HC Deb 19 March 1976 vol 907 cc1785-875

11.4 a.m.

Mr. Michael Alison (Barkston Ash)

I beg to move, That this House recognises the need to maintain and improve the opportunities for religious education and an act of worship in schools. Perhaps I may start on a diplomatic note by congratulating the Minister upon her installation in her important post. The hon. Lady makes a greatly attractive embellishment to the Government Front Bench. I hope that she will not be a candidate for the leadership, so that we lose her very soon. I also express the hope that this first debate, in which she has occasion to make a Front Bench speech, will make an indelible impression of good will upon her mind.

The House will know that Sections 25 and 26 of the Education Act 1944 make school worship and religious instruction in accordance with an agreed syllabus, not distinctive of any particular denomination, obligatory in county schools. My aim, and that of Opposition Members who support it, is not to fight some kind of rearguard action on behalf of those entrenched provisions in the 1944 Act as if the cause of religious education in schools had reached such a pitch that its best and only prop was the mere letter of the law in a statute that is now over 30 years old. If our cause were reduced to such legalism, it would be lost already.

In my view, the entrenched provisions of the 1944 Act were a kind of builder's scaffolding, to use an analogy, designed to facilitate the setting up of an edifice more lasting and substantial than any statute is likely to be. I am persuaded that the cause of religious education can stand on its own feet.

I should like to start by justifying the cause that I seek to maintain and improve. In general, I have no hesitation in asserting that religious education is an essential feature and ingredient in any syllabus of education. I quote again the oft-repeated words of the Spens Report of 1938, which played a major part in forming opinion in the formative stages of the 1944 Act: No boy or girl can be counted as properly educated unless he or she has been made aware of the fact of the existence of a religious interpretation of life. It will not do, in my view, to interpret "religious education" as education about religion—that is, to give information about, let us say, Christianity and other religions—in a detached, analytical fashion, as if they were objects capable of some kind of biological dissection. It must go further than that.

I quote now from a helpful passage in a leaflet, produced by the Church of England Board of Education, which Canon Holtby kindly placed in my hands: No teacher of English would think it enough to teach about poetry. His task is to enable boys and girls to create within themselves that imaginative insight which will make it possible for them to enter into the poetic experience. There is a close parellel here with the task of the teacher of religious education, which is to bring children to the point when they understand what a Christian commitment would mean. I emphasise those last words— to the point when they understand what a Christian commitment would mean. and stress that I make a conscious distinction between leading a child in religious education to the point where he understands what a conscious commitment would mean and pressing or urging a child beyond that point, to an actual, personal and overt commitment to a particular faith or system of belief. The latter category—pressing a child beyond the point of his understanding, is what I would understand as the call to conversion or evangelism, and this is properly the function—"the duty and privilege", as the Durham Report said—of the Churches and not of a school's religious syllabus. However, it does not invalidate the need to bring the child's understanding up to that point.

My argument now leads me to consider whether the Christian religion should be the predominant theme or feature of the religious syllabus in our schools. I make no claim that it should monopolise the religion that is to be taught in schools. However, I am convinced, again on quite objective and educational grounds, that it should be the major theme that is handled in religious education in schools, emphasising that it should not be the exclusive theme.

There are two reasons for my view. The first reason is historical. The history of our nation and our people is inexplicable and incomprehensible without a real inner grasp of Christian beliefs, ideals and motivations, which provide perhaps the most formative single influence in connection with the fashioning and shaping of our history and culture. This is true of not only our history, because the more tangible and present pointers to our historical past—the art which we see in our galleries; the shape of our buildings; the character of our institutions; our music and our literature; in a word, our culture in the round—all point to the need for a proper understanding of the Christian religion if a rounded education is to be attainable.

The second justification for "majoring" on Christianity in our religious education is a social one. The preponderant mass of our population broadly identifies itself with the established religion. I claim that this beyond dispute. I shall quote only two corroborating indicators—first, the 1964 Gallup Poll and, second, the 1968 ORC Survey. The 1964 Gallup Poll showed, on a sample basis—all polls are on a sample basis—that in reply to the question, "To what religious denomination do you belong?" 68 per cent. said that they were Church of England; 12 per cent. that they were Nonconfromist; 10 per cent. that they were Roman Catholic and only 5 per cent. that they were "Other" or "None".

I turn to the 1968 ORC Survey. This television survey was commissioned by the Independent Television Authority. It showed that Eighty per cent. of the sample thought that God created the universe; 85 per cent. that Jesus Christ was the Son of God; 81 per cent. thought it was important that Britain should be a Christian country. To illustrate the underlying validity of this poll I shall quote only two more findings, which seem to authenticate it almost beyond dispute. It showed that 80 per cent. admired clergymen 'quite a lot' or 'a great deal' but only 30 per cent. looked forward to meeting them. That seems to suggest that the poll had touched the main theme of authentic feeling in our society and was a thoroughly plausible and substantial pointer to what people really feel.

The figures reflect at least a broadly-based desire that religious education with a Christian emphasis should be continued in schools. This seems to be the weakest point in the Humanist claim that religious education should be abolished in schools. The Humanist position is not that of passive agnosticism in religion—it is commendably dogmatic and creedal. For example, the summary of "unverified beliefs" which Humanists hold is set out in a pamphlet entitled "Humanism and the British Humanist Association". The creedal basis of Humanism or, at least, of Humanists associated with the BHA is: We accept nothing as revealed truth. We do not believe there is any ultimate purpose in life. We find the idea of life after death a monumental piece of wishful thinking". What a splendid unverified creedal statement that is. However, let us make no mistake that it is a creedal statement. It is an attitude of religious belief. When this creed is as firmly and widely subscribed to as Christianity is according to the polls, the time will have come to consider whether this kind of creedal statement should not be substituted for the Christian emphasis on religious education in schools. However, to campaign to abolish religious education on the basis of this creed is to campaign positively to indoctrinate children with an alternative religious view of life. I do not believe that this alternative view has the broad support to justify such a change.

We must ask whether the emphasis on Christianity produces problems especially in connection with worship. I do not believe that it does. I should like the House to note that worship and the act of worship prescribed in the Act are vital parts of religious education. The Durham Report, entitled "The fourth R", suggests that on a broadly analogous basis, religious education without worship is rather like trying to learn geography without having field studies, learning a language without ever taking a trip overseas and trying to learn science without any experiments.

The fact and act of worship is an inherent, inseparable and essential part of any attempt to teach religion to children. I leave aside the fact that the very act of assembly in a school is itself a desirable feature and function. In the United States of America schools where religion is not taught by the constitution still find it necessary to have an assembly in the presence of the fluttering Stars and Stripes, as providing a satisfactory formula to focus the minds of the assembled group upon its significance as a group. That is an extremely difficult thing to do, but it is made much easier if the purpose of the assembly is to turn the group's mind towards a wider and greater significance.

I believe that assembly is essential in a school, even if it has to take place in two places or two sections when the schools are large and the buildings inadequate. There must be an assembly. An assembly with an act of worship incorporated in it is not only inherently desirable in itself, it is an essential feature and part of religious education.

Some people believe that there are great practical difficulties in carrying out an act of Christian worship in a school a great part of whose population comes from overseas, are immigrant, and subscribe to the Islamic or Hindu religions, which are quite different. Although I believe that the predominant emphasis on religious education should be Christian, I do not assert that any act of worship should be exclusively Christian, any more than that any reli- gious lesson should be exclusively Christian. I shall refer to a helpful note that was given to me by Miss Sylvia Raison, the most distinguished headmistress of the Sarah Bonnell Comprehensive School in East London, who described what morning assembly and worship meant to her school.

She said that it lasted only for five or 10 minutes. The school has music, a hymn, a Bible reading and sometimes supporting extracts from the words of outstanding people of the past, such as William Pope. Only 50 per cent. of the children in the school are white indigenous children. The other 50 per cent. are immigrants, from a wide range of countries. Nevertheless, 99 per cent. of the parents wish their children to take part in an act of Christian worship. The parents have all been asked, and I think that only one has opted out on behalf of his child.

In fact, the act of worship at this school helps to create harmony and not disunity, and enables the teachers and the headmistress to show a wide area of common ground among a number of different religions. I therefore believe that the act of compulsory religious worship in schools is no way counter-productive or educationally undesirable.

I think that I have made a reasonable case at least for continuing to maintain what the Education Act 1944 lays down. What about improving it? The way forward from the 1944 Act must be not to dismantle the entrenched provisions, which would be a negative step, but to improve what the entrenched provisions seek to establish.

To return to my analogy, if we regard Sections 25 and 26 of the Education Act as scaffolding, the way to dismantle it—if dismantled it should be in the light of changes 30 years later—is to ensure that the building that it was desired to support in the course of construction is firmly established and well-founded on its own feet. I believe that this means that special help needs to be given to religious education in schools if we are to make the building firm on its own feet and perhaps, ultimately, in a new Education Act, to dismantle the scaffolding and the entrenched provisions.

