All 5 Baroness Meacher contributions to the Schools Bill [HL] 2022-23

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Mon 23rd May 2022
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2nd reading: Part one & Lords Hansard - Part one
Wed 8th Jun 2022
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Committee stage & Committee stage
Mon 13th Jun 2022
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Committee stage: Part 2 & Lords Hansard - Part 2
Wed 22nd Jun 2022
Tue 12th Jul 2022
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Report stage: Part 1 & Lords Hansard - Part 1

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Department: Department for Education

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Baroness Meacher Excerpts
2nd reading & Lords Hansard - Part one
Monday 23rd May 2022

(2 years ago)

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Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, I shall speak principally to Parts 3 and 4 of the Bill and applaud the Government’s proposals to fill the gaps in the law that have inhibited action until now to close illegal schools. We know that the education provided in many unregistered religious schools is narrow in scope, predominantly scriptural in content and deeply conservative, intolerant and extreme in outlook. Because these schools have been able to evade inspections, bad practices of all kinds appear to have developed. Former pupils of such illegal settings told an all-party parliamentary group in December of the physical, emotional and sexual abuse they had suffered. They also talked of the narrow religious curriculum, with no English, maths or science in their school experience. I therefore welcome the compulsory registration of children not in school. This will help close a loophole exploited by proprietors of illegal schools who claim that they are merely providing supplementary religious instruction to children otherwise educated at home. The problem has been that such children can be entirely invisible to the authorities.

I also very much welcome the Part 4 increase in Ofsted’s power to inspect “independent educational establishments”. However, I hope we can have meaningful discussions with Ministers about the definition of an independent educational institution, restricted as it seems to be in the Bill at the moment to those that provide “a majority” of education for more than five children. This definition risks those establishments wishing to remain below the radar simply dividing their service in two—a morning school and an afternoon school—thus avoiding inspection. Can the Minister explain the thinking behind the limitation of Part 4 to institutions providing the majority of education? Do the Government have a solution to deal with these illegal schools seeking to evade inspection?

No doubt we have all had a briefing from Taunton Home Education asking us to oppose Parts 3 and 4. I have to say that I do not believe that these parts have anything really to do with Taunton Home Education, or indeed any other upstanding educational organisation. However, it may be helpful if the Minister can give some assurance to those sorts of educational establishments that this is not what Parts 3 and 4 are about.

Turning to religious education in schools, I hope this House can ensure that the content of religious education and worship in all schools reflects the full ambit of freedom of religion and belief and that a pluralistic and critical approach is adopted. I hope that comment chimes with the very important comments of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, whom I respect so much, I certainly do not wish in any way to say something contrary to what he said.

Finally, a huge issue not dealt with in the Bill, it seems, is child mental health. There is no doubt that mental health services for children are frighteningly underfunded and inadequate. The pandemic has greatly increased the number of children with challenging mental health problems, so we now have an issue of crisis proportions. I understand that the Government have agreed to roll out mental health support teams to just one-third of the country. Surely this cannot be acceptable. The Schools Bill provides the opportunity for us to roll out these mental health support teams throughout the country as a matter of urgency. I hope the Minister will agree that this is something we need to think about.

We have heard from a number of organisations representing children with different conditions and disabilities. There are clearly concerns that children with special educational needs will be compelled to attend a school from which they cannot benefit. I hope these fears are misplaced. It seems that families of autistic pupils, for example, fear they will be punished with fines for poor attendance when their child simply could not benefit from going to school. These concerns are surely genuine and I hope the Minister, in her reply to this debate, can make absolutely clear that the families of any child with a special educational need or disability will not be punished under the provisions of Part 3 for non-attendance at a school from which they cannot benefit.

On a positive note, I hope the Bill will ensure a much needed improvement in educational opportunities and support for young people with ME, the terrible disease that affects so many children as well as adults. I look forward to this House coming together with Ministers to prioritise amendments on these important issues.

Schools Bill [HL] Debate

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Lord Bishop of Durham Portrait The Lord Bishop of Durham
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Baker, for something he said in his speech that helped me understand why I am more half-hearted in my support than others. I hope he will forgive me if I misquote him, but he implied that there had been no thought about areas that could be badly affected, including faith schools, until later. Actually, the Secretary of State and the Minister have been incredibly helpful and supportive in discussions with us about some of the later clauses. The department recognised that there are growing issues connected with voluntary-aided and voluntary-controlled schools and the move to MATs, which need to be dealt with and must be dealt with by legislation. Our experience has been of working behind the scenes with Ministers and officials in a very positive and helpful manner. That perhaps explains why we approach it more positively. Therefore, I say thank you and completely support the noble Lord’s Amendment 27A on the same basis—that these schools should have the protections.

