Schools Bill [HL] Debate

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Department: Department for Education
Finally, I come to Amendment 95. Again, the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, has done a great job with this, but we are talking about transparency. If you have this lump of money, where is that money being directed? If we have a geographical spread—even if we do not—we know how money is often allocated in organisations: the way organisational structures work is that they often depend on personal relationships and emotion, not on explicit measures of need, so it is really important that people can actually see how the money, if it is given to one MAT, is spread around the members of that MAT.
Lord Bishop of Chichester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Chichester
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My Lords, I shall speak on behalf of my colleague, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, and declare his interest as chair of the National Society. I shall speak against Amendments 50 and 55. Amendment 50’s proposal to give power to local governing bodies to withdraw from a MAT may inadvertently trigger fragmentation of MATs that are growing, an erosion of strong MATs that are reliant on academies within the MAT for sustainability and, as a result, wider instability in the system. The proposal does not reflect the company structure of the MAT or the remit of a local governing body as a committee of the board. Where there are concerns about the quality of provision, or the ability of a school to flourish and grow, these things should be discussed at a strategic level with the relevant regional director and, where appropriate, religious authority, so that together we can shape and develop an educational landscape that works effectively across communities of schools.

The language used in Amendment 55 is unhelpful. It should be noted that church academy trusts are based on church model articles which have a religious object, but that does not make them religious trusts. Church model articles provide a commitment to supporting the individual ethos of the school, whether it is a designated school or not. The requirement for additional consultation would add an unnecessary level of bureaucracy.

Lord Knight of Weymouth Portrait Lord Knight of Weymouth (Lab)
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My Lords, I shall speak principally to the amendment in my name, Amendment 79B, about regional boards. This is part of my ongoing quest—our ongoing quest, as a Committee —to stimulate thinking on what an all-academy school system might look like in practice, and flush out a few thoughts to inform the Minister’s reflections as she seeks to improve the Bill as it goes through its journey in Parliament. In particular, what I am interested in in this amendment is the accountability of MATs.

One of the main criticisms I have of academies generally and, to some extent, multi-academy trusts, is that they are insufficiently accountable. We have heard that in the context of this debate now. I am also interested in the accountability of the Secretary of State, particularly if they take on a lot of powers through the Bill. The most appropriate body, or set of bodies, to hold the academy system to account are local authorities, because they are locally elected and have that legitimacy of election—he said, speaking in the House of Lords. Currently, the system has advisory boards for what, up until just after I tabled this amendment, were called regional schools commissioners; they are now regional directors. My sense is that the system does not actually regard the current RSC advisory board that highly. They are elected by the CEOs of MATs in the region and they elect some of their number to serve and advise the regional schools commissioner in her or his job.

I think we can do better than the current construction, so I am not giving up on a structure that already exists. If you can make something that already exists work, that can often be quite a helpful way forward. It is important to focus accountability at a regional level, rather than at a local authority level. We have local authorities of various sizes, from Rutland to Birmingham—in terms of the number of schools; I am sure there are local authorities with larger geographical sizes than Birmingham. But that we might want a set of local authorities within a region covering multi-academy trusts, given their catchments and the geography that they are drawing on, seems to make sense to me.

I am suggesting that the local authorities within a region form the majority of such advisory boards that now would have a statutory basis; and that they would be required to publish an annual report, so that they would be reporting on the way that the powers had been used by the Secretary of State in that region, and by the regional director. It was notable that the Minister, in response to the previous group, confirmed that in practice some of these functions will be performed by regional directors. This is an attempt to make those civil servants accountable for some of the decisions they are making in the name of the Secretary of State. In essence, it is the accountability of transparency that I am after—that, by asking those boards to publish and make publicly available an annual report, we can all see how the powers are being used and how the needs of the children in that area are working, and how local authorities would function as the voice of parents and pupils in their areas.

As I think the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, was just talking about, in the end this is rooted in the importance of schools as part of a community. I do not think anyone in this House, from the Government Benches through to this side, disagrees with that. It is important that the community is reflected in the work of an academy, that the community as a whole is there to attract and retain teachers, that the school understands how to engage parents on the basis of the parents in that community, that it is able to develop engaging learning by making it relevant to that community, and that it is able to adjust the curriculum according to what is going to create the relevance to its community. That is my suggestion, and it is merely a probing amendment to see if anyone thinks it is a good idea.

There are just a couple of amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, that I would comment on. Amendment 41 talks about a “similar geographical area”. I chair a multi-academy trust that is national and works across a bunch of regions, which by and large works pretty well, and some of the other national trusts work pretty well. The overall direction of travel of policy from the Government and elsewhere is that a more regional, localised approach is probably on balance better, but we are where we are with those large national trusts. We need to understand what is a viable footprint within a region to have a good relationship with a local authority, with its duties to SEND, and with its duties to children generally. If those national trusts have a mere smattering of a presence in a region, it might be as well for them to between them work out how to be more focused on a geographical basis. But if they already have a substantive footprint, and a substantive relationship with the local authorities, I do not think that it should be disrupted. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, might want to think about that.