The reason that I call upon the Minister to consider special help is simple. There is great pressure on resources throughout the whole economy, not least in education. In the short term a lad or a girl is much more likely to get a job if he or she has a good working knowledge of a slide rule than a good working knowledge of Christianity, but anybody who has had any experience of life knows that the slide rule is not so likely to be such a long-term boon as the thoroughly-grounded understanding of and participation in—I would say, commitment to—a particular, and in my view Christian religion.

But in the short term the fact that, in the eyes of many, it is bound to take lower priority than the utilitarian, immediate, practical, worldly subjects offered in schools, is no reason for allowing it to become the Cinderella in the syllabus. The Government must think of the way forward, if they are thinking at all about reforms in education and of the entrenched provisions, as lying in giving additional practical help to RE.

Let me suggest some specific acts of help and support that the Government should consider giving. First, special help is needed to enable experienced teachers to do in-service conversion courses to change to religious education from other subjects. That is a very important and useful way forward. Secondly, special help for religious education in teacher training institutions is needed. There is real evidence that the support for RE in many of the teacher training colleges is diminishing under the impact of shortage of resources and uncertainty about the future.

The establishment of further in-service training centres is desirable and I think that in the short term, where teachers may have to go away for in-service training, much could be done by equipping existing clergy in churches of all denominations, through short crash courses of perhaps only a week in length, to equip themselves to fill the gap in schools while regular teachers are away doing in-service training.

Consideration should also be given to providing financial help to establish the Religious Education Council of England and Wales and also the Association of Religious Education, the two professionally-based religious education bodies. The establishment of one or two pro- perly financed and funded research projects is desirable. All local authorities ought to have an adviser or an inspector with special responsibility for a religious education, full-time, part-time or shared.

At least three headmasters and headmistresses of London comprehensive schools whom I met recently—all enthusiasts for religious education—have complained to me about the relative lack of expertise or specialism amongst inspectors in the local education authorities in this field. Chief education officers should be encouraged to see that proper and reasonable provision is made for religious education while the subject remains compulsory and entrenched in the statute. In many cases, this is not happening.

Both HMIs and district inspectors should be more forceful in seeing that religious education is provided according to the 1944 Act. We are dealing here with a subject which is dear to the hearts of the great mass of parents and indeed adults generally outside our schools in our country, because the vast majority of human beings have a deep and abiding commitment to the welfare and well-being of children. In my view, nothing could be crueller than first pretending that religious education is not an essential ingredient of education and then paying lip service to it only if the proposition is accepted without controversy. By paying lip service I mean failing to provide the proper resources, encouragement and back-up for religious education.

The way forward, if we want to dismantle entrenched provisions of the 1944 Act—if they have to be dismantled in future—is to ensure that religious education stands on its own feet. It was the need to do that which led me to table the motion.

11.27 a.m.

Mr. David Weitzman (Hackney North and Stoke Newington)

I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science on her first appearance at the Dispatch Box and wish her happiness and efficiency in her duties.

The hon. Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison) has done the House a service by moving this motion. Undoubtedly, there has been a deterioration in the religious and moral instruction of our children in recent times. Many people ascribe the present laxity in the Welfare State, the increase in crime, and the lowering of our standards of morality, to this fact.

It is of interest to remember the great struggles between the religious interests and those who stood for reform in our educational systems. As long ago as the Liberal Education Act of 1868, both parties, Conservative and Liberal, opposed any idea of making school attendance compulsory. That position was founded mainly on the need to keep alive the voluntary schools attached to religious bodies.

It is difficult for us now to appreciate the intensity of religious feeling on this score in the nineteenth century, but clearly the identification of education with religion was very strong. During the discussion of the Education Act of 1902, it was said that vociferous religious interests masked the real interests of the socialisation of children. This feeling persisted in some measure until the last war.

The "Green Book", as it was called—the Report of the Committee dealing with "Education after the War"—generally recognised that the religious interests played some part in providing an obstacle to the reorganisation of education. One must remember—and this is important—that at the outbreak of the Second World War there were still 10,000 voluntary schools, with a population of nearly 1½ million children. The interests of religion were recognised, after compromise talks, in the provisions of the 1944 Act. It was accepted in that Act that religious observance and instruction should, by statute, become part of education in both primary and secondary schools. Now the tendency seems to be the other way.

I take this opportunity to give an example of a problem that has arisen in my constituency. I have a sectarian school, called the Yesodey Hatorah Grammar School. It is a school for Jewish boys and girls. It was founded 33 years ago and is a grammar school for about 800 children. It is wholly maintained by contributions from the Jewish community. In 1971 the Department of Education and Science, after consultation with the ILEA, agreed in prin- ciple to grant "aided" status to the junior girls grammar school, comprising 300 pupils, on the understanding that the school provided an "off programme" and acquired additional premises. The school acquired a site, submitted drawings to the architect of the ILEA and entered into negotiations. The Department has now refused to grant "aided" status. Having relied on the promise by the Department, the school has now incurred a debt of £250,000. If this were a private transaction it might be argued that the Department was estopped in law from denying a claim for damages, as this heavy debt of £250,000 was clearly incurred as a direct result of a promise made by the Department.

I appreciate that economic conditions may well have prevented that promise from being kept, but that is an example of the way in which the religious interests of a sectarian school are being denied. I hope that the Minister will comment on this matter and that something can be done about it.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Barkston Ash on the presentation of his case. The matter that he raised is important and well worthy of serious consideration.

11.33 a.m.

Dr. Rhodes Boyson (Brent, North)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison) for introducing this motion today. I strongly concur with him that the overwhelming majority of people in this country identify themselves with Churches and with a specific religious belief, even though they may not attend church every Sunday. The survey to which my hon. Friend referred and other surveys bear that out. Sometimes it is said that not many people attend church on a Sunday. However, it is as well to remember that more people attend church and chapel in the United Kingdom on a Sunday than watch football on a Saturday. We still have physical education in schools. Therefore, the argument that there is lower attendance at church on a Sunday would also wipe out the argument that sports take up more time in the school curriculum.

It is said that religious education, particularly the teaching of the Christian religion and its history, is basic to an understanding of our society, culture and learning. That was brought out in the Durham Report, which said: Religious education is essential because we in England are heirs to the cultural tradition of the West: the Christian faith is so interwoven with our history, art, music and literature that it would not be possible to teach these subjects in schools without some teaching about Christian religion. It is a fact that there has been a decline in the teaching of the Christian religion in schools, Many teachers teaching Milton and, at times, Shakespeare and other authors and poets have to spend a lot of time talking about Christian theology even before our literature books can be opened.

There is no evidence of any wish in this country for a decline in the teaching of religious education, particularly Christianity, which is still the religion of the mass of our people. Ostensibly at least, a movement has arisen to oppose religious education in schools. Four groups give power to this opposition. First, there are the humanists who have a creed that is equivalent to any creed in religious education. There is also the vague body of people who are sometimes known as "do-gooders". I prefer to call them "well-meaners" because they never do good. They are so desperate to be on everyone else's side that they finish up on the suicide of all of us. The idea of bending to any minority group at any time threatens the security and faith of the vast majority of our community. These do-gooders do no good either to minority groups or to the basic body of our faith. I appreciate that all local authorities are not agreed on the type of religious syllabuses, but in Birmingham, where the situation is a mishmash with no values being offered to children from the age of three and with supporting literature which pushes Communism, one wonders at the decline of religious inspection and leadership that has tolerated such syllabuses.

I have with me part of the basic syllabus, not the additions to it, for three-to eight-year-olds in the city of Birmingham. It starts with festivals, as if we are talking about something in history or a tribe going backwards and forwards in the Middle East. It talks of the Christian faith, the Hindu faith, the Jewish faith, the Muslim faith and the Sikh faith. It is a wonder that we do not have outer space and cloud seven by the end of it. The idea that children of three should be taught these things in schools will make them believe that they belong nowhere.

Basically, children at infant and lower junior schools should be given a sense of security which links them with their past and present. If they want to revolt later, they will do so. I have never found any difficulty in an adolescent revolt encouraged from below as well as from on high. It is good for children even to have something to revolt against, otherwise we should create a pathless desert for them where they have to wander for ever, never arriving either in belief or in genuine revolt.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said when she was Secretary of State for Education and Science that in many schools children were being taught doubt before belief. In doing so, no vertebra and no structure are built into the feelings of the children. They are brought up in a mish-mash of confusion and it is no wonder that we have so many adult psychological cases and drug-takers—I do not mean illicit drug-taking, but that prescribed by a general practitioner.

The second group that is against specific religious education is the group that has already done untold harm to our childrens' education. It wants no structure in schools. It wants to create a William Tyndale destruction of all forms of education. The idea that children can discover language, mathematics, religion and art—things that will be necessary and of use to them—certainly fails rapidly, and the attack upon religious education and any form of beliefs that will give encouragement to good lives of people growing up increases.

There are, thirdly—and I must say this with concern—bodies of researchers in this country who do not seem to have anything really serious to do and who are spending their time probing and trying to destroy what is being done. If the Secretary of State for Education and Science should at any time look for cuts—I believe that cuts have been mentioned from time to time by the present Government—it might be a good idea if these bodies were put high on the list.