However, picking up the concerns I expressed earlier about the overreach of the Secretary of State’s powers proposed here, I support the thrust and purpose of Amendment 2. The period is possibly too long but that is debatable. It is a proposal that helps to protect. It enables others from the sector to engage with us and for us all to express our opinions about proposed regulations, so that those regulations can be properly debated, the report can come back and the regulations can be amended. Amendment 2 is a really helpful proposal in principle, to assist with the restriction of the Secretary of State’s power.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, I support the intention of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, to oppose the question that Clause 1 stand part of the Bill. I declare an interest as a member of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which has produced a highly critical report on the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, alluded to this in many ways and I will try to avoid replicating what he said. However, I need to say that this report was exceptionally critical and that the committee sees the Bill very much as an outlier, and one we hope and expect that the Government will revisit.

I draw to the attention of the Committee and of the Minister an important 30-year review of delegated powers undertaken by the Delegated Powers Committee, which reported on 24 November last year. It was the first time such a review had ever been done and that report showed a steady diminution of democracy and of the powers of Parliament, and an ever-greater accretion of power to Ministers. Quite interestingly, the report is called Democracy Denied? This is an important issue and not a minor matter. We are talking about our democracy and we are losing it: that is the reality set out in that 30-year review. I hope the Minister and the Bill team read that, if they have not already.

The report points out the urgency of the need to redress this balance and shift power back towards Parliament and away from Ministers. Yet here we are, six months after its publication, with Clause 1(1)—an extreme and deeply concerning example of the skeleton Bill approach. One of the main criticisms in that 30-year review is the growing use of all sorts of delegated powers, but skeleton Bills in particular. Clause 1 provides no indication of what academy standards will look like or the principles upon which they will be based. In my view, and other noble Lords have said this clearly, Clause 1 should not stand part of the Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, referred to the department’s memorandum attempting to explain why these delegations of powers are necessary. I want to spell out in more detail one of the two points the memorandum makes: there is a need for haste and to adjust as changes in educational needs evolve. Its real point is that you need principles and key standards in the Bill, then regulations are used to amend those standards—but not the principles; I hope the principles remain. It would be a big step forward from this, if we had a set of principles within which amendments might be laid. The speed issue, which is the department’s excuse for this level of delegation, is entirely unacceptable. The Delegated Powers Committee was clear on that point.

I think we have said enough about that, so I will move on to my Amendment 32 in this group. Again, I support the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, in his opposition to Clause 3 standing part. Amendment 32 is very important because it focuses on the Henry VIII powers in the Bill. The 30-year review focused strongly on the unacceptable nature of Henry VIII powers. Basically, the Secretary of State is saying that the Government do not want Parliament involved in wholesale reform, such as changes to Acts of Parliament over the years, but to get on and do that sort of stuff themselves. That is unacceptable, as noble Lords know and as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, alluded to.

Statutory instruments have very little scrutiny; we are not allowed to amend them, but we can reject them, as my amendment on tax credits did. We rejected the statutory instrument. As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, suggested, we were threatened with abolition; we had the Strathclyde review and were going to lose all our powers. The whole earth seemed to have been turned upside down, simply because we had deferred acceptance of those regulations. We know the scope for reviewing statutory instruments is incredibly limited compared with the detailed scrutiny that we can give to Bills. The idea of these Henry VIII powers within the context of a skeleton Bill is really quite shocking.

The Delegated Powers Committee is not the first committee to have drawn attention to the appalling nature of Henry VIII powers and the unacceptability of them, and here we have rafts of Henry VIII powers. The Donoughmore committee said that a Minister had to justify a Henry VIII power “up to the hilt” and that such powers should not be used “unless demonstrably essential”—not useful, but essential. As already alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, the department’s memorandum utterly and completely failed to argue successfully that these Henry VIII powers are essential, as they simply are not. That is why we cannot accept what is going on here. The department argues the need to act swiftly, but I have already made the point that this can be done perfectly well by including the basic material in the Bill. There is an absence of policy development and the deferral of its creation, with it being left to Ministers. Clause 3 has to be completely rewritten and cannot be left as it stands. I therefore support the plan of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for it not to stand part of the Bill.

