HC Deb 25 March 1969 vol 780 cc1480-501

1.38 a.m.

Mr. Peter M. Jackson (The High Peak)

I should like to begin by apologising to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Education and Science, the Member for Leeds, South East (Miss Bacon) for having brought her back from Paignton to answer the debate. I particularly regret this because my quarrel is not so much with her as with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

He made a speech on the occasion of the opening of a school at Alnwick in Northumberland on 20th January the tone of which was, to say the least, a little shrill. Sections of it struck some people as even being perhaps a little hysterical. My right hon. Friend suggested that it was proper for Christians to man the barricades, and that, if they did not, within a matter of two generations this country would cease to be Christian, whatever that may mean. He was referring to the 1944 Act, and his intention to renew its terms. I should like to spell out briefly some of the terms which it is intended to renew. The first is that every day shall start with an act of religious worship, and the second is that every class shall have regular religious instruction according to a syllabus agreed by local committees. On the other hand, the Act allowed the right of conscientious objection or withdrawal to teachers and parents.

So much for the 1944 Act. I think we would all agree—and historians now turning their attention to this period write—that this was something of a political compromise. It settled a dispute which stretched back into the early 19th century between the Established Church on the one hand and the Nonconformist Churches on the other and the State. It is interesting to note the view expressed by Lord Eccles in a recent debate in the House of Lords. It is a novel view and I have never heard it expressed before. It may well be shared by many hon. Members who passed the 1944 Act. Lord Eccles said: — I have the very firm impression that we supported the religious provisions because we were greatly disturbed and not a little guilty to see all round us the moral damage caused by the total warfare in which we were engaged. To make religion stand out as the only compulsory subject in the curriculum was really an act of penitence, or, if you like, the best hope we could see of repairing the moral damage of the war."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 13th November, 1967; Vol. 286, c. 740.] It may be that that is an isolated view but it is probably shared by many other hon. Members.

The 1944 Act is 25 years old and I find it curious that a formula thought proper in terms of the opinion of 1944 should be thought proper today. No one would deny that we are becoming an increasingly secularised society and that the intensity of religious belief and the commitment to organised churches is declining. I and many others, therefore—not only Humanists but Christians—find it surprising that the Secretary of State should reiterate his determination to continue with a formula worked out in 1944.

It is proper to remind my right hon. Friend the Minister of State that the Secretary of State was repeating a minority view. I do not think that he will deny—he makes great use of polls—that only 7 per cent. of the population attend church regularly. Some 42 per cent., in a recent poll, indicated that they subscribed to the idea of a personal God. That is a minority, although perhaps he might argue by way of rebuttal that the majority said they adhered to membership of the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church or the Nonconformist Churches. It is nevertheless significant that only 42 per cent. had any conception or any belief or adhere to the idea of a personal God.

I presume that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State is familiar with the Secretary of State's speech. He made a great deal of opinion polls. I want now to turn to these. He quoted the figure of 85 per cent. of teachers in State schools who, he said, supported religious education in schools. That figure was accurate according to the poll. But I ask my right hon. Friend to examine the significant small print. This figure arose from replies to a question about teaching Christianity—not instruction in Christianity. As a Humanist, I am in favour of teaching about Christianity but not in favour of indoctrination or instruction in Christianity. This poll and others quoted by the Secretary of State were undertaken by committed Christians.

I could argue that there are certain methodological weaknesses in the survey. On the second survey quoted there was something like a 56 per cent. response rate. Statisticians would argue that one cannot base conclusions on such a low response rate. The survey about the attitude of teachers suggested that 34 per cent. were against compulsory religious instruction or unsure about it, and 40 per cent. were against compulsory worship, or unsure about it. Similarly, 25 per cent. of parents were unsure, or opposed to, compulsory religious instruction.

I am worried, and my right hon. Friend should be worried too, by the reliance of my right hon. Friend on the evidence of opinion polls. We would all agree that it would be improper to frame our legislation in terms of opinion polls or the results of plebiscites. If we did we might find ourselves introducing an Act of Parliament requiring every State school to introduce a class in horoscope, because my right hon. Friend probably knows that a large number of people believe in this. I am surprised that such reliance should have been placed upon opinion polls. If we took a poll on the teaching of mathematics, no doubt the majority of parents would say that it would be proper to teach every child the "twelve times" table. We would never have had any beginning of the new teaching in mathematics. The opinion of specialists was taken, and acted upon. Apparently on the question of religious instruction, the Secretary of State thinks that it is proper to be guided by popular opinion.