The National Foundation for Educational Research brought out a report some time ago on religious education. I should like to take one horrific quotation from it. It says: Communism has a philosophy of history, a view of man, a kind of eschatology". I should sooner say "escapology", but that is the word that it uses. It continues: A detailed ethic. and The non-religious life-styles which have enough similarity with the religions to make it right for them to be included within religious education syllabuses (Humanism, Communism, possibly Fascism and the counter-culture). That counter-culture is presumably for teaching three-year-olds to eight-year-olds. Would this be the secret drug-taking in the lavatories and loos of schools?

What is horrifying is that here is a body maintained by money from local authorities to research to help in the schools and it is coming out with such a report. If there is any counter-culture, it would seem that it is being fired from bodies such as that. It must be made clear what these people are doing.

Finally, on the attack on religious education, I think that with sadness one must say that there is a lack of firm belief in the Churches themselves. Mass revolutions are made by the treason of the clerks and not by those always knocking on the door to come in. Many of our churches, and some of their leaders, have turned the churches into a sort of Rotary Club without the good dinners. They do not think in the sense of the propagation of a faith. If religious education dies, to my mind the churches will have been more responsible than the NFER or the Humanists and the do-gooders. It might be a good idea if they returned to having a spine and a backbone again.

Education—and religious education is part of that—should train people to lead meaningful lives. People can do so only if they absorb our culture, learning and values. Things such as Bible readings have their part in this, and so does the morning assembly that was so well referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash. I think that I would agree with him completely that we do not want religious education in schools for indoctrination and ideological commitment. Nor, however, do we want it just for classes, as though we were study- ing the amoeba and the strange breeding habits of the amoeba that we have studied at an early age.

The right thing, to my mind, is to induct children and not to indoctrinate them. It is to give them what the mass of our people have, and to let them decide whether or not they make a substantial commitment later. That is the job of the churches and they should get on with it. However, it should not be treated as part of an experiment at the results of which we are surprised.

We must rally the forces in this country to link themselves with the views of the mass of our people for the continuance of religious education. Secondly, we must fire the churches again, not to interfere with what is taught in schools in religious education directly but at least to make sure that it is religious education. Much project work and social mishmash that is now taught in schools has nothing whatever to do with religious education, yet it is taking up the very valuable one or two lessons a week. The job of the churches is to see that what is taught there is the subject. It would be a great surprise if in a German class people were doing biological experiments, but there seems to be no surprise when in religious education everything but religion is being taught.

Our predominant religion is Christianity, but we have in this country minor religions with large groups of people. It is not a question of using religious education in schools to proselytise these people into the Christian faith at all. It is the concern of those of us—certainly myself—who believe in religion being taught in schools that all the different communities should be taught their religion, whatever it may be, and not a mish-mash.

Like the hon. and learned Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Weitzman), I have Jewish schools in my constituency, and a large Jewish community. I welcome and encourage in every way the continuance of Jewish religious education, not only in the synagogue and the schules but also in the other schools being set up during the week. I have a large Gujarati community. I have attempted to encourage them not only to do their religious teaching on a Saturday but also, where possible, to set up their own schools. I have attempted to encourage those of other religions out of pride for our own religion and what it does for them and us. Let us allow young people to be brought up with a specific belief instead of something that means nothing to anyone.

Finally, on the question of morning assemblies, which are very much under attack at present and which people want to use for other purposes, my hon. Friend referred to the Stars and Stripes worship along the lines of our allies in the United States. When I came into London in 1961—I am only pushed to say this by what my hon. Friend said about morning assemblies—which led me on the path which eventually brought me to this honourable House, as the head of the Robert Montefiore School, a predominantly Jewish school in the East End, I was told that there could be no assembly in that school because they could not get the various groups together. I was told that if they called a Jewish assembly everyone pretended to be a Christian, and if they called a Christian assembly everyone pretended to be Jewish, to escape from it—as has been done in the Army. There was also no means of getting the various Asian groups together.

I remember going around the priests and teachers of East London and the leaders of the immigrant communities. We agreed on the worship of one God, which seemed to me at least a sensible view within that set-up. We agreed on six hymns and on a number of readings. For the first time in a number of years there was an assembly at the Robert Montefiore School. When we came to prayers, I said "We shall all pray to God in the way that our religion teaches us." One group, the Christians, closed their eyes. Another group kept their eyes open to see whether God was coming. However, another group, for which I had not allowed and which comprised a certain section from the East, prostrated themselves and knocked the others down. But it was interesting. Not only did it do a considerable amount for the moral values of that school but it also projected a sense of unity in the school.

In my last school, Highbury Grove, which was predominantly a Christian school, we made arrangements so that any minority group could withdraw its children at any time. If they did not do so, the children came to us. If necessary, the Roman Catholic Mass was celebrated at the school once a week for Catholics. Such problems of religious education in schools can be easily overcome. What we are lacking in so many ways, as in so many spheres, is the will, and nothing is done. Rather than finish with the highest common factor, we finish with the lowest common denominator in many ways.

Finally, I should say that I am unable because of other engagements made before I knew of the importance of the debate, to remain for the whole debate. I regret that. However, I shall read every word that is said. Whatever people's views are, I must say that this is as important a debate as any that has occurred for some time in the House of Commons. In the long run, the moral fibre of our people will matter more than economic problems and inflation. That is what gives strength to our people.

I come now to one point on which I happen to disagree with my hon. Friend. I am not sorry to say this, since it is an honest difference of opinion, but I believe in the continuance of the entrenched clauses. I would not put those at risk. However, apart from that, I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for introducing the motion and for emphasising how important it is that there shall be an act of worship in our schools every day. I want religious education in the classroom to be given by committed Christians, and with that in mind I urge the Church of England and other denominational colleges to concentrate their efforts to that end rather more than they do at present. I want religious education to be given by committed Christians so that the faith of our fathers, the faith which gives meaning to life, can be passed on to young people for them to accept or reject, as they may wish, in adult life.

11.50 a.m.

Sir John Hall (Wycombe)

I am in something of a quandary in taking up the debate after such an extremely good and interesting speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson). I congratulate him on that speech, just as I congratulate and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison) for introducing the motion. This is a personal word of thanks to my hon. Friend because he has introduced a motion of great importance, and I find it of some significance that it should be necessary in a country which has an Established Church of which the Queen is the head.

Most of us now in the Chamber took part this morning in the prayers which we have every day when the House is sitting, and perhaps hon. Members will forgive me if I remind them of what is said in one of the prayers which we follow each time we attend prayers in the Chamber. It begins: Almighty God, by whom alone Kings reign"— and then: We thine unworthy servants …do most humbly beseech thee to send down thy Heavenly Wisdom from above, to direct and guide us in all our consultations: And grant that, we … laying aside all private interests, prejudices and partial affections, the result of all our counsels may be to the glory of thy blessed Name, the maintenance of true Religion and Justice …". We then refer to the uniting and knitting together of the hearts of all persons and estates within the same, in true Christian Love and Charity one towards another… ". Sometimes I wonder what would happen if we took that prayer really seriously. It might have quite an effect on our debates in the House and the conclusions to which we come. But that is the prayer which we have been accustomed to use over many years in the House. It lays emphasis throughout on the maintenance of the Christian faith and Christian principles, and I find it difficult to understand why religious education in schools and the teaching of the Christian faith should be under attack today.

If we believe what we say in the House, our first duty to our children is to ensure that they are properly grounded in the Christian faith in a way which should influence the whole of their education. If we do not believe it, we should stop the hypocrisy of prayers in the House, we should disestablish the Church and we should have a completely humanist House—if one may so call it—with no official ties with any religion. But if we do more than pretend to be a Christian country, all the time we are prepared to have prayers in the House and accept an Established Church we should equally be prepared to see that our children receive Christian education in our schools.

It is my belief that even in a multicultural society, which we are fast becoming, as my hon. Friend said, the teaching of the Christian faith is essential as part of education. There is very little which adherents of the other major religions can find objectionable in the teaching of Christ. Even humanists might find the basic philosophy acceptable, although, of course, they would not accept the mystical and spiritual aspects of the Christian faith.

I think that the objections most commonly raised to the teaching of the Christian faith can be summed up in a few words once said by G. K. Chesterton: It is not the style of the Bible we dislike. It is the fact that the Bible cramps our style. I think that that is the basis of most of the objections to the teaching of religion today.

Where religious education is properly given, and especially where it informs and colours the whole curriculum throughout a school, as it does in many Roman Catholic schools, the effect on the children is clearly noticeable, even if it takes only the form of learning good manners—which is nothing more nor less than consideration for others, which is one of the basic Christian principles. If we could instil that into the population as a whole—that is, good manners and consideration for others—we should go a long way to improve our social life.

The trouble is that in most schools religious education is neglected. The problem lies in part in the absence of properly qualified teachers, and I fear that it is likely to grow worse. Colleges which have a strong religious education department are now threatened with closure. Culham College is but one example, and those of my constituents who attend that college have told me of their considerable distress at the threat of its closure.

