Schools Bill [HL] Debate

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Department: Department for Education
Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 30 in this group. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, and the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, for adding their names to the amendment, and I also thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham for our very helpful discussion on it.

The aim of the amendment is to make it explicit that religious education in schools which are not faith schools or academies must be inclusive. That is to say RE must include worldviews, including a number of different religions and non-religious values. Just because one does not believe in a metaphysical god, it is absolutely vital that we do not then lose Christian values. For me, as somebody who does not have a religion, I believe passionately that Christian values should be taught in schools on the basis that, if you do not believe in a metaphysical god, then you have to consider that you must support these values and find some rationale for doing so. I am very conscious of the Action for Happiness movement and the world well-being movement, and that is all about loving your neighbour as yourself and treating others as you would wish them to treat you. If we lose those fundamental values simply because more than 50% of the population now do not have a religion—and that number seems to grow every year—we will be in trouble as a society. So I think this amendment is very important: we need to hang on to Christian values.

As I said in my discussion with the right reverend Prelate, a key phrase in the amendment, which applies only to schools without a religious character, is that it requires the new subject to reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are, in the main, Christian, so it is those values that we would be wanting to hang on to.

The amendment is in line with the recommendations of the 2018 report of the Commission on Religious Education, convened by the Religious Education Council for England and Wales. The commission’s members included 14 experts from different fields and various religions and beliefs, and of course it was chaired by the very reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster and former chief education officer of the Church of England.

I emphasise that this amendment makes no attempt to affect religious teaching in faith schools. The changes reflected in this amendment—that the subject should include humanism and be objective, critical, and pluralistic—have been the policy of both the Religious Education Council for England and Wales and the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education. In other words, this is the amendment that the RE profession actually wants; there is nothing revolutionary or odd about it.

Indeed, a recent government statement—which I was hoping to read out, but I cannot track it down on my phone—includes exactly the same principles and ideas in this amendment. So I would hope that the Government would have no problem at all in accepting this amendment; this is government policy according to the Government’s updated statement on RE teaching.

I know that the Minister will also want to take note of two important legal cases on RE, which have concluded that a narrow RE curriculum breaches the human rights of the non-religious. The 2015 judgment R (Fox) v Secretary of State for Education was a landmark decision, which requires the subject to be inclusive of humanism and to be objective, critical, and pluralistic, in order to comply with human rights under Article 9 of the European convention regarding freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

Following that judgment, the Welsh Government introduced the Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Act 2021, which ensures that RE will be inclusive in these ways in Wales. All this amendment is doing is to ensure that education law in England is in line with the two legal cases and developments in Wales; surely, we do not want to be left behind by Wales.

I should refer to the specifics of the Worcestershire case of June and July 2022, because this has not yet been publicised so noble Lords will not be aware of it. An academy school which did not have a religious character had a narrow curriculum for its GCSE RE course. Following pre-action letters from a humanist parent citing discrimination on human rights grounds, the school agreed to provide RE inclusive of non-religious worldviews, such as humanism, for all pupils in years 10 and 11.

In conclusion, the Bill already clarifies issues in relation to RE for faith schools, so we are not touching on that at all. We know that a number of non-faith schools already provide inclusive RE and worldviews, but this amendment aims to provide clarity for all academy schools which are not faith schools.

Baroness Whitaker Portrait Baroness Whitaker (Lab)
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My Lords, I am very happy to support the amendment so clearly set out by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. I too am heartened by the knowledge that the Religious Education Council for England and Wales supports the amendment and that it fits evolving case law.

I can, in fact, put my finger on the text that the noble Baroness referred to. Our Government very recently signed up to an international conference of Ministers, saying, in terms:

“We recognise the importance, at all levels of education, of promoting respect for human rights, including freedom of religion or belief, and pluralistic and peaceful societies, where all people are equally respected, regardless of religion, ethnicity, gender, disability status or other characteristics.”

They said that they commit to promoting “inclusive curricula” and that

“curricula should provide positive and accurate information about different faith and belief communities and combat negative stereotypes”.

They also committed to

“promoting … efforts to support education reform, emphasising the benefits of pluralism and the importance of human rights, including freedom of religion or belief.”

It is a great step forward that our Government have committed to that text. Of course, it does no more than reflect the evolution of our diverse society, so I am sure that the Government will lose none of their positions in accepting this amendment.

Lord Bishop of Durham Portrait The Lord Bishop of Durham
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My Lords, I rise to speak to all the amendments in this group, and in doing so declare my interest as chair of the National Society. Turning first to Amendments 26, 27, 28 and 29, I am extremely grateful to the Minister, again, for her continued work with us on these important issues. It is no comment on the noble Baroness, Lady Penn, but the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, and the team have been particularly helpful, and it has been a fruitful ongoing conversation. The partnership between the Church of England and the Department for Education is greatly valued and a significant strength in the sector of education. This is seen in the way we work at national, regional and local level and through the outworking, for example, of the 2016 memorandum of understanding between the Department for Education and the National Society—I should add that our friends and colleagues in the Roman Catholic Church express the same thanks—which is an important recognition of the need for continued partnership in order for us to serve 1 million children through Church of England schools.

Some concerns have been raised about the protections and guarantees given to academies with a religious character, and the Church welcomes the clarity and assurance the Government have given about the scope of regulations in this regard. It moves us from a contractual to a statutory footing better to safeguard the distinctive Christian character and ethos of our family of Church schools. Such regulations will need to secure the religious character of our schools through, for example, good models of governance, and we look forward to working with the department as those regulations are produced. The Government’s commitment to ensure the transfer of provisions for RE and collective worship currently set out in maintained legislation to the academy sector are to be commended, so I welcome this amendment, which helps to clarify the purposes for which the regulations are made and secures a duty to make those regulations. In Committee, the Minister responded to my amendment by giving assurances that regulations would be made under Clause 20, and we are grateful to her for acting in this way.

Turning to Amendment 30, it was good to be able to talk to the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, but I know that I have disappointed her in not feeling able at this stage to support it in its current form. This amendment relates to religious education in academies without a religious character—I fully accept that it has no impact at all on Church or other faith schools—which I am sure we are all agreed is an important topic if we are to enable our young people to play an active role in a world where faith and world views are so important. RE must be safeguarded in all our schools. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, pointed out, the Commission on Religious Education’s report pushed in this direction. Progress has been made since then within the RE community through the work of the Religious Education Council, which has not yet concluded. We are confident that we are moving towards a consensus about the future of the RE curriculum in all schools, and I fear that if we do not wait for that consensus, the danger is that we will pursue an amendment that fixes something unhelpful. It is purely a matter of timing that we disagree on, rather than the direction, I think. It is very important that the content of the RE curriculum in schools with a non-religious character be given attention, but I think it is better to wait for consensus about that content to be reached before mandating it in this way.