When we come to argue this in the next Parliamentary Session we should hear less about public opinion polls and more about the merits of the case. When we examine the merits we might find that they are illusory. The Secretary of State argued in a speech at Wolverhampton recently that every school should become a Christian community. This is a rather hypocritical view. Large numbers of people do not subscribe to the Christian religion, not only children, but parents. This view, particularly in respect of teachers, is forcing them into a false position. This has been acknowledged by Government spokesmen. I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to a statement by Baroness Phillips in the House of Lords in November, 1967, when she said: I think it is fair to suggest that in relation to teachers and promotion that a criticism"— of the present system— is justifiable."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 15th November 1967; Vol. 286, c. 831.] That most certainly is justified. I will quote one example, not from England, but from Scotland, relating to the appointment of a headmaster at Douglas Academy, Bearsden. There was a Rev. Dutch on the appointing board who asked searching questions as to the religious views of the candidates. He was criticised by a councillor, and justified his position by saying: I don't care whether he be Church of Scotland, Congregationalist, or Methodist so long as he is a member of a church. It does not necessarily follow, because of this, that he is a good Christian. But it does ensure that he is not an atheist". I find it worrying that this statement by one member of the committee should be supported by the chairman of the committee, Councillor Matthew Bisset, who said: It would be grossly unfair to ask what political party they belonged to, but as regards religion I think a member has every right to ask this". Does my hon. Friend think it right and proper that candidates, when being interviewed for headships, should be questioned about their theological beliefs? There is a current view in the teaching profession that this is done and many humanists who are indifferent to religion adopt what I can only regard, and I hope every hon. Member would regard, as a rather hypocritical rôle.

I regard the position of children in schools, living under such a régime of forced religious instruction, as somewhat hypocritical. They are conscious, as I was conscious at school, of being forced to learn religion. They feel that they are being "got at". Some hon. Members, when I talk to them about their attitude to religious instruction, have said, "I would like to see a continuation of the present system because we produce more humanists, more anti-Christians, by the existing authoritarian system than we might otherwise do". That is a rather dishonest approach. If I could be personalised, I would say of my own intellectual development that I became a humanist because my views were not not accepted at school, since I was forced by my parents to go to Sunday school. I objected. I resented bitterly the authoritarianism and indoctrination in the schools that I attended.

I think that my hon. Friend would agree that the Christian tradition has a privileged position. Why, in this day and age, should the Christian religion have such a position? I am not opposed to the teaching of the Christian religion, but I am opposed to giving it a privileged position. I should like to see a more open approach adopted whereby all religions, all the world philosophies, are taught. I should like to see children given the intellectual equipment to allow them to evaluate other philosophies and one religious approach with another. This is not possible under the present system. Children are expected to undergo an act of worship which many of them find meaningless.

As the Secretary of State is fond of quoting surveys, I should like to quote from a survey in the education magazine Where. It is a very limited survey undertaken by a master in a northern school. He asked the pupils throughout the schools to write short descriptions of their impression of the morning assembly. I should like to draw my hon. Friend's attention to two descriptions. They are typical of the many given in the write-up of the survey. The first reads: It's boring and hypocritical. By hypocritical I mean that by the prayers and things we do it is made out to be thanking God, but our assembly has nothing to do with God. It is cold, empty and utterly meaningless. I mean by this if it were a true service in dedication to God we wouldn't have to stop when the Hymn singing isn't loud enough because God doesn't mind how we sing. This Assembly is all for show and nothing else". Obviously this is an intelligent child who sees through the hypocrisy of the form many assemblies take. On a slightly more amusing note, my second quotation is: I think it is a very moving experience when one gets clouted round the nut for talking during the hymn. I think the teachers should join in more in the hymn, because they don't attempt to even talk behind their hand. I have never had the pleasure of fainting and being dragged out. but. I was sick once though. Luckily I got out in time. To sum it all up in a nutshell. Alleluia the Kingdom of the Lord is at hand. Obviously this child is completely irreverent in her approach to assembly. For her, it is perhaps not hypocrisy. It is meaningless. I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the minority view of the Plowden Report. I regret the cavalier way the recommendations of that minority—and it was not a small minority, but one of eight or nine dissentients—are to be ignored by the Secretary of State.

