Jewish schools in Britain in their present form, which has produced "children that we as a community are proud of, as good Jews and good British citizens," he said.