Exceptionally, the Delegated Powers Committee forwarded its report to the Secretary of State for Education personally. To my knowledge, we have never done that before. We do not do it, actually, but we felt that this case was extraordinary, in the skeletal nature of the central part of the Bill, combined with its Henry VIII clauses.

The Secretary of State replied to the committee’s report and said that he is taking note of our concerns. I find that helpful and I warmly welcome the approach of our Minister and of the Secretary of State. I, for one, as I am sure do all noble Lords, want to work with Ministers to ensure the yawning and total gaps in Clause 1(1) can be filled before Report. Deferring Report to the autumn is an interesting idea as, by this time, I hope there would be substance in the Bill that we could all debate as we should—by holding Ministers to account.

Lord Baker of Dorking Portrait Lord Baker of Dorking (Con)
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May I now formally move that Clause 1 should not stand part of the Bill? If I cannot do that yet, I will speak to it anyway. First, you cannot just abolish Clause 1 or Clause 3 by themselves. You need to go the whole hog and get rid of them all, as they are interdependent. I like what was done by the committee of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, but it was not quite strong enough. I am going to quote from the report and say how good it is, but it could be better.

Clause 1 is important because it creates the framework for the Bill. As I am sure colleagues will know, every school, maintained or academy, has to have an agreement with the Department for Education, which it signs. They will all be voided; that is what Clause 2 says. The schools will then have to accept a new agreement that has been drawn up entirely by the Secretary of State, as far as I can see without any widespread consultation at all. He has powers to vary the agreement at will under Clause 4. It is really quite extraordinary.

Schools Bill [HL] Debate

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Schools Bill [HL]

Baroness Meacher Excerpts
Committee stage & Lords Hansard - Part 2
Monday 13th June 2022

(1 year, 11 months ago)

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Read Full debate Schools Bill [HL] 2022-23 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 1-III Third marshalled list for Committee - (13 Jun 2022)
Moved by
53: Clause 25, page 18, line 20, at end insert—
“(2A) For any pupils who have withdrawn from collective worship in accordance with subsection (1) or subsection (2), the Academy school must provide an assembly of equal educational worth, which must be principally directed towards furthering the spiritual, moral, social and cultural education of the pupils.”Member’s explanatory statement
This requires academies with a religious character to provide pupils with a meaningful alternative to collective worship if they or their parents request that they are withdrawn, so as to ensure that all pupils enjoy the benefits of the full length of the school day, irrespective of religious belief.
Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, I will also speak to Amendments 57 and 58. I thank Humanists UK for its excellent briefing and the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, and any other Peers who support these amendments.

The context for these amendments is worth noting. Some 62% of people in this country do not identify as Christian, according to the most recent British Social Attitudes survey in, I think, 2022. More than 50% say they are of no religion. In this context, is it really appropriate that all schools in England require pupils to take part in a daily act of Christian worship? Surely not. Also, under the Human Rights Act 1998 and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, younger children have the right to freedom of religion or belief. We do not seem to provide that in this country at the moment.

Many parents send their children to a faith school because the school has a good academic reputation or a good reputation for discipline, for example. They may not be people of religion at all. Others find that they have no option but to send their child to a religious school; it is the only nearby school suitable for their child. The law needs to take account of these situations. In reality, many children in faith schools for whom Christian worship has no meaning do not opt out of the collective worship events because they do not wish to attract attention to themselves or to be ostracised by others.

In my view, the lack of any organised alternative activity for these children increases the child’s reluctance to draw attention to themselves and opt out. At present, children who have withdrawn from collective worship often just have to sit outside the door—almost like a naughty child—or are left in an empty classroom with nothing to do.

These three amendments would ensure that the needs of all children are met. They are supposed to be not anti-religion but in favour of the needs of all children. Amendment 53 would require faith academies to provide a meaningful alternative assembly for pupils who have withdrawn from collective worship. It is already law in Wales, which apparently is way ahead of England, through the recent Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Act 2021. This amendment would bring England up to speed with Wales.

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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.

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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.

Amendment 53 withdrawn.

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Lord Lucas Portrait Lord Lucas (Con)
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My Lords, large families are not a school unless they are very large families and fish. I beg to move.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, I want to speak to Amendments 147 and 152.