Amendment 95 is about reporting on funding. Some multi-academy trusts do something called GAG pooling, which is nothing about keeping people quiet; rather, it is pooling the general academies grant to then distribute money across the map where it is deemed to be needed. As an example, I was in a meeting today to discuss an academy in Walsall that is the last one in the E-ACT group that is struggling. We put a considerable amount more funding into school improvement in that case than it would get through its general academies grant. It is that redistribution of wealth—to use an old-fashioned phrase that we like on this side of the Chamber—that is at the heart of the flexibility that the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, is questioning. I think he is basically saying that it is fine but that we should have some transparency about this. I am not afraid of transparency, and if the Government choose to move to get more transparency about things, so much the better. We have to publish in our annual report quite a detailed amount of financial information, and that is all publicly available. I hear criticism that more information should be easily available on an academy-by-academy basis. I do not think any of us should be afraid of transparency if that is what people would like.

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Moved by
51: Clause 20, page 14, line 30, at end insert—
“(1A) In the application of this section to the proprietor of a Church of England school, subsection (1) has effect as if the power to make regulations were a requirement to do so.”Member's explanatory statement
This amendment ensures that regulations are made for Church of England schools in minority trusts.
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.

Amendment 51 withdrawn.
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Lord Knight of Weymouth Portrait Lord Knight of Weymouth (Lab)
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My Lords, I am supportive of the last two speeches. One of the things that I suppose I regret about the decline of collective worship is the decline of moments of collective reflection, although I am not of faith. Indeed, I am a humanist, and two years ago I was lucky enough to get married on a deserted heart-shaped island in the Orkneys at a humanist wedding. At that time, and I imagine this is still the case, I was advised by the celebrant that there are more people getting married in humanist ceremonies in Scotland than all the other faiths put together. That is a demonstration of the sense that society is changing, whether we like it or not.

I shall speak to Amendments 54 and 56 in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Burt of Solihull and Lady Bakewell, and myself. Amendment 54 would require faith academies to provide an inclusive alternative to faith-based religious education for those who request it. Amendment 54 seeks to mitigate some of the issues caused by compulsory faith-based RE. It would do so by introducing a requirement for faith academies to offer those pupils who withdraw from faith-based RE a new subject called religion and world views education. This new subject would be objective, critical and pluralistic. This alternative would cover both religious perspectives and non-religious perspectives such as humanism.

We have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, the stats from the British Social Attitudes survey regarding the number of those now identifying as non-religious, non-Christian and so on. It is particularly high, at 72%, among those in the age bracket 25 to 44 —that is, those most likely to have school-age children—yet over one-third of our state-funded schools have a religious ethos, and I respect them. The vast majority of those, 99%, are Christian, and I respect that too. Indeed, in 2020 the Church of England’s own Statistics for Mission revealed that the number of places in Church of England schools now outstrips the Church’s entire worshipping community.

The DfE’s associated memorandum declares that it is not compulsory for a child to attend a school with a religious designation, but of course this ignores the fact that, as we have heard, thousands of parents are effectively having to send their children to faith schools every year because there is no suitable alternative locally. That was definitely the case in my former constituency of South Dorset in the rural areas where many or indeed most of the village schools were Church of England schools. They did a perfectly fine job, but while you could get assistance with transport if you wanted to send your child to a different faith based-school, you certainly could not get such assistance if you wanted to send them to a comprehensive non-faith-based school if that was what in accordance with your views.

It is that kind of discrimination against people who are not of faith which I am keen to try to do something about, when we have the right opportunity to do so in an inclusive way. Amendment 54 provides a remedy. It would mean that children who do not share the religion of the school they attend will have access to an “objective, critical and pluralistic” version of the subject that does not seek to indoctrinate them into one religious perspective.

Amendment 56 would make it explicit that RE outside of faith academies must be inclusive of non-religious worldviews such as humanism, in line with what is already required by case law, and rename the subject accordingly to “religion and worldviews”. RE is a statutory subject in all schools. However, recent figures from the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education found that 50% of academies without a religious character, which make up approximately two-thirds of academies, do not meet their legal requirements to provide the subject as set out in their funding agreements. Although there are a range of reasons for this, it seems plausible to suggest that many schools—as well as pupils and their parents—see the subject as outdated and irrelevant to their lives. This is an opportunity to give the subject a shot in the arm.