I turn to the main part of the Report which in some ways was in advance of previous thinking, but nevertheless did not go as far as I personally would have liked. In paragraph 572, the Plowden Report, "Children and Their Primary Schools", said that children should not be confused by being taught to doubt before faith is established. That is significant: "before faith is established". I put to my right hon. Friend: is it proper, and is it the job of schools to produce converts to Christianity? Obviously, in the eyes of the Plowden Committee it is proper that schools should do this, but I do not think so, and I hope that she does not either.

I and many Christians regard the present situation as counter-productive not only to the children, but to religion too and this fact is underlined by the Schools Council inquiry into early school leavers. I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to these figures. Children—early school leavers—leaving school at 15 were asked to rate the importance they attached to the various subjects they were taught at school. With the exception of music, the rating of religious education was last of the lot. Only 22 per cent. of the boys and 32 per cent. of the girls found it useful; while only 18 per cent. of the boys and 31 per cent. of the girls found it interesting. Many subjects, maths, history and geography, which we do not require schools to teach, but which nevertheless are taught, were found interesting by something like 90 per cent. of those questioned.

I suggest to my right hon. Friend that the present situation is divisive, and divisive not only between home and school, but between cultural and racial groups. We are moving in a multi-racial society and, to illustrate my point, I would draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to a school—not a typical one, I admit—Clissold Park at Stoke Newington, where there are 1,050 children of whom 61 per cent. are immigrant children, covering 26 nationalities, speaking 21 different languages and the staff are of nine nationalities, speaking 11 languages. What would happen if all these minority groups—and the majority is made up of minority groups—were to exercise their right of conscientious excusal? In that event, there would be a situation of segregation by race, and that, I hope, my right hon. Friend would regret.

Perhaps my right hon. Friend would care to comment on the words of the Secretary of State recently when he opened a new school at Wolverhampton. He said that attendance at school would mould the several races into one unified Christian community". I find that a rather arrogant view. I think it proper that there should be some degree of integration, but I regard it as arrogant to expect immigrant groups to adopt the religious views of the host country. Apparently, that is not the view of the Secretary of State. He thinks it proper that, when immigrant children go to school, they should take on not only the dietary habits but also the dominant religion of the country.

It is argued widely that without the teaching of religion people would act in an immoral or amoral way. If children act morally only because they believe in God or subscribe to a particular form of Christian doctrine, the root and basis of morality is removed once they start to doubt the Christian doctrine, as many of them do as they grow older. I argue that, if we are to underpin our values, we should try to secure somewhat firmer foundations than Christian values which many will in later life come to reject.

Moreover—this is spelled out to some extent in the minority Plowden Report—the majority of children, particularly between the ages of 5 and 12, cannot understand Christian or religious matters. I quote in aid here the work undertaken by the Christian educationist, Ronald Goldman: No real awareness of the nature of the Bible is grasped until well into the secondary school course, and even here literalism lingers on for a considerable time". There are authorities who would argue with Ronald Goldman, who feel that incomprehensibility has a certain attraction and that it should be no bar to the teaching of religion to young people. I quote in aid here the work of Norman Bull in his book, "Religious Education in the Primary School": Above all in the primary school we must avoid the passion for intelligibility—the totally unwarranted assumption that we must use nothing that cannot be understood by children.…Think of the words of some of the hymns we adults sing, for example. ' consub-stantial, co-eternal, while unending ages run '. Should we ourselves care to describe exactly what that means?". Mr. Bull has a point there. Many of us—not I, since I am not a Christian, but many of those who subscribe to the Christian religion—would have great difficulty in defining precisely what those terms mean. Mr. Bull goes on to inquire whether we should insist that children should understand every word which is taught.

I feel that that is a rather reprehensible view. If I were a Christian, I should not endorse it, though, obviously, it is Mr. Bull's view and it may well be the view of many others.