I applaud the Government for including in this Bill Clause 56, which seeks to ensure that schools currently avoiding registration and inspection are included in Ofsted’s remit in the future. This is a far more important issue than we may have considered it. This country has been standing by while an unknown number of extremist, fundamentalist, isolationist schools are teaching children to reject the values of the country in which they are growing up. What will some of those children do when they grow up? Will they join a terrorist organisation? We simply do not know.

Ofsted has written to me to give us the benefit of some of its information, which is worth quoting. It says that at least 6,000 children are being educated in 900 unregistered schools, or, as it puts it, likely many more. It is very concerning that Ofsted has issued more than 100 warning notices to those it believes are running illegal schools, and 40 % of those settings have not changed to comply with registration as a result. These are people who do not respect the law, so we have to be very tough with them.

It is worrying that children are not learning the most fundamental subjects, including maths and English. Not only is the narrow religious curriculum in many unregistered schools unacceptable but these schools may have unsanitary and unsafe conditions. Ofsted says that it found settings with severe health and safety hazards, and other problems. No one is able to check on these things so long as schools evade registration.

I want to thank Rob Cann of Humanists UK for his very detailed briefing and the precise wording of these amendments.

In Clause 56, the Government are seeking to extend registration to independent education institutions—that is fantastic—but only to those which provide all, or the majority, of the child’s education. Herein lies a significant loophole. The proprietors of some such settings know that if they are inspected, they will have to choose between changing to something very different and closing down. They are therefore very wily and will do all they can to continue to evade regulation and inspection. They will use every loophole they can find to wriggle out of their safeguarding duties. Amendment 146B would limit registration to establishments that provide 18 hours of teaching for 39 weeks of the year. That would be something, but I believe these schools would adjust their regime and continue to avoid registration.

Without doubt, as soon as the Bill receives Royal Assent, these proprietors—who all know one another; there are little groups of them—will get together and split their provision into separate morning and afternoon settings, or some other configuration such as one teacher taking kids in the morning, another in the afternoon. Neither will then be subject to registration under Clause 56 as it stands, and I would be grateful if the Minister would comment on this loophole and whether the Government are content to see these extremist schools escape the important purpose of this Bill.

I recognise that Clause 56(2) allows further tightening definitions to be done through regulations. Here, I am going to say something from experience. Nine years ago, I allowed, if you like, the Government to have a little adjustment to my proposal for an amendment on the face of a Bill on the basis that they would introduce regulations and deal with the problem. I thought, “Well, that sounds okay”. Was I naive? Nine years later, nothing has happened, so I am not impressed with the idea that this can be dealt with through regulations. I fear that it simply would not be done. That is a bit cynical, but it really is my experience.

My Amendment 147 has been carefully thought through. By applying registration only to establishments providing at least a quarter of a child’s education, it would not catch common after-school classes in music, sport or, indeed, religion. I very much hope the Minister will feel able to accept it.

Amendment 152 would close off another loophole for unregistered schools. Many of them operate in private dwellings; indeed, 85% of illegal education settings in Hackney, the borough with the greatest prevalence of illegal schools, are private dwellings. If the proprietor puts down a mattress in a school, on inspection, the school may be classified as a dwelling and a warrant would be required under the law as it stands. Without a warrant, the inspection would be invalidated, so, as Clause 63 stands, a warrant will be required for almost every investigation to prevent that. This will generate unacceptable pressure on the courts, the courts will then put a whole lot of pressure on the inspectors to prove that they really need the warrant, and the whole system could be snarled up. It is reasonable to suppose that determined proprietors will disguise their settings as dwellings to try to protect themselves from Ofsted’s new powers. As I said, they will do just about anything.

Clause 63 introduces a requirement that inspectors can enter a private dwelling only if a warrant has been issued, and a request for a warrant is permissible only if consent has been refused. This leaves in limbo the situation of an inspection in what could be deemed a private dwelling where consent has been given. I am sure this is not the intention, but the wording leaves open the situation of those inspections where consent is given but there is a problem; it leaves an issue.

Registration and inspection of schools must, of course, be dealt with sensitively and authorities cannot be given free access to private dwellings without a warrant if consent is not given. Nevertheless, if the first intimation for Ofsted that a school is in a so-called private dwelling is when it attempts to enter the building, it will need to go away, fill in the forms and ultimately get a warrant, which could take a week or more. This will allow lots of time for the proprietors to conceal, dispose of or fabricate false evidence about whether a school was in operation within the dwelling. Surprise is essential in such situations.