There is no doubt, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North said, that religious education is regarded by some as a nuisance and an interruption in the smooth flow of the curriculum. It is either treated, at best, as a rather uninteresting history lesson or, at worst, used to fill the gap between the marking of the register in the morning and the start of the next teaching session.

Not infrequently, that state of affairs comes about because of the absence of properly trained teachers or instructors. Sometimes religious education is left in the hands of people with relatively little interest, or, worse, in the hands of those who are basically atheist or agnostic, and no one can believe that there can be meaningful religious education in any school when that happens. It is no wonder that in many schools religious education has but little effect today on the conduct and outlook of the children who pass through those schools.

The Christian faith has informed and shaped Western culture throughout the centuries and, despite the atrocities and cruel persecutions sometimes conducted in the name of Christ, humanity as a whole owes a great debt to the compassion, mercy, courage and love of those who have served the Church throughout the world. Indeed, many of our problems today stem from the fact that we are fast losing our faith, if we have not already lost it. The old signposts have been knocked down and nothing has been put in their place.

As a people—this applies not only to Britain but to many Western countries—we are lost in a complex and increasingly frightening world. But perhaps we are beginning to understand—even the humanists may be beginning to understand—that man is not sufficient to himself alone but he must look outside himself for help. Some long time ago, William Penn—who was a Buckingham man and whose words I rather like to quote for that reason alone—said: Men must be governed by God or they will be ruled by tyrants. Perhaps I may bring that a little more up to date by quoting words of the late General George Marshall, the author of the Marshall Plan. Talking about the effect of the Marshall Plan, he once had this to say: I am certain that material assistance alone is not sufficient. The most important thing in the world today, in my opinion, is a spiritual regeneration. Religious education in our schools should be strengthened, not weakened. We should take action to provide more, not fewer, qualified teachers. I believe that religious teaching should be based upon the Christian faith, which we profess officially in this House. By all means, at the appropriate stage, let us introduce the study of comparative religion, but to introduce it at the beginning of school life is utter nonsense. It confuses the children and leaves them with no guiding faith or philosophy.

We are almost a pagan country today. Would anyone deny that many of our problems—especially those which stem from self-interest, from greed, from envy and from intolerance—would be solved if the majority of people lived according to the Christian faith? That by itself, I submit, should be sufficient to ensure that the House supports the motion with enthusiasm.

12 noon.

Mr. Bryan Davies (Enfield, North)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on her new appointment. She is faced with a somewhat difficult task today in threading her way through the intricacies of the provisions for religious education. I am sure that she will forgive me if I set out not to make her task easier but possibly more difficult.

I am conscious that there may not be many hon. Members who will be expressing a dissenting view on the motion, but I intend to express that view. I am a humanist and I must also confess that I am a product of that institution which used to be known as the godless institution in Gower Street. But University College has no responsibility for my beliefs because I took up my position before I began my higher education.

It is because of the importance of the time at which individuals declare their positions on religious and moral beliefs that I think that the present law is unacceptable and should be reformed. In a pluralist society it is recognised that the number of practising Christians is, by any measure, in a minority. But I recognise that Christianity plays a rôle which is far greater than can be measured by those who go regularly to church.

The hon. Member for Wycombe (Sir J. Hall) said that one of the practices of the House was regular prayers and respect for religious tradition. He did not mention that a minority of hon. Members participate in those prayers. To purport the respect for that tradition as being a meaningful act reflects a minority position. Our situation exactly parallels that at school assemblies: the minority of those participating are subscribing to the values represented by the assembly.

Mr. Anthony Fell (Yarmouth)

I am sure that the hon. Member is not suggesting that, because only a few hon. Members are able to attend prayers before the sitting of the House, all those who do not attend are not Christians.

Mr. Davies

I am not suggesting that they are not Christians, but if one put forward the proposition that prayers are meaningful in those terms one would expect a greater attendance, particularly on the days when the House is full at 2.35 p.m.

There is a parallel between prayers in this House and morning assembly in schools. I think that the hon. Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison) was prepared to accept that the strength of Christian values in a society cannot be measured by the number of times a school meets in regular assembly and that morning assembly does not necessarily represent the bulwark of Christian values. Americans who pride themselves on identifying their commitment to religious values would find the situation here strange. They recognise that their pluralist society can never be sustained by imposing upon school children an act of worship to which they may not subscribe.

Because of its religious sections, the 1944 Act is one of the least respected Acts in the country. That is not surprising because they affect the curriculum, which traditionally and rightly the community leaves to professional educators and teachers. There are many potent reasons for the failure to observe that Act.

Conservative Members who propose that the Act should be strengthened must recognise the problems. In many of our schools it is physically impossible to assemble pupils for the act of worship. It is also clear that a high percentage of headmasters are not practising Christians. As hon. Members opposite have said, it is important that religious education should be taught by people who are com- mitted to those values and to the worth of what they are seeking to teach. That is clearly not possible within the framework of the present system in the State schools. I do not think hon. Members would argue that morning assemblies should be conducted solely by teachers who express their commitment to Christianity. If that was the case, it would raise particular problems in maintained schools.

A school is not a community of Christian believers any more than is this House, and we should not require children to go through forms of worship if they have no genuine belief in what that act of worship represents. It does a disservice to the values in that act of worship if the participants are apathetic, resentful or, worse, cynical. That is a debasement of religion, and it is a mistake to compel children to participate in such assemblies.

I believe that schoolchildren should be taught to question, discuss and think for themselves about moral values. Yet daily we are insisting that those faculties be suspended, even among the more mature students, and that they should participate in an act to which many of them do not subscribe.

The act of worship produces a range of anomalies in our State education system. Pupils of 17 who are involved in full-time education at technical colleges are not obliged to attend morning assembly, but if they remain in the sixth form at a maintained school, following the same course of education to the same level, their attendance at morning assembly is compulsory. If it is argued that this is a benefit which must be forced upon children over the age of 16, what about the large majority of young people of that age who are not in places of education?

The withdrawal of pupils from an assembly because they have reservations about the act of worship is not a satisfactory solution to the problem. It is unfair to ask children publicly to declare their minority position in relation to the school community—in which they want to play a full part in every other respect—and for them to have to ask to be withdrawn from an assembly if they or their parents have reservations about the act of worship.

Education in matters of belief should be objective, fair and balanced. There should be respect for a number of religious viewpoints and moral codes other than the important and valued code of Christianity. The purpose of the 1944 Act is clearly constructive in terms of religious instruction, but I do not believe that to induct children into Christianity is a position that is accepted by the vast majority of serious educators within our schools who seek to develop religious education, not religious instruction.

We need a society which provides a greater degree of tolerance and diversity. Although Conservative Members may list their worries and concerns about the development of contemporary society—I agree with some of their worries and concerns—I often differ from them in attributing the cause and judging the dimension of our social problems.

It should be recognised that we need an argument which identifies the problems of religious bigotry and division which operate within one sector of our society, one sector of our Christian nation. They are problems which are being neither resolved nor helped by religious worship on sectarian lines within schools in Northern Ireland. With that example before us, we must guard against any lack of respect for moral positions other than our own. We should not instruct our children: we should educate them. In my view, it is not consistent with respect for mutual values to compel children to participate in religious worship when they themselves have genuine reasonable doubts.

12.13 p.m.

Mr. William van Stranbenzee (Wokingham)

I shall attempt, however inadequately, to meet head-on the arguments which were deployed effectively by the hon. Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Davies). Before doing so, I extend a warm welcome to the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science, whose debut from the Front Bench I understand this debate is to be. I can do so with even greater effect than others because I can reveal that I recently had the immense pleasure of being under the same roof as the hon. Lady for a night. It was a most enjoyable experience. However, in case I have done her any damage among the good electors of Lincoln, I make it clear that we were both in the eminently respectable background of St. George's House, Windsor. I hope that that clarification removes any doubts that my words may have spread.

It is interesting that the central case of the hon. Member for Enfield, North is that we live in a pluralistic society in which Christianity is in the minority. He then developed his theme of a radical change in religious instruction and acts of worship in our schools. I believe that he is wrong.

I start with a short examination of those who hold the position which, I recognise, is sincerely held by the hon. Gentleman. As far as I know, there is only one critical examination of the followers of the humanist position. It is an effective paper written by Dr. Colin Campbell of the University of York. It is the more effective because I believe I am correct in saying that Dr. Campbell is a humanist. I refer to the paper which Dr. Campbell wrote for the Sociological Review of November 1965.

In summary, his examination of those who take the humanist position reveals that humanists can be found in any region but that they predominate in London and the South-East of England. The vast majority live in urban areas, being especially numerous in large cities. Chiefly they are male and aged between 20 and 50. The majority of them have full-time employment of a professional or technical nature. It is of special significance that teachers constitute by far the largest group. Approximately one in five of those responding to the survey were or had been in teaching.

In the breakdown of social classes undertaken by the Registrar General, humanists are concentrated in social classes I and II. The majority experienced secondary education at grammar or public schools and stayed on after statutory school leaving age.

When we contrast that analysis, which I have necessarily truncated, with the great mass of people for whose children we are concerned, we see that those who take the humanist position are urban-based, essentially middle- and upper-class and grammar- and public-school educated, one in five being teachers. Their numbers are minuscule compared with the population as a whole, but because of their qualifications they have an influence out of all proportion to their numbers, especially in education.