I think that is why, when there was a review of the subject by the Commission on Religious Education in 2018, chaired by the Very Reverend Dr John Hall, the Dean of Westminster and former chief education officer for the Church of England, that report recommended the policy of both the RE Council and the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education: that we should do exactly this. It has been properly considered and thought through, and seems a perfectly reasonable adjustment to make, as do the amendments proposed by the noble Baronesses, Lady Meacher and Lady Whitaker.

Finally, I stress that the new “religion and worldviews education” would still reflect the fact that the religious tradition in Great Britain is, in the main, Christian. This is not at all an attempt to whitewash out teaching about religious traditions. Those are really important if we want to have an inclusive society that respects each other’s traditions and faiths. However, as I say, this amendment provides a shot in the arm for what I think is a vital subject.

Lord Bishop of Chichester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Chichester
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My Lords, I speak on behalf of my colleague the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and declare his interest as chair of the National Society. I speak against Amendments 53, 54 and 56 to 58.

I strongly urge noble Lords not to support the proposal set out in Amendment 53. It is framed as a mandatory requirement. However, it is unclear what would satisfy the definition of “a meaningful alternative” for pupils. Furthermore, it does not consider the resourcing implications in terms of staff and accommodation, depending on the number of pupils opting out.

Amendments 54 and 56 provide no definition of what constitutes such an “objective, critical and pluralistic” education. This would require a much fuller consensus to be achieved about the purpose and content of the RE curriculum, which is not the purpose of the Bill—although I note the helpful observations of the noble Lord, Lord Knight, on the work done by Dr John Hall. There may be some helpful work elsewhere that could be continued from that.

The wording around acts of worship and “religious observance” in Amendment 57 is open to interpretation, which is subjective. It would be very difficult to define or apply it consistently. A prohibition as proposed under this amendment would appear excessive and it is unclear how it would be monitored.

Amendment 58’s removal of provisions may conflict with church school trust deeds and governance documents that require certain staff in a church school to have particular attributes as a genuine occupational requirement; for example, fitness and competence to teach religious education because of their religious opinions, attendance at religious worship, and/or willingness to teach in accordance with religious tenets.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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I thank the right reverend Prelate for giving way. I just want to make two points. First, does the right reverend Prelate really feel he should be persuading Ministers not to adopt these amendments when religious communities as well as non-religious communities support them? Secondly, he said that teachers must not be discriminated against if they have a requirement in their job, but the amendment allows for that very clearly. If there is an occupational requirement to have religious knowledge, that teacher will be expected to have religious knowledge, so I am unsure why the right reverend Prelate is arguing those points.

Lord Bishop of Chichester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Chichester
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The points I am arguing reflect the experience and response, particularly that garnered by the National Society. It is on the basis of that that the rejection of these amendments is built. It presents for us a national picture from the Church of England.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, it is very useful to have the right reverend Prelate raise a religious voice against these amendments and raise some concerns. Maybe I could raise a non-religious voice with some concerns I share against these amendments.

I am particularly worried about Amendments 53 and 57 and the idea of alternative assemblies

“directed towards furthering the spiritual, moral, social and cultural education of the pupils”.

I fear this would become a secular version of religion, with all its preaching of things I do not particularly like. It was interesting that the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, mentioned what is happening in Wales, where I am from. I met some teachers from Wales over the weekend and one talked about how, apparently, the alternative to religion is that we teach environmentalism—the new religion—and made that joke. What would the content of these things be?

While I am not religious and consider myself a humanist, I feel queasy because we have a problem in this country of religious illiteracy. I think we want a secular society that understands religion and shows some regard for religion and its tradition. Religion seeps into the public sphere and a lack of religious literacy can be problematic. We have seen in the last week the issue around the film “The Lady of Heaven”, which several major cinema chains have backed off from showing in a really disgraceful instance of artistic censorship. I noted that the reason given for that was that it was offensive to local Muslims, but the film was made by a Muslim filmmaker. At the very least, that could indicate that people panic in the face of religion without necessarily understanding it.

This religious illiteracy is perhaps why I have a preference—if I had to choose between them—for Amendments 54 and 56, which make some attractive points. “Religious and worldviews education” sounds more palatable. If anything, I would say, “Why not for everyone?” The amendment mentions non-religious philosophical convictions to be taught. I think all pupils, including those of religious faiths, would benefit from reading John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration and understanding the philosophical roots and importance of religious freedom for a secular society, ironically, and from reading On Liberty by John Stuart Mill. This might counter, for example, the shocking events we saw in Batley, where a religious education teacher is still in hiding for his life over the allegation of blaspheming—despite the fact there is no blasphemy law. People seem to feel very queasy about calling this out or saying anything about it in this House, or in politics more generally.