Some proprietors will be less cunning than others and perhaps have less need to be, if a proprietor provides access immediately to an inspector arriving at the address. Amendment 152 clarifies that a warrant will be required only where consent has not been given for entry and where the setting visibly appears to be a dwelling. That sounds a bit pedantic, but it is important, on the basis that these people may just put a mattress down somewhere and claim it is a private dwelling. What is a private dwelling? All sorts of things can be done by them.

I hope the Minister will therefore ask officials to give serious consideration to the following two points. First, the current drafting of Clause 63 is poor and risks making matters worse for Ofsted inspectors. The element of surprise is so important, yet Clause 63 seems to reduce the scope for that surprise. Secondly, the clause does not clarify what a private dwelling is. Will the Minister ensure that, if possible, a definition of a private dwelling for the purposes of the Bill is given in it?

I failed at the beginning of my speech to thank the Minister very much indeed for the discussion we had, and I remember that one of her points was: how on earth do you define a private dwelling—it is probably impossible? I hope that efforts will be made to define a private dwelling to avoid what I call the mattress problem.

Again, I emphasise that the Government seek to achieve a very important objective in these clauses. I hope these comments are helpful; they are certainly intended to be.

Baroness Whitaker Portrait Baroness Whitaker (Lab)
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I should like briefly to add my support to these two very sensible amendments, which would stop unscrupulous unregistered schools circumventing the law and speed up the inspection process.

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The Government consider that Amendment 171C is unnecessary. Ofsted can already inspect settings reasonably believed to be operating full-time unlawfully and without registration. That would permit investigating the activities at a number of premises where inspectors reasonably believed on the basis of evidence that they were really operating as one institution. That evidence might relate to individuals acting in concert, and other evidence—
Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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This is not quite the right moment to do this, but I thank the Minister for allowing me to say a word. Has she been in touch with Ofsted and is she satisfied that it is reassured that it will be able to inspect these illegal schools—these, in my view, very high-risk schools? Is Ofsted content?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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I am obviously cautious about speaking on behalf of Ofsted, but we have worked closely with it in developing this legislation. My understanding is that it is content, but I would not want to speak on its behalf, as it is an independent body.

Schools Bill [HL] Debate

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Baroness Meacher Excerpts
I note that Amendment 30 is tabled in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and will respond to it in my closing speech so I can hear the arguments that she puts forth first. For now, I beg to move.
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.

--- Later in debate ---
Moved by
30: After Clause 27, insert the following new Clause—
“Religion and worldviews education(1) The proprietor of an Academy school without a religious character must exercise its functions with a view to securing, and its principal must secure, that religion and worldviews education is provided to all pupils at the school.(2) The religion and worldviews education required under this section must—(a) reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian,(b) take account of the teachings of the other principal religions and non-religious beliefs represented in Great Britain, and the beliefs and practices of their adherents, and(c) be designed and taught in a manner that is objective, critical and pluralistic.(3) In subsection (2)(b), the reference to non-religious beliefs is to explicitly non-religious philosophical convictions, within the meaning of Article 2 of the First Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights, that are analogous to religions.(4) In this section, “the European Convention on Human Rights” means the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, agreed by the Council of Europe at Rome on 4 November 1950, as it has effect for the time being in relation to the United Kingdom, and “the First Protocol”, in relation to that Convention, means the protocol to the Convention agreed at Paris on 20 March 1952.(5) A provision of an Academy agreement or master agreement (including an agreement entered into before this section comes into force) is void so far as it is inconsistent with any provision made by or under this section.”Member's explanatory statement
This replaces religious education in Academies without a religious character with religion and worldviews, which is explicitly inclusive of non-religious beliefs and is explicitly required to be objective, critical and pluralistic.
Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and the Liberal Democrat Benches for their support. I am aware that the Labour Party is having a free vote on this amendment—out of respect for its Catholic members, perhaps. I very much thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham for his comments and for noting the fact that our only differences are those of timing. Bearing in mind the amount of time that legislation takes, if we miss this opportunity in the Bill, it will be many years before we have another one to recognise that schools that do not teach religion and worldviews are breaching human rights. We have legal cases that make this very clear and we have the example of Wales, which has put things right. I feel obliged to test the opinion of the House.