As I have said, I do not question the sincerity of the view held by those such as the hon. Member for Enfield, North. I concede that due weight should be given to their views, but I assert firmly that no more than due weight should be given. It seems that by default the case has often gone too far in the direction of the view which humanists propound.

To answer directly the assertion that Christianity is a minority belief, I draw the attention of the House, in supplement to the figures mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison), to the even more effective figures that were gained from spot surveys. So far as I know those which I shall quote are unique in the examination of the following of the Church of England. I refer to Appendix D of the Report of the Church and State Commission, a body on which I served, which was set up by the Archbishops of Canterbury and of York and which reported in 1970. The appendix is a study of the existing material, published and unpublished, on religious belief and practice in England. I believe that it is unique.

The detailed work was done by Mr. R. W. Coles, whose name is familiar, and Dr. C. B. Campbell of the University of York, both of whom have no commitment to the Church of England. Indeed, I believe that they have no commitment to any Church, although I must make it clear that they were supervised by Professor Kathleen Jones of the University of York, who has an active Anglican commitment.

A summary of that document leads us to these conclusions. Assuming that children under 16 follow their parents' affiliation, at least 23 million people, and probably over 30 million people, regard themselves as "Church of England". More than one in four of the adult population have been confirmed into that Church, which is nearly 10 million people. One child in two is baptised into the Church of England. One couple in two, or nearly so, is married in the Church of England. The gap be- tween affiliation statistics and attendance statistics is much larger in the Church of England than in other churches in England. Much is made of the fact that only 2 million people make their Easter Communion, but attendance figures from local surveys suggest a much larger attendance on a once-monthly or several-times-a-year basis.

I firmly refute the assertion that Christianity is a minority belief or practice in this country. I have quoted figures only from the Established Church, and hon. Members will need to add the figures from other great denominations that are well known to us.

Against this background the definition of "education" in Section 7 of the Education Act 1944 is absolutely fundamental. It lays on the local education authorities the duty so far as their powers extend, to contribute towards the spiritual, moral, mental and physical development of the community". It will be noted that the word "Christian" is not used. That is the basis on which the Act was founded. In an exact legal document one would not find words which in all conscience and good faith were capable of giving the word "Christian" different interpretations. The form of teaching is not laid down by our system because it is according to syllabus and depends on those who are responsible for it.

Furthermore, it is not fair to talk of these matters in relation to compulsion. The element of religion is the one element that is not compulsory for the child. If the House does not believe that, or is doubtful, let it recall the recent controversy involving a number of parents who, deeply anxious about their children receiving sex instruction in the schools, sought to withdraw them from that instruction. It was found, quite rightly as the Act is drawn, that they had no legal power so to do.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash for initiating this important discussion. I know that he, too, is anxious to make it clear that there are few people who seek to stand four square on every jot and comma of the 1944 Act as it stands today. Of course changes are required, and my hon. Friend outlines some of them. For example, I very much doubt that it is necessary for the act of worship to take place only when the day begins and that that should necessarily be laid down by law. The hon. Member for Enfield, North drew a parallel between our observance in the House and that in schools. There are a great many matters in the training of the young where disciplined attendance and observance in all aspects of education is part of the business of rearing the young. Therefore, the comparison that the hon. Gentleman sought to draw with observance in this House is not valid.

I accept that the Education Act need not necessarily require that the act of worship should occur at the beginning of the day. I also accept that it need not be a single act attended by all the school. I accept that the special difficulties of those in sixth form colleges need attention, particularly in terms of sixth form provision where I have seen some imaginative presentations on the part of the senior pupils—matters which, strictly speaking, are not within the law. Furthermore, the act of worship need not necessarily always take place in the school, as the law requires. Again, there are special provisions arising from the presence of children in large numbers from other faiths. We sometimes forget how anxious are devout Moslems and Sikhs that their children, too, should be reared with deep understanding and observance of their faiths.

The real significance of this debate—I hope that this will be understood outside the House—is that my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash has given hon. Members who share his views the chance to initiate proposals. Many hon. Members when dealing with this topic are tired of always having to respond and to oppose arguments rather than to put forward their own ideas in a positive way.

I say in all friendliness to the hon. Member for Enfield, North, and to anybody who has it in mind to introduce legislation on this topic, that there is a considerable hardening of attitude. I have detected this in my constituency and in a much wider area. The reason is that large numbers of parents are deeply anxious about the moral background into which their children are being reared and the standards presented to them.

Parents are anxious that "moral" education will be so "objective, fair and balanced", to use the words of a famous little pamphlet, that young people will be left without any firm values or guidance on all sorts of major moral questions. Furthermore, they are parents who themselves had religious instruction and moral backing, which they are anxious to see handed on to their children. If this is the only message to come out of this debate—and I know that it will not be the only message—it will be one further reason for congratulating my hon. Friend on initiating this important discussion.

12.27 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Fell (Yarmouth)

We have had a characteristically thoughtful speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison)—with whom in the past I have crossed swords on the subject of vasectomy—on bringing the topic of religious education before the House.

I have read the motion carefully, and I am not at all sure that it is necessary. However, I appreciate that it is a way of bringing this topic before the House, since it is a matter of vital importance.

I am delighted that the young lady, the hon. Member for Lincoln (Miss Jackson, has been appointed Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science. I almost said that she was too nice for that kind of thing, but remembering the views of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, I must be careful. Having said that, I am astonished that the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Education and Science, for whom I have always had the greatest respect and affection, is not present for this debate. He is not an easy person to find. I have a deep affection for him. I always have had. Can the hon. Lady tell us where he is? I am absolutely sure that he has a most important engagement, of the greatest moment for the future of the nation. Can she oblige the House by telling us where her right hon. Friend is and perhaps doing so now rather than later?

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Miss Margaret Jackson)

I was not intending to intervene. I do not know precisely where my right hon. Friend is. I understand that he is away on Government business.

Mr. Fell

It was not fair of me to put that question, but it is not unfair for me to say that in spite of my liking, respect and affection for the right hon. Gentleman, it is utterly disgraceful for a Minister with such responsibilities and such experience—there is hardly a Department he has not been in—to absent himself from such an important debate.

Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas (Chelmsford)

I assure my hon. Friend that my surprise about the Secretary of State's absence is rather less than his, because of our experience in the Committee which is considering the Education Bill dealing with secondary education. The right hon. Gentleman is never present in that Committee.

Mr. Fell

As my hon. Friend has pointed out, life is full of amazing things. Had I known that, I would not have attacked the right hon. Gentleman for being absent this morning. It is unfair. Obviously he is not able to come to any of these debates. It is a most disgraceful situation that when we are debating the foundation of the future morality of the entire nation the right hon. Gentleman should not be here, listening to our debate and helping his protégé. I do not mind that the Under-Secretary has been thrown in at the deep end, except that it is not a terribly nice thing to do to someone.

I would like to know whether the hon. Lady can answer one or two questions. They are difficult, because they are not very specific. Can she tell us the number of schools that find it difficult or impossible to carry out the will of the 1944 Education Act? There are people who say that because the headmaster of a school is an atheist he cannot give religious instruction. Yet there are headmasters who loathe Latin but still have to teach it, and do so because they are honourable men. Because a teacher or a headmaster is not a Christian, it is no excuse for him to fail to learn rudimentary Christianity, which can be put across to conform with the Butler Education Act.

The reason why I was slightly rude about the motion moved by my right hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash is that the 1944 Act is rather good. My hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham is splitting hairs in questioning little bits of the Act. I would have thought that a headmaster like my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) would get dispensation to hold his short prayer service at any time during the school day. I shall not argue with my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham for raising the point, but this is not the substance and base of religious education.

It seems from the speeches that have been made today that many of us are frightened that it is becoming impossible to give religious education in this country.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Oh, no!

Mr. Fell

This is not true in religious schools. It is not true in many schools where the education is of a high standard and is taught by educated Christians. But what about schools where this is not so? What information has the hon. Lady dealing with the difficulties of teaching religion according to the 1944 Act? Has a survey been carried out by the Department? How many of the inspectors inquire about religious education? I can understand their making inquiries in some of the London schools, perhaps, where the majority of pupils are of foreign or Commonwealth extraction and not of the Christian faith. What is happening generally? Do the inspectors ask the question? If so, with what results?

I am very sceptical about the value of religious education in our State schools today. I believe that although it is better than nothing, it is unlikely to do a great job for the Christian faith. Instruction in that faith must begin and continue in the home. If that does not happen it is exceedingly unlikely that the limited educational instruction given in State schools will do the job it seeks to do.

I agree with my hon. Friend's motion in that it calls for better religious education and for a greater emphasis to be laid on such education. People are concerned about what is going on and what has gone on. They are concerned about morality, or lack of it, among enormous numbers of young people. Anything that can be done to help spread some kind of respect for the moral values preached by the Christian religion must be for the good. If the hon. Lady sees her right hon. Friend in the future—

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I hope that she has better luck than we have had in Committee.