Misunderstanding leads to a whole series of grotesqueries. Here are one or two which have been brought to my attention and which, though amusing, ought to be noted as examples. One child talked about "life of elastic", obviously having learned by rote. What in fact he or she meant was "life everlasting". Another talked about "Harold be Thy name" instead of "hallowed be Thy name". The fact that children between 5 and 12 can talk of "life of elastic" and "Harold be Thy name" indicates quite clearly that they fail completely to comprehend religious categories, and yet it is thought proper that next session we should contiue to impose this regimen.

Those may be amusing examples. I will cite a rather more horrific one. One child, I am told, thought that Christening was taking little children and nailing them to a cross. Again, I should not like to say how typical that may be, but, having sat in, as I have, at some of the classes in religious instruction in primary schools I think it very probable that the majority of children are completely confused.

I turn, very briefly, to the rights which parents enjoy. Parents can, as the Secretary of State has pointed out on more than one occasion, withdraw their children from religious instruction classes, but the majority of parents do not do so. I would not withdraw my children, because I know very well the damaging effect which this has on children. A child feels a sense of isolation if it is withdrawn from a class. If there were more children withdrawn together, more parents would be prepared to withdraw their children, but if only half a dozen children are withdrawn from a class the parents of the other children are not prepared to withdraw theirs. So it does not strike me as being in any way curious that parents decline to exercise this right.

One headmaster in Leicester thought it proper to draw parents' attention to their rights, and we know the result. He was severely attacked by the Bishop of Leicester. He suggested that if children were to be withdrawn they should be given additional lessons in English and arithmetic. I think it probable that if parents realised that additional classes would be organised in English and arithmetic many would adopt that option. Of course, this does not happen. There are instances of children not being withdrawn from the classroom at all but being told to go and stand in the corner. I have written to my right hon. Friend about such a case. I am sure that it is by no means unique. Where there is an integrated curriculum the situation is clearly impossible. I think that was recognised by the Secretary of State in a reply to a Question on 24th October, 1968. He recognised that there is a genuine problem where there is an integrated curriculum.

To conclude, I suggest that the present situation has led not only humanists but many Christians to a feeling of disquiet. Even among Christians there is a certain degree of questioning, and the Church itself has set up a committee under the Bishop of Durham to inquire into religious education. The British Council of Churches has also set up a committee to investigate the situation, and many Christians are identifying themselves with the Campaign for Moral Education.

I think my right hon. Friend misunderstands the views of humanists and I would like to quote precisely what is the purpose of this particular campaign. It is to shift the acknowledged moral basis of public education from conformity to traditional religion to the actual school community with its respected differences and shared tasks and ideals; and to work"— and the object of this campaign is to work— for the amendment of the Education Act". We are not opposed, I reiterate, to the teaching of religion; we recognise the importance of religion in our culture; but we believe that it should not be taught in any evangelical sense.

Secondly, we believe it should not be taught to children between the ages of 5 and 12. We believe that children should develop their critical faculties, the options and the alternatives should be put to them, and, having developed a critical sense, they should then be in a position to decide for themselves whether they subscribe to the Christian belief or not. That is the case.

I think it is a formidable case, and I think that the Secretary of State should in duty bound give a reply. It is not satisfactory for him merely to rely on opinion polls and on his own prejudices.

2.10 a.m.

Sir Edward Boyle (Birmingham, Handsworth)

I wish to speak for only a very few minutes in this debate. On one point I should like to join with the hon. Member for The High Peak (Mr. Peter M. Jackson), and that is in expressing our sense of gratitude to the right hon. Lady who has come to this debate at very considerable personal inconvenience. She and I both have meetings of different kinds at 10 o'clock this morning, so I shall not be tempted to be very long.

I agree also with the hon. Member for The High Peak that in view of the fact that the Secretary of State has taken up such a strong position on this subject, he might have felt it fitting to reply to this debate.

I think that when we are discusssing this subject of moral and religious education it is particularly important that we choose our words in this House, or outside this House, with considerable care. I speak as one not associated with any campaign, either religious or secular. If I wanted to describe, very briefly, my own position, I would say that I am someone who feels a deep sense of mystery about the universe, and certainly also a sense of mystery about human nature, but I get less and less certain with the passing years that I shall ever feel that I have penetrated these mysteries.