I was glad to see in Amendments 54 and 56 an acknowledgement that Christianity is the predominant religion in Great Britain, because I think people have got a bit queasy about saying that for some reason. It is important to understand that the Christian tradition does not just inform faith or even a moral framework for the country, but has provided centuries of cultural imagery in art and literature. I remember, as an English teacher, standing in front of a group of A-level students and asking, “What might that apple symbolise?” I was met with blank faces because they could not understand what I meant: the apple did not symbolise anything to them. I do not think that it was entirely my poor teaching that did that; when I explained it, it took quite a lot to get there because they were unfamiliar with the symbol. I would like a greater understanding of the traditions, history and philosophy of religion, if anything.

Finally, I worry about some of the comments made that assumed that people of faith or introducing pupils to faith—within faith schools, for example—equals indoctrination. That is the wrong way to see it. I was brought up in a Catholic school but it backfired on them terribly, which made me think that people are not indoctrinated in that way.

It is also wrong to associate religion with extremism per se, or to imagine that the problems of political extremism that we might see in society are to do with religion—goodness knows that there is plenty of secular extremism about. We should also be concerned about a mood of intolerance to Christianity, or even a squeamishness, with people feeling embarrassed by Christianity in this country; I do not think that that is particularly helpful. Although I have some sympathy with two sets of the amendments rather than the others, we should be careful not to demonise religion, religious people or faith in our aspiration to widen education and give more options for non-religious families.

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Lord Lucas Portrait Lord Lucas (Con)
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I have a great deal of sympathy for what the noble Baroness has just said. The phrase that comes to my mind is, “Better the devil you know”—if I am allowed to refer to the Church of England in that way. We know that religion is an immensely powerful and deep force for people. The Church of England is very civilised and easy to get on with; it is part of our community and history. That is the right way, and the right environment, for that part of children’s education.

If you are sending your child to a school run by the Church of England or the Catholic Church, for goodness’ sake, you know what you are getting. Although I have come out the far side of religion some long time ago, I very happily sent a couple of my children to schools with a strong Church of England ethos, and it did not do them any harm any more than it did me harm to go to church twice a day for 15 years of my life. Religion is not a poisonous thing; it is an enriching thing. When I get to go to a decent wedding, I bellow the hymns with enthusiasm and deep memory. I am sure that a lot that I have experienced enriches my life. We should not look at this as something harmful; it is something that we are, by and large, all used to and live with, and is a positive force in our country and lives. We should celebrate it and not try to shy away from it.

Lord Bishop of Chichester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Chichester
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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, for her comments. There are two things. I am very aware of the important statement that the Queen made in her Diamond Jubilee about the vocation of the Church of England, which is not to promote itself but to promote faith, the practice of faith and respect for people of faith. The noble Baroness’s comments on religious literacy are very timely, particularly if we are taking seriously the education of our young people as they face not only a global issue in which religious literacy is of increasing importance but also, of course, as we prepare them for a pluralistic society here in England, in Britain, where, once again, religious literacy is increasingly important because of the range of places from which people come and the faiths that they bring with them. I greatly value the comments—thank you.

Lord Shipley Portrait Lord Shipley (LD)
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My Lords, I will just make a very brief contribution. I have found this a very helpful, thoughtful debate which will merit reading in Hansard tomorrow to get some of the finer points.

I want to say a word or two about Amendment 54 and Amendment 56, which my noble friend Lady Burt has signed. It is based on my understanding of what the amendments are saying. As I read them, these amendments are not aimed at diluting the approaches of faith schools or undermining their rights to maintain the faith ethos taught in them. They simply mean that students who opt out of faith-based RE and all students at non-religious schools have a more inclusive subject available to them. That is my understanding, so I would be grateful for the Minister’s confirmation.

Can I add two questions to the Minister? As I understand it, these amendments would not actually change the legal position but place existing case law into statute. In 2015, in the case of Fox v Secretary of State for Education, the High Court ruled against the DfE and in favour of three humanist parents and their children who challenged the Government’s relegation of non-religious world views in the new subject content for GCSE religious studies. The court stated that religious and non-religious world views, such as humanism, must be afforded equal respect in the RE curriculum. I have concluded that the amendments would simply ensure that equal respect becomes a statutory requirement. Does the Minister see it in the same way?

Secondly, can I build on a point made earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, in relation to recent legislation in Wales? That has not been particularly debated this evening. Maybe we should look at it in greater detail because I think it is important to consider, and I hope the Minister will be considering it in the context of this Bill. In looking more carefully at that, does the Minister think that there may be a case for legislation in England being similar to that which applies in Wales? Does she think it might be helpful to try to build on it? I am looking forward to a response from the Minister about that because I often get worried about the United Kingdom having key differences on matters of approach in law on matters such as this which seem to me would benefit from a single legal understanding.

That is two legal questions. I acknowledge that the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, pointed out that, in Amendments 54 and 56, the statement is clearly made that the religious traditions in Great Britain are, in the main, Christian. I am glad that, on behalf of my noble friend Lady Burt, who was the first signatory to the second of these amendments, that point has been fully understood.