Mr. Fell

That Committee seems to be bedevilling the issue. I am sure that the hon. Lady will tell her right hon. Friend, when she sees him, about the enormous worry that has been expressed today on this vital matter.

12.38 p.m.

Mr. Richard Crawshaw (Liverpool, Toxteth)

I appreciate the opportunity of taking part in this debate, opened by the hon. Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and wish her well in her new appointment. I hope that she will spend a long time on the Front Bench.

I was particularly impressed by the manner in which the hon. Member moved this motion, in which there is no question of any specific religion. We have to face facts as they are, not as we would like to see them. This is where I take issue with the hon. Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell). It is not enough to give the impression that while this may not do any good it may not do any harm. We have either to be positive about it or do away with it. I have said here, in discussing Royalty and other matters, that the thing that will destroy a system in this country is a hidebound belief that there should not be any change.

Although I intend to vote for the motion, my views may differ to some extent from those of hon. Gentlemen who have spoken today. They will certainly differ very much from those of my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Davies). If we talk about attendance at prayers as an indication of how many people have religion, the humanists do not show up very well. I have heard only one humanist speak and I do not know any others who are likely to make a contribution.

A distinction has to be made between religious education and propagating a particular religious belief. I do not believe that the schools are there to progagate any particular religious belief. We hear that the majority of the parents are anxious that their children should receive basic religious education in the schools. I accept this. I know that it is true. But by giving the impression that this is being done we may be in danger of loosening the resolve of parents to ensure that their children are receiving a religious education.

I believe that children should receive religious education in their own Churches. Many of the parents who hold these views do not send their children to Sunday school. The parents may feel that all that is necessary is being done at school, yet we know from our own experience that, all too often religious education in schools is given by people who are lukewarm towards religion. In many cases it is given by agnostics, humanists, and so on. It always falls on Joe Soap to take the religious education. We do not have a proper system of religious education in our schools; therefore we ought to examine the situation very closely before we decide to continue on the lines we do at the moment.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Would it not be fair also to say that although this is the case with some teachers, a minority of dedicated teachers are devoting themselves very effectively to the work of religious education?

Mr. Crawshaw

I certainly subscribe to that. We have only to see the reaction amongst pupils of those dedicated teachers.

What I want to see in schools is religious education in a broad sense. The main religions, amazingly, all seem to have the same basic principles of morality. Whether I cease to believe in God or Christ, or anything else, I believe that the opportunity to attend church and hear these doctrines, and to have them instilled into us, is an important part of our existence.

My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North seemed to think that there was something peculiar in teaching children things they might not want to learn. I wonder how many children would be left in our schools if we allowed them to choose only the things they wanted to learn. I believe we have already gone too far in that direction in our educational system. Presumably, when my hon.

Friend was at school he received a certain amount of religious education, but he knows that when he became more mature this did not prevent him from deciding that it was not for him.

It was suggested by one hon. Gentleman that in the future the moral fibre will be more important than the economic. I take issue with this suggestion, in the sense that I believe that what is already responsible for the economic deterioration in this country is the lack of moral fibre among many of our people.

It is very easy for us to take the view that certain of our attributes are inherent in our lives, as though they were present when we were born. My hon. Friend knows that human nature just does not happen to be like that. Human nature, without a moulding, is completely selfish. It may well be that children today are not getting this moulding in their homes, as we know to our cost. Many people who say "I managed to make it—look what I have made of my life", fail to look behind them at parents who had a religious belief and taught their children the basic principles in life, such as how they ought to conduct themselves with one another, together with instruction concerning honesty, and so on. Many people were brought up in a Christian home in which those principles were observed. My hon. Friend may have been brought up in that kind of home.

I believe it is important that children at school should have a wide range of religious education. On any particular Sunday hon. Members may be in churches of different denominations, or in synagogues, and yet they know that these religions are all seeking to teach one basic code of conduct. They are seeking to teach people how they should conduct themselves in relation to their fellow men.

Humanists may say that they have good intentions towards their fellow men, but what is the source of these feelings? Do the humanists really believe that 2,000 years of Christianity have not removed the rough edges, to a great extent? Do we find these attributes in the more Communistic States, where religion has largely ceased to exist? Does the brotherhood of man exist there? We have a long way to go in this country before we have a complete brotherhood of man, but I say to my hon. Friend that it will be a sad day for this country, a sad day for the world, and an even sadder day for my hon. Friend if we have to go through life without knowing the obligations imposed on us in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

12.48 p.m.

Mr. Fergus Montgomery (Altrincham and Sale)

I join in the congratulations already extended to my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison) on giving us a chance to discuss this very important subject today.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell) that it is quite disgraceful that the Secretary of State for Education and Science is not here today and that we have had no good reason for his non-appearance. As my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) pointed out, we do not see the right hon. Gentleman at the all-important Committee where we are discussing the Education Bill at the present time.

We also have no appearance from the Minister of State, who always seems to get his priorities wrong. He left the Committee on one occasion, without any Minister being present from his Department, while he went off to visit a technical college in Nelson and Colne. We had to spend a great deal of time that morning in Committee discussing the non-appearance of the Minister of State. I feel very sorry for the new Under-Secretary, who is not here at the moment—

Mr. St. John-Stevas

There appears to be no Minister here at all now.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Privy Council Office (Mr. William Price)

I am a Minister. May I assure the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Montgomery) that young ladies have the need to disappear from time to time? I shall be here only until five minutes to one. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I write a very good shorthand note and that if he says anything worth recording I shall take it down.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

As my hon. Friend will be the first to recognise, we are back in the very situation that we had in Committee. We have a Minister who has flown in from somewhere, but we have no Minister from the Department of Education and Science to hear my hon. Friend's invaluable words.

Mr. Montgomery

My hon. Friend is right, and we are grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Privy Council Office for his explanation. We realised that he was a Minister, but I think he will admit that his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science is much nicer to look at than he can ever be.

Today, parents are vitally concerned about the decline of standards in our schools. Therefore, it is wrong that my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford and others of us have to spend so much of our time in Committee battling against an iniquitous piece of legislation which seeks to make every secondary school go comprehensive. It would have been better if the Government had been prepared to drop their political dogma and set up an independent inquiry into the standard of education now being provided in our schools.

Parents are concerned not so much about the name of a school as about what goes on inside it. They are concerned about the lack of discipline, the decline in literacy and, above all, the decline in standards. Therefore, the teaching of religious education in our schools has an important bearing on this.

The 1944 Education Act requires all State schools to provide a course of religious instruction according to an agreed syllabus which shall not include any catechism or formulary which is distinctive of any religious denomination. It lays down regulations for the formulation of a syllabus and requires the holding of worship which is not distinctive of any particular religious denomination.

Along with the development of the other subjects in education, in religious education there has been a move away from simple instruction—in other words, away from telling children facts to education itself, helping them discover and evaluate evidence and relate it to their own experience.

I cannot understand the attack on religious education in our schools which has been started by the British Humanist Association. Parents who object to the act of worship in our schools or who object to religious education in our schools can have their children excluded. This ought to provide for those who object while ensuring the rights of the majority of parents who wish their children to undertake religious education in schools.

Let me quote from the leaflet issued by the Association of Christian Teachers. It says: The vast majority of parents, teachers and pupils want Religious Education. Several surveys to test public opinion have been carried out in the past few years including, National Opinion and Gallup polls. All have shown overwhelming support for religious education in State Schools, with the exception of one conducted by the British Humanist Association. The procedure—and therefore the conclusion—of the latter was highly questionable and in the words of the Times Educational Supplement 'the survey does not enhance the cause of the BHA'. If a majority of parents want their children to have religious education, surely this is right, because the proviso is there to ensure that those who object can keep their children from having religious instruction in our schools.

Religious education seems to be the only subject in the curriculum which is under attack. As far as I know, there is no attack on any other subject. Yet I believe that religious education is of educational value. It enables our culture to be understood, and I believe that no child is properly educated who has not learned that religious experience is part of total human experience. Not only is an understanding of religion in general an essential ingredient of a proper education. The Christian religion has a special place in that our legal and ethical systems derive directly from it.

As I say, the education system is under attack for its flight from standards and values. This causes tremendous concern amongst very many parents. For that reason, I feel that this is no time to abandon one of the principal points of reference for decency and good will in our society.

I believe that the majority of parents want to see religious education in our schools preserved and strengthened. To further this, certain measures could be adopted. First, I believe that local education authorities should see that the 1944 Act in enforced. Secondly, local education authorities should have inspectors qualified in religious education, who could ensure that the heads of religious education departments had exactly the same status as the heads of other departments.

Mr. Fell

Does not my hon. Friend agree that the real sadness is that, although what he says is true and the majority of parents want their children to have religious education in schools, those same parents do not bother to give their own children any grounding in religious education in their own homes?

Mr. Montgomery

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right about that.

The third measure which I suggest is that colleges of education should give a proper training in the scriptures. Fourthly, I think that the Church schools should be retained. I am very sad to see the disappearance of so many of our Church schools. I went to a Church Primary school. It was housed in the most awful building that I have ever seen, but the quality of teaching in the school was excellent, and there is no doubt that the school played a tremendously valuable part in the life of its community.