But after all, we are dealing here not just with our own feelings, but with the attitudes—expressed and unexpressed—of very large numbers of parents in this country. I would simply say this to the House; certainly, as the hon. Member for The High Peak said, we are today a more secular society than we were 10 years ago. I think a recent book by Dr. Bryan Wilson, whom I always respect, in the New Thinkers Library series, is one of the most interesting expressions of that point of view. Yet I do not think on the available evidence, with all its imperfections, that public opinion wants to see a major change in the law as it relates to religious education in the schools. Furthermore, I believe that this is a subject on which it would be wrong for Parliament to try to get too much in advance of public opinion.

There are some subjects where I think it is right for Parliament to be in advance of public opinion. I would say this, for example, about capital punishment, but I would not say this about the law relating to religious education.

There is one point which should always be remembered in this House. It would have been one thing never to have legislated for religious instruction in the schools—never to have passed Section 25 of the 1944 Act, but it would be quite another thing, having put this Section on the Statute Book, to remove it. I believe that that would cause a very considerable amount of concern and distress among some parents. It would certainly evoke a great deal of controversy in this country, both reasoned and unreasoned.

There is this to be said about the views of a large number of parents, which the House ought always to remember. For many parents, even if they cannot believe or do not believe anything like the whole of the Christian dogma, Christian standards are guideposts in a world where social and moral assumptions are changing with what they think of as bewildering rapidity, and guideposts which they want their children to learn to recognise. I do not think that there is anything irrational or unreasonable in a number of parents without strong dogmatic beliefs themselves none the less wanting the law to remain as it is.

Having said that, I hope that we in this House will give our minds to this subject, as many people are now trying to do both inside and outside the Christian churches. It is not enough just to react emotionally or with a sense of outrage that anyone should question our present arrangements.

I believe that many people who do not wish to see the removal of Section 25 would none the less support some liberalisation of its operation. I detect a good deal of concern in the country today that children should have an opportunity to learn about other religions besides Christianity. Perhaps I was luckier than the hon. Gentleman—I did not have an authoritarian upbringing. The only direct religious instruction from my father that I can remember was his strong conviction that there was "probably something of truth and certainly something of value in all the world's great religions." That may have been a rather typical 19th century view, but it was none the worse for that.

Many people have welcomed more opportunity for serious discussion among older children of the general theme of what life is about. Sooner or later, young people will learn that the world is made up of people of all faiths and none, and surely there is a need for open-ended discussion of fundamental religious issues.

I thought that the hon. Gentleman wasted rather too much powder and shot in his comments on morning assembly. I regard the quality of the religious instruction periods as rather more important than morning assembly, particularly for older children. Do not let us bother too much about the rather period language of some Victorian hymns. That does not seem to me to be very important one way or the other. But it is important to give an opportunity in religious instruction periods for serious open-ended discussion of fundamental religious issues and the purposes for which life exists.

One quotation which the hon. Gentleman read out suggested that a number of young people who are highly critical of morning assembly will none the less welcome religious instruction periods and opportunities for discussion, if they are well conducted by properly qualified teachers. We should not forget the efforts being made by the churches themselves, and in colleges of education, to improve the standard of R.I. specialists. I am sure that the right hon. Lady will tell us something of what is being done in colleges of education, because I believe that there is more effort being put in here than perhaps we realise.

The second respect in which many people will support some liberalisation of our present procedures is this. There is clearly a need to respect the views of parents who want to withdraw their children and, specifically, those of parents who may genuinely not want moral teaching for their children to be validated by religious doctrines which have no meaning for them. If there is a home in which parents genuinely do not have any religion, obviously they will be uneasy about moral teaching being validated by reference to religious doctrines.

I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman on one other point. If parents withdraw their children, it is sensible for proper arrangements to be made for those children. It is obviously absurd to crime a headmaster because he makes good and suitable arrangements.

Church people and humanists are beginning to discuss these questions together, and I think that there is a need today, not least in this House, both for caution and thoughtfulness in the discussion of these issues. As I said at the start of my speech, I disagree, as I am sure virtually the whole of my party would disagree, with those who want here and now to delete Section 25 from the 1944 Act.

But I differ also from people who regard all those who question the operation of Section 25 as enemies to whom no quarter should be given. And I was glad in this context that the hon. Gentleman should have referred to Lord Eccles who made a characteristically thoughtful and original speech in another place on this subject.

I will end by quoting to the House some words that I once used in a debate rather more than five years ago. I was replying to my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Sir C. Black) who was concerned about a speech made by an officer of the Department which I then represented. I said: My hon. Friend…will know the importance which I personally attach to personal integrity and to boys and girls being encouraged to think seriously for themselves both about the objectives which they are to pursue in life and about the standards by which they are to live. Of course there is need for guidance, but in all humility, I suggest to th'5 House that worthwhile guidance may often best be given by those who, in the words of the Newsom Report, understand the sincere ' differences…which separate men and women of real moral sensitivity.'"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th November, 1963; Vol. 684, cc. 773–4.] I still think that the Newsom Report had much that was valuable and sensible to say on this subject.

I hope that this House will think very hard before deciding to make any major change in the law. But I would strongly support all those who are trying to operate religious instruction in such a way to help young children discover for themselves values and a sense of conviction and maturity which will help them through life.

2.22 a.m.

Mr. William Hamling (Woolwich, West)

At this early hour of the morning I will not detain the House very long as my right hon. Friend has come to the debate at considerable trouble to herself.

I am glad to follow the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle) who made, I hope he will sincerely accept from me, a characteristic speech worthy of the traditions that he has built up in this House in this sphere. I am glad, too, that my hon. Friend the Member for The High Peak (Mr. Peter M. Jackson) raised this matter.

I do not find this topic easy to discuss. I do not feel that one can speak about the place of religious instruction in our educational system with the dogmatism and the assurance that some people do.

I must declare an interest. I am a parent who has never withdrawn his children from religious instruction, al-thought I am not a Christian. I speak also as a teacher who has been involved in teaching children and teaching religious knowledge over many years.

One of the difficulties of many teachers, like myself, is that we have been involved in teaching religious knowledge, instruction, scripture, or whatever we call it, although we are not believers. This may strike some people, particularly some Christians, as rather anomalous. I never found much difficulty about this, partly because I was a Christian at one time. Perhaps I might be called a failed Christian inasmuch as I lost my faith.

I find this a very difficult question to evaluate, as, I am sure, do many other quite sincere people. I think that we ought to approach this subject with a great deal more humility and possibly a great deal more scepticism than we have done hitherto.

I should like to underline what the right hon. Member for Handsworth has said already: that we should not be as dogmatic as some people have been in stating quite firmly that we ought to adhere to this particular Section of the 1944 Education Act. I suggest that there ought to be some examination and some loosening up of attitudes.

I am not too sure, either, about public opinion. It is very difficult to evaluate public opinion on this, as on other things, and on this matter we are perhaps even less certain that we are on many others because so many of the people who make up public opinion are not at all sure themselves whether they have any religious beliefs, and whether those religious beliefs amount to very much more than a vague urge towards having some belief. I think that when one talks about public opinion one ought to do so with a great deal of reservation.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about parents wishing to have some Christian guideposts. I speak as a teacher and as one who had a great deal of contact with parents. Very few of them ever said that to me. I think that most of the parents of the children I taught took it for granted that scripture, or religious knowledge, call it what one will, was on the timetable. I do not think they ever expressed any strong views in favour of it. Most of them accepted it as part and parcel of the normal school timetable.

My hon. Friend said that very few children found religious knowledge interesting. This may simply be a reflection on the fact that it is badly taught. I find it difficult to be dogmatic about why this should be so. When I was a boy I went to a Church of England school, and I enjoyed the religious instruction that I received. I do not know what there was about it that appealed to my young mind, but I enjoyed it. That was a very long time ago, so much so that when I think of the religious instruction I received at my old school I am reminded of that admirable chapter on the scripture examination in Flora Thompson's book "Lark Rise to Candleford". I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman remembers it. I read it with a certain amount of affection.

One of the things that I taught as a teacher was to doubt, to be sceptical, and this raises very seriously the question of the age of the children taught. My hon. Friend talked in general terms about this matter, but I am sure that when my right hon. Friend replies to the debate she will have very seriously in mind the fact that we are speaking about children of various ages.

I taught in primary schools, and obviously one does not teach primary school children to doubt in the same way as perhaps I taught my university extramural students to express their scepticism, or my apprentices at a technical college, or the young people I taught in secondary schools. Certainly one cannot generalise about the attitude to religious instruction and ignore altogether the real problem of age.

My hon. Friend talked about the campaign for moral education. I find this rather artificial, because I have always thought that morals enter into education at many levels and in many ways. I can remember, for example, when I was at school my teacher talking about justice, about goodness, not so much in the religious instruction lesson, but in many other lessons. I was going to say that I had the advantage of a classical education, but I am not sure whether in these days this is considered an advantage. Certainly I regard it as such, and I regarded it as such at the time.

People brought up in the classical tradition looked at some of these philosophical questions far more deeply than many young people today. This was not formally part of religious education. I cannot understand how one can talk about moral education as distinct from education as a whole. Surely the Christian teaching of Christian teachers in a Christian society extends into fields apart from formal religious education—English, history appreciation and so on. This talk about a campaign for moral education is mechanical, because moral education is part of education anyway.

I have great difficulty in approaching this subject, as a non-Christian. Some knowledge of religion should be part of the tradition of our civilisation. A very close person in my own life told me only yesterday that she regrets never having learned about Christianity at school, because, being Jewish, she was withdrawn from religious instruction. She felt that a good deal of our history, civilisation and tradition was closed to her. Knowledge of religion and discussion of religious experience is part of the education of the whole man or woman. I learned a great deal about Greek classicism, and this inspired my attitude to life, politics and moral questions. Similarly, everything which I learned about Christianity is part of me today. I think of the richness of some of my English lessons at school, which were based upon readings from the Old Testament and the fine language of the Authorised Version of the Bible. Some of the passages in Ecclesiastes and the Songs of Solomon are all part of the tradition of the educated person in our society.

Yet on the other side of the medal, there are some primary schools where children are frightened by fundamentalist teaching. The consciousness of sin and fear of retribution which is brought home to youngsters of eight or nine surely disfigures Christian teaching and does far more harm to Christianity than atheists ever did in all the great days of Ingersoll and the rest. This is worth watching. I am not happy about compulsory religious instruction in schools. Learning about Christianity is part of the whole person's education, but not compulsorily. It is the compulsory nature of so much of this instruction which destroys a great deal of its humanistic quality.

2.35 a.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Miss Alice Bacon)

This has been a thoughtful debate and I only wish that I were a little more wide awake to reply to it. As hon. Members have observed, I have come here at considerable inconvenience. I spent most of last weekend in bed with 'flu. I then travelled to Paignton, where I made a speech yesterday morning, and I have to attend another meeting at 10 o'clock this morning.

My hon. Friend the Member for The High Peak (Mr. Peter M. Jackson) gave some examples of what children thought they were singing and saying. I came across such an example some time ago; of a boy who happily declared, "He leadeth me into the paths of ripe chestnuts." I am sure that no harm was suffered by that youngster, who probably preferred to be led into that path than into the path of righteousness.

Reference has been made to two national surveys of parents and teachers on this question. Those opinion polls—and one selects what one wants from the results—clearly showed that the overwhelming majority of people desired the present arrangements to continue. My hon. Friend the Member for The High Peak thought that considerable doubt was thrown on this because so few people were churchgoers. However, 90 per cent. of those interviewed wanted some sort of religious education in schools. This means that the majority of parents, even if they do not attend church, want their children to have moral standards in the wider meaning of the term.

My hon. Friend quoted from majority and minority reports. It would be as oppressive to deny this right to parents who want this teaching for their children, because a small minority do not want it, as it would be oppressive the other way round. As the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle) said, we must take note of the opinions of parents in this matter. Not only the opinion polls but the many letters which the Department receives are in favour of some sort of religious education being given in schools.

My hon. Friend said that the Education Act, 1944, was now nearly 25 years old. That is true, but things have not stood still in our schools during that time. We may be working according to the 1944 Act, but the aims of religious education as viewed by most specialists have changed since that date and particularly in the last 10 years, as have the methods and techniques used in teaching.

The aims of progressive religious education teachers, teacher trainers and others concerned with religious education are much the same as those of education generally; to assist the process of personal development, to broaden the knowledge and understanding of life of pupils and to help them to make good, cooperative and tolerant relationships with other people.

In the curriculum proper it is now an important aim to relate religious education to other branches of the humanities and the social studies. This meets the point just made by my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling).

But the teaching cannot be considered in isolation from the rest of the curriculum and from the organisation of the school. The whole effort of the teachers must be directed towards creating a sense of community, of being part one of another, and of the ideal of service which is the consequence of this concept of community. I hope that all schools will include voluntary service to the community as part of their religious education.

Education is incomplete without information, and the particular subject matter of religious education in a Christian context includes biblical knowledge and the history and culture of Western Europe, so far as it is has been influenced by the Christian tradition. As pupils mature in the middle and later years of secondary education it is considered right also to acquaint them with the Christian faith, but not, in county schools, to attempt to persuade them to accept it.

The aim is to provide them with sufficient information about Christianity as a way of life to make their own decisions whether to accept it. Religious teaching in denominational schools may go beyond this in both teaching denominational doctrine and presenting pupils with a personal challenge; but not all denominational schools now agree that the latter is right. Since the aim of religious education is to give pupils a broadening and enriching experience in common with that of the other aspects of the school curriculum, the tendency in primary schools is to integrate it to a considerable extent with the whole of the curriculum, and this is being done in most schools.

In secondary schools the field of religious education is seen first and foremost as helping the pupil to develop attitudes to life; it is concerned with social and personal issues, having much in common with history, social studies and literature and making considerable use of discussion techniques, so that pupils can argue things out for themselves.

Most religious educationists now consider it important that members of other faiths shall have the opportunity to pursue them so far as is possible in school; the law is not altogether clear about the extent to which instruction in other faiths may properly be given in county schools, but in practice many schools with immigrant communities are trying to make such opportunities. They view it as equally important to respect the integrity of the agnostic pupil. It is also regarded as desirable to give secondary pupils of all persuasions an acquaintance with the tenets of other major religious faiths as well as of Christianity.

Discussions on the best way of achieving these aims are taking place in joint working parties of teachers and members of the churches, and the British Council of Churches is conducting an inquiry. Informed public interest is growing and much useful discussion is taking place, which should, among other things, eventually clarify what statutory provisions in a new Education Act should attempt to say.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me what was happening inside the colleges of education. Religious education in colleges of education is studied as a main subject by 8 per cent. of all students, mainly in the primary or primary-secondary age groups, and in order to meet demand the Department has recently authorised an additional 150 places a year for religious education. Both the voluntary and the maintained colleges share this work. In addition, religious education is studied by the colleges as part of the professional work, particularly for younger children, and is frequently studied in conjunction with a general curriculum or method course covering the humanities. Both the voluntary and the maintained colleges play their part in this and religious education receives an ample share of the time available in courses of initial training.

The work done in the schools is already beginning to reflect some of the new ideas about the teaching of religious education. In some areas the agreed syllabuses have been reviewed, and this may hasten the process of change. Measures designed to meet the needs of an increasing number of non-Christian immigrant children will no doubt give further impetus to the achievement of more broadly based syllabuses. This is important.

A committee of the Schools Council keeps the religious education curriculum under continuous review. The Council is mounting a project on religious education in primary schools. It will survey recent research work and work of outstanding quality in various types of primary schools, with the object of producing a document which will be of particular use to teachers and heads. The project stems from the recommendation in the Plowden Report that Further inquiry should be made into the aspects of religious faith which can be presented to young children. This project will be based on the University of Leeds Institute of Education and will cover a period of 18 months.

In the secondary field, the Council will publish in the fairly near future a working paper entitled "Humanities for the Young School Leaver; an Approach through Religious Education". This will be a discussion document aimed at stimulating discussion and experiment by teachers and inviting them to submit views and comments to the Council.

In his speech at Alnwick my right hon. Friend reiterated that in any new Education Bill there would be provision for religious education. He did not say that it would be precisely that which was in the Education Act, 1944. As has been said tonight, we have to devote much thought, not only to what goes into an Act, but to how it is interpreted within the schools. There is a great deal of room for taking advice from a variety of people so that when we get to an Education Act we can be supplied with the very best ways of having religious education in our schools and of providing for those of faiths other than the Christian faith.