Schools Bill [HL] Debate

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Department: Department for Education
Lord Bishop of Chichester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Chichester
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My Lords, I speak on behalf my colleague, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, on his Amendment 51 and declare his interest as chair of the National Society. We tabled this amendment because, for Church of England schools, there will be occasions when schools are not in trusts where former voluntary aided schools are in the majority. For us, there needs to be the same consistency of approach in Clause 20, which is of particular importance for Roman Catholic schools, for example, as there is in Clause 19. Clause 19 sets out the requirement that the Secretary of State “must make regulations” concerning multi-academy trusts. However, as things stand, Clause 20 is only a “power” and does not guarantee regulations for trusts that do not meet the baseline voluntary aided numbers outlined in Clause 19.

We must ensure that there are appropriate regulations for all Church of England schools in trusts, so it is crucial that the Secretary of State must, rather than just may, make regulations in the context of the Church of England to provide legislative protection and assurance for any MATs where there are less than 50% voluntary aided schools within the trust. I would further welcome any assurance the Minister can provide that our understanding is correct that Clause 19 describes a baseline over which a trust must have majority articles but does not represent a threshold, and therefore does not prevent MATs that do not have a least 50% voluntary aided schools within the trust operating under majority articles.

Baroness Penn Portrait Baroness Penn (Con)
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I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester for moving this amendment. As he said, the amendment would require the Secretary of State to make regulations under Clause 20, rather than providing the Secretary of State with a power to make regulations.

The Government entirely appreciate that the governance protections in Clause 20 are incredibly important to the Church of England and all other religious denominations. They will provide reassurance to local authority-maintained schools with a religious character that their religious character, which is maintained and developed through their governance arrangements, will continue to be protected once they become academies.

To explain why the current wording in Clause 20 is appropriate, it is useful to compare the clause with Clause 19, as there are some differences. Clause 19 relates to a very specific point regarding members and directors in certain academy trusts. The exact provision that is to be set out in the regulations is stated in the clause. It is therefore appropriate for this clause to provide that the Secretary of State must make these regulations.

In contrast, the regulation-making power in Clause 20 is much wider and the extent to which it is used will be finalised only after consultation. Clause 20 applies to all academy trusts which contain academies with a religious character. It also covers a much wider range of governance matters than the specific point in Clause 19. For example, regulations made under Clause 20 may include who can be appointed into different governance roles and the connection they must have to the relevant religious body. It may also include alterations to the articles of association, the composition of committees and the delegation of responsibilities.

Clause 20 needs to be a power for the Secretary of State to make regulations as the exact scope and content of the regulations will be informed by future consultation. However, to be clear, the Government do not intend to avoid making regulations under Clause 20. Instead, I assure the right reverend Prelate of our absolute commitment that, after consultation, the Government will make regulations under Clause 20 which apply to all academy trusts with an academy school of any religious character.

The regulations made under Clauses 19 and 20 will make clear the circumstances in which certain governance arrangements must be in place. For example, this could be when a trust must ensure that the majority of directors are appointed by the relevant religious body. However, this does not mean that similar arrangements cannot be used in other circumstances. For example, an academy trust in which fewer than half the academies are former voluntary aided Church of England schools can still adopt articles of association in which the majority of directors are appointed by the relevant religious body.

In addition, as stated in the clause, the Secretary of State will consult before the regulations are first made. This consultation will include appropriate stakeholders, including religious bodies. The right reverend Prelate can be reassured that this means we will continue to work constructively with dioceses and other religious bodies to agree the most appropriate governance arrangements for academy trusts comprising different types of academies with a religious character.

I hope this has provided some confidence to the right reverend Prelate that, after appropriate consultation, regulations under Clause 20 will be made. I hope he is therefore able to withdraw the amendment on behalf of his noble friend.

Lord Bishop of Chichester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Chichester
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I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Baroness Wilcox of Newport Portrait Baroness Wilcox of Newport (Lab)
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I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for asking those questions about the good things that we are doing in Wales, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, for raising them initially. RE becomes RVE in Wales this September—religion, values and ethics. There is a great deal to learn from what the devolved nations are doing.

The place of religion and belief in the education system is incredibly complex—the debate this evening has demonstrated that—coming from a time when our society was much less diverse and much more religious than it is now. The amendments are targeted at ensuring that children of no faith do not miss out if they opt out of collective worship. They should not have to sit at the back of the classroom while everyone else is in assembly; they need a meaningful alternative provided for them during this time. These are admirable aims, to ensure that cultural education is balanced and non-exclusionary; in a modern and increasingly secular society, where children are exposed to all kinds of things, particularly in the online sphere, it should be a right that we promote. We should provide an excellent opportunity to discuss a variety of topics and issues. It is important to break down stigmas, and non-religious children in faith schools should not be made to feel left out if they opt out. The Government should think carefully about how to encourage this here. The amendments and the work in Wales are a way forward to do this.

Baroness Penn Portrait Baroness Penn (Con)
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My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for this thoughtful debate, as we reach the end of our second day in Committee. The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, rolls her eyes at me. She may have anticipated that, while I shall not quibble with the wording of her amendments, I shall disappoint her in my response. I also wanted to tell the noble Lord, Lord Knight, that he is making me increasingly jealous of the time that he spends on the Orkney Islands, and the celebrations and reflections that he gets to do there.

I turn first to Amendment 53, in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher and Lady Whitaker. The Government view collective worship as central to life in a school with a religious character. The right to withdrawal from collective worship is also important, as it provides choice for families as to whether or not their children participate. The amendment seeks, where children are withdrawn from collective worship, to provide an alternative assembly aimed at furthering the spiritual, moral, social and cultural—SMSC for short—education of pupils in schools with a religious character. The Government do not believe that the amendment is necessary, as all state-funded schools are already required to ensure the SMSC development of their pupils. Collective worship is one way to promote SMSC education, but there are areas of the curriculum in which schools can meet this requirement, such as religious education, history and citizenship.

On Amendment 54, when children are admitted to a school with a religious designation, their parents are aware of this and expect it to be part of the school’s ethos and culture. The Government support the right of such schools to provide religious education that aligns with their religious character. We therefore believe that there is no need for the amendment. I am unaware of significant demand from parents who withdraw their children from religious education to have this replaced by education representative of a wider range of religious and non-religious beliefs. There are many examples of academies with a religious designation taking care to ensure that their provision, to some degree, reflects a diversity of religions. We also expect schools to promote fundamental British values, which includes encouraging mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs, including non-religious beliefs. While acknowledging that the intention of this amendment is to widen choice in the teaching of RE, we believe that it is unnecessary because RE will likely already include the concept of non-religious world views.

Amendment 56 relates to academy schools without a religious character. Again, the Government believe this amendment is unnecessary because RE may already include the concepts of religious and non-religious belief. On religious belief, academies without a religious designation must already teach RE, reflecting the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are, in the main, Christian, and must take account of the teachings of the other principal religions in Great Britain. On nonreligious belief, this can be covered within RE. There is no obligation for schools to give equal time to the teaching of each religion or the teaching of nonreligious worldviews.

The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, asked me two specific questions. On the point about not giving equal time to nonreligious worldviews, we are talking about the same judgment, but I shall write to him on the specific point, and on the point relating to Wales—although, if I understood him, it might rather reflect the devolved nature of education in Wales rather than a different legal approach. I shall reflect on Hansard and make sure I write.

On Amendment 57, collective worship is important in encouraging pupils to reflect on the concept of belief and its role in the traditions and values of this country. The right of withdrawal from collective worship provides families who do not want their children to participate to withdraw from it in whole or in part. As I have set out, there are already plentiful opportunities for schools to further children’s spiritual, moral, social and cultural education regardless of religion or belief. This includes holding nonreligious assemblies, so the Government do not believe that this amendment is necessary.

Amendment 58 would repeal specific sections from the Schools Standards and Framework Act 1998. This would have the effect of removing statutory freedoms and protections regarding the recruitment, promotion and remuneration of teachers by reference to their religious practice, belief or knowledge at academies with a religious character. The Government support the freedoms and protections associated with academies with a religious character, including their freedoms to continue to appoint, promote and remunerate their teachers and deal with their employment with reference to the relevant religion or religious denomination. The Government do not intend to change this position for any school with a religious character, including academies. We continue to provide equivalent protections for academies to those available to maintained schools.

As I say, I thought this was an interesting and reflective debate, but I am afraid that the Government do not agree with the amendments tabled by noble Lords. I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, will withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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I thank noble Lords who have spoken in support of these amendments and I thank the Minister for her response, although it seemed to me that the departmental response, if I can call it that, did not deal with the inconsistencies and inadequacies in the law, and so on. Never mind, we can come back to that.

I will just say that “Better the devil you know” is fine if you are a Christian, but it is not what the majority of people or the majority of children in this country would want, because the devil they know is something other than Christian worship. It seems to me that the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, agreed with Amendment 57, even though she bent over backwards to say she did not, because of course we are all very happy with religious education and information; what we are talking about here is worship.

Anyway, with those few provisos, I am very grateful to everybody who is here at this late hour, especially our two Ministers, who have been here for a very long time. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.