One of the problems that we face in the teaching of religious education is the widespread shortage of religious education specialists. All too often, the subject is taught by teachers with no special training in religious education who have been deputed to teaching it. It may surprise some hon. Members to know that many years ago, when I was teaching, there were times when I had to teach religious education. I would not pretend that I was properly qualified to teach the subject. I also remember having the disconcerting experience of having an inspector view me while I was teaching religious education. I am afraid that her report was not very good. As I was earning only about £1,000 a year at the time, I felt very tempted to ask her "What do you expect for that sort of salary—Billy Graham?" However, I did not feel that that would help my prospects in any way.

We have to bear in mind that there is a shortage of teachers of religious education. One reason is that the subject no longer has an assured continuance in schools. There is the fear that reli- gious education may no longer be an established curriculum subject. Because of this uncertainty, it is not surprising that people are not anxious to embark on a four-year training course only to find that their qualification is of no value.

Secondly, I believe that the subject has not been established as being taught only by specialists. Someone who had no experience in French would never be asked to teach French in schools. All too often, however, people with no experience in religious education are being told that they must teach the subject. Obviously it is much cheaper for a school to employ a teacher of another subject to help teach religious education. To specialise only in religious education, therefore, is often a disadvantage when a teacher applies for a job.

Thirdly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Sir J. Hall) said, colleges of education are being closed down. He referred particularly to the threat to Culham College. Just as primary education has always been the Cinderella of the education system, religious education is the Cinderella of the curriculum.

In conclusion, I can do no better than quote from a paper by Mr. Peter Dawson, the headmaster of Eltham Green School, which is a large purpose-built comprehensive school administered by the Inner London Education Authority. He said: The attitudes young people adopt towards God and their fellow human beings depend less on religious education than on the style and ethos of their schools. Religious education is provided—or left unprovided—by the relationships between Head and staff and between teachers and pupils in every dimension of a school's life. Here is something which Adolf Hitler once said which has has a bearing upon the question under discussion: 'It is between the ages of ten and seventeen that youth exhibits both the greatest enthusiasm and the greatest idealism. It is for this period of their lives that we must provide them with the best possible instructors and leaders. For once youth has been won over to an idea, an action like that of yeast sets in. We do well to reflect on those words—and the evil created by the man who spoke them—when we begin to ask whether specifically religious education is necessary for the good of our children. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash on launching this subject for discussion today. I hope that the House will give overwhelming support to this important motion.

1.1 p.m.

Sir Stephen McAdden (Southend, East)

I thought that I should be robbed of the opportunity of congratulating the Minister on her elevation and of wishing her every success. We had a fairly close association when she was the Whip on duty in the Committee in which I was in the Chair. The position has deteriorated since the hon. Lady left that Committee. Whilst I cannot hope that she will come back, I wish that the same cordial relations existed now as existed then.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison) on introducing this motion. I am amazed that it should have to be introduced at all. I cannot understand why religious education should have to be foisted on this House in a parliamentary debate. Neither can I understand teachers who are opposed to teaching religion. If it had not been for religious education, this country would not have had an educational system at all. The idea that the State is the universal provider of all social benefits, such as education, is absolute rubbish. The Church started education in this country. Those teachers who belly-ache about it should remember that without the initial push of the Church in providing education for people in this country, our modern education system would not have developed.

The State is a late developer in these matters. It was the Church that first began to educate the people. It taught them religion and educated them in those spheres of activity for which it was trained to provide information.

Even today, in the Third World—the under-developed countries—it is not the State that provides education. The Heads of practically all modern States in the Third World probably received their first education in missionary schools. That is where education started in this country and overseas. Therefore, I am distressed that we have to argue the case for religious education in our schools at this time.

I confess that the only subjects at which I was any good at school were Latin and religious knowledge. One might have thought that those subjects would be singularly useless to me in later life. In fact, they have been my great salvation.

Knowledge of Latin gave me an understanding of how to learn other languages fairly easily. It also gave me an understanding of grammar, and enabled me to do crossword puzzles more easily than might otherwise be the case.

Religious knowledge was a great strength to me in later life, in that certain broad principles were laid down which I have tried, perhaps badly, to follow. However, they have been a great example and discipline to me, as they should be to all of us.

The word 'religio', as my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) will know, means "I bind myself down." Binding oneself down to a set of disciplines and values is a very good thing. I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Liverpool, Toxteth (Mr. Crawshaw) who, I know, shares my views on this subject. It is a good discipline for us all. I am sorry that there is not more discipline in the world today.

Mr. Christopher Price (Lewisham, West)

As a PPS, I am not allowed to speak on the substance of this debate, but as a former classics master I should like to ask whether the hon. Gentleman is saying that 'religio' is a verb. I understood it to be a third declension noun. If the hon. Gentleman is so good at Latin, he might remember that.

Sir S. McAdden

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I was relating what I was saying to the word "religion". We do not want to get involved in a classical argument on this matter. I do not intend to introduce any disturbance into this sitting of the House.

On the general principle of religious education in our schools, I feel sorry for some of the humanists—only one has expounded his view, but others may be present—because they are missing a lot in life.

School children today do not enjoy to the same extent the kind of things that I used to enjoy. Looking back on my childhood, I can think of nothing more enthralling and enjoyable than a crowd singing together at the beginning of the day All things bright and beautiful or, at the end of the day, joining in the united singing of The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended. I used to enjoy other things which we do not have today. I remember Empire Day, when children went to school with little Union Jacks and thoroughly enjoyed themselves. They were proud of being British. Those who attended religious services used to enjoy them immensely.

I know that our humanist friends object to things like that. They would have children wait for their spiritual comfort until they are old enough to judge for themselves what they like. Why do not the humanists, as intelligent people, follow that argument to its logical conclusion—that no child should be fed until it is able to make up its mind whether Glaxo is better than chalk and water?

I believe that a child has not only a body but a soul. As parents, we are responsible for nourishing the soul as well as the body. I suggest not that we should force religion down the throats of children but that we should give them some elementary instruction in religious principles so that in later life they may be able to distinguish between right and wrong.

In the days when people had a minister of religion to whom they could talk and a doctor in whom they could confide, we did not need psychiatrists. They are a comparatively modern invention. Most psychiatrists that I have met looked as though they ought to go and see a psychiatrist.

I am trying to emphasise that religious instruction is useful and desirable. It gives the young a sense of purpose in life and teaches them responsibility towards their neighbours. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Sir J. Hall) said, if it teaches only politeness, that is something. Teaching people the responsibility that they owe to themselves and to their neighbours cannot be bad.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash on seizing the opportunity of introducing this motion today.

1.10 p.m.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)

As I am following my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir S. McAdden), I am not entirely unhappy that I did not qualify very well in Latin. I realise that there are other experts present in the House who will correct me if I make a mistake. I should like to congratulate the hon. Lady on her new appointment as Minister and also my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison) on introducing the motion. I believe that this is one of the most important matters which has been brought before the House on a Private Members' day for a long time. It goes right to the fundamentals of our moral structure and the fabric of our society.

I make no apology for saying that our society is Christian. If we look at any of our coins, we see written on them Fidei defensor, which means, "Defender of the faith". I am being careful about my Latin, and I think I might just get away with it. We must remember that the Queen is the head of the Church and that the Church is established. I hope that it will remain as such.

The 1944 Act was passed in an era when moral standards were higher and people took religion as a matter of course. I believe that any change for the worse in that Act would help this country slide down the road towards atheism or agnosticism. The Act helps to provide—and, indeed, should provide—stability within the schools. My hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) has great knowledge of these matters and referred to the number of practising members of the Churches not only of the Established Church but of other denominational Churches throughout the country.

If we examine the working of the Act, we must look at two aspects. First we must ask whether it should be improved or be left a the status quo. No Act can be perfect, and there must be room for improvement. However, if we are to improve it, we must look for a way to make it more applicable to the needs of today. I am not dissatisfied with the way that it works at present. However, as a governor of many schools I have seen its deterioration in religion and in disciplinary statistics.

I should like to cite one instance. I remember that, as a governor, I wanted to interview a candidate for a post in a primary school in my then constituency of Clapham. My colleagues and I asked the prospective candidate many questions. He seemed to be qualified and we were satisfied with his qualifications. Eventually, not I but a member of the Labour Party asked "You have told us you are an atheist. How would you feel about taking assembly in the morning and teaching religious education?" He said "I know nothing about it, but I am quite prepared to do it." I need only comment that the governors unanimously rejected his appointment. That example bring home to us the vital necessity for having properly qualified people teaching religious subjects. At present, the uncertainty which hangs over the whole future of religious instruction in schools discourages people from studying that particular subject.

I believe—I hope that the Minister will comment on this—that that is one of the reasons why qualified religious instructors are thin on the ground. I am glad that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Toxteth (Mr. Crawshaw) is nodding his head. I was most impressed by his speech and his references to the importance of the preservation of the moral fibre of the whole of the country.

We must not only improve our teachers but ensure that the local authorities carry out their duty under the Act and have properly qualified people to ensure that the Act is carried out to the letter, otherwise there will be a tendency for inspectors to visit infrequently. At present, there is insufficient supervision to ensure that people are properly instructed in religious matters. This is true not so much of voluntary schools as county schools. I shall not weary the House with the details of various differences, but my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East said that we owed a great deal to religion in this country. It was responsible for founding some of our greatest colleges at Oxford and Cambridge—I am not referring only to those colleges, but they were the principal universities in England at the time—and schools.

I was a governor of both a church school and other primary and secondary schools in Clapham, my previous constituency, and found that there was greater discipline in the church school than in any other schools in the area. I am not confining my comments to the Church of England. I must admit that the Catholic school in the area was as good as, if not better than, my school because both brought to their respective children, as my hon. Friend the Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell) mentioned, something which parents these days seem to forget—a sense of duty and responsibility. Many people send their children to schools and assume that the responsibility ends there. They do not realise that the fundamentals of morals and religion are their responsibility—as well as that of the schools.

I believe that assembly at the beginning of the day is most important. It is a grouping of people of all denominations who can sing and worship together in a manner which may be different but which has a tendency to bring them together and to make them feel a sense of community life.

We must also look carefully at religious instruction. I shall not go into that matter except to reaffirm two points. First, we must have teachers who are qualified, willing and anxious to instruct children. We must also consider the case of older children who stay at school far too late, but that is a matter of personal opinion. I left school when I was 16 and went to university. I am perhaps biased in that connection, but there is a case for saying that older children should have a wider choice.

Having got religious instruction, we must ensure that it is carried out by a proper instructor. We have a duty of care to the nation to ensure that society's morals, which are gradually slipping, are restored.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for introducing the motion because it will draw the country's attention to the necessity for the retention of religious instruction in our schools and for the maintenance of moral fibre throughout the country and the people of this land.

1.20 p.m.

Mr. W. Benyon (Buckingham)

I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison) on raising this subject, which is one of the most important to come before the House for a long time. Our present morality, our law—indeed, our whole civilisation—is based on Christian teaching and the Christian ethic. No one assessing the state of our society can feel much optimism about the future. The essential bases of family life have been attacked and are being attacked increasingly. With those bases, all the disciplines and the inspiration—which is far more important—which have stood us in such good stead in the past are gradually being eroded.

Yet is is worth pointing out that we are still a democracy. Unlike Mr. Morley Safer, who is quoted extensively in the papers today, I believe that our democracy is still healthy, tolerant and sensible. Therefore, if the majority of people decide that the religious basis of teaching in our schools is not what they want—if the humanist idea prevails—it is sensible for a democracy to bow to that view. At the moment, however, there is clearly a strong majority for the continuation of religious education.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) pointed out that the vast majority of people are still christened, married and buried in church. The polls quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash showed that there is a strong majority for the continuation of religious education. Essentially, this majority want their children given a full grounding in the Christian religion and also the moral teaching that goes with it. Generally, they cannot put it into words, as those polls show That is why they sounded so genuine—particularly in their remarks about the clergy.

People are already frightened by what is going on. We have heard a great deal about the decline in standards and values, but attitudes are hardening. If the equating of Christianity with such things as humanism, Fascism, and Communism gathers pace, it will confirm people's worst fears. That will give the biggest shot in the arm to private education for a very long time. People will scrimp and save to ensure that their children get that kind of education.

The charge levelled against religious education is that it is indoctrination. So it is, but enforced absence of indoctrination is itself indoctrination. Recently, a number of trendy teachers of sex education expounded their views to the House. I particularly remember Dr. Cole from Birmingham, who showed his film, saying, "There must be no moral content in what we are doing." But the fact that there is no moral content is itself a morality.

The same applies to religious education. If we leave a void in this area, we shall produce a form of indoctrination, which my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) described as a desert where young people can find no signposts. I accept that to teach religious education properly requires dedicated and able teachers, who are not always available. But on the same principle, we would not abolish this House because some hon. Members do not do their job properly.

It is significant that only religious education—not mathematics, English or foreign languages—is under attack. I believe that we need more religious education, not less. Those who oppose this form of teaching are seeking only to pull down without putting anything in its place.

As a society, we are living on borrowed time and borrowed capital. People are beginning increasingly to realise that the situation has gone too far, and attitudes are hardening. Some proof of this is to be found in the response to the Archbishop's call to the nation. I believe that we are on the verge of a substantial revival in religious thinking, in its widest and ecumenical sense. Parliament must match that feeling by retaining and, most important, revitalising, religious education as provided by the 1944 Act.

1.26 p.m.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

I wholeheartedly support the motion and will do so in comparatively few words, since other hon. Members have already advanced propositions with which I fully agree and which I could not express so well.

The importance of religious education lies in the fact that it is the teaching to children of the spiritual basis of life. There is enough teaching of material subjects, instructing young people how to get on in the world, but not nearly enough guidance about their conduct through life and those props to individual behaviour with which it is our duty to provide them. No child should be allowed to go through life without assistance by older people with more experience to point out the pitfalls and the reasons why certain things are not done—not just because that is the accumulated experience of their elders but for the practical reasons which, quite apart from laws, exist to supplement the moral sanction. There is an appalling lack of recognition of this spiritual side of life and of the importance of giving children the benefit of experience which older citizens have.

Unfortunately, we in this House, have a tendency to supplant the normal self-control of individuals by State regulation and laws. Self-control is surely one of the things that religious education is about—teaching the individual that a great deal of his happiness depends upon him and the principles on which he can act when deciding whether to follow a certain course, whether something is good or bad, right or wrong.

There is an all-too-frequent tendency to remove that power of decision from the individual and to say "You shall do this, whether you like it or not". Recent instances of this are the laws on safety helmets for motor cyclists and seat belts for motorists. A good example is the Abortion Act, which helps to deprive the individual of the opportunty to exercise self-control in an important area of life. Other examples include sex education.

Religious education is probably the most important subject that can be taught in our schools, and we neglect it at our peril.

1.30 p.m.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

I must apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker and to previous speakers for being unavoidably absent during the earlier part of this debate. I am pleased and delighted to see the Under-Secretary here today. I only wish that she could have been accompanied by the Secretary of State.

We should not be debating this subject at all unless there have been a great decline in religion since the 1944 Act was passed. Religious instruction and the daily act of worship was still considered part of the national and normal order of things in those days. The decline of religion is one of the main reasons for our decline as a nation. As many hon. Members have said, religion is the basis of moral conduct and without religion morals are bound to suffer sooner or later. Everyone today remarks on the low state of morale in this once great nation. Material things seem to have turned sour on us and we have nothing to put in their place. However, most people in this country still believe in God and at least say their prayers in times of fear or trouble. Most people want their children to be brought up as Christians, even though they may have lapsed.

As a country we cling to our Christian forms and traditions—for example, the wonderful Coronation service of our Monarch, the presence of bishops in the House of Lords, and the daily prayers that we have here, which many of us still so much appreciate. Most people are still baptised, married and buried according to Christian rites and schools still start their day with a service.

I appreciate that there may have been indifference to some of these practices and reminders of our Christian heritage but this has now been succeeded for the first time in our national life by an overt attack by a small minority, whether they be humanists, Communists, militant atheists or those who wish to subvert and undermine the whole basis of our society and civilisation.

These pressure groups are very vociferous and should be, as indeed they are today, stoutly resisted. Children today are subject to tremendous pressures and temptations. Parts of the media and the entertainment industry daily scream values at them which are certainly not Christian. Children need the protection of the Christian faith and we have no right to deny them of it. Children are bound to ask the questions that we ask ourselves as life in this troubled world unfurls: "Why was I born?", "What is the point of this life?", "Is there a God?", "Is there an after life?", and "If I fall into sin do I have another chance?".

I remember with deep thankfulness that I was brought up in a Christian home in a loving family. I went to Christian schools afterwards and at Oxford, with its countless chapels and churches and ever-ringing bells I remembered the Christian basis of the society of England. I remember every day the matchless phrases of the Authorised Version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, which I still say to myself in times of trial and trouble. Anyone in this House or outside looking back over his life with all its frailties and failures must be profoundly grateful for that bedrock of the Christian faith which was taught to him first at home and then at school. To deprive children of that is as bad as depriving them of food and clothing.

We live in an age of violent change, when any kind of authority is constantly under attack. Children are bewildered, as are young people. They lack the standards and the guidelines which those of us who were brought up before the War certainly knew, understood and observed. Today we see some signs, regretfully, that society is disintegrating as one after another all the old signposts are pulled down. This is particularly shown in the vast new towns and new communities which have grown up on the great estates where the old spirit of village or market town seems to have been lost and nothing is there to take its place.

Children vitally need religious instruction and religious worship more than ever before in these bewildering circumstances. Of course we want and need more dedicated Christian teachers. I visit many schools and I believe that there are more dedicated Christian teachers about than some people imagine. Certainly in England we do not wear our religion on our sleeve. I am bound to say that I have heard one or two hon. Members make speeches today which I thought they would not have made. We do not always tell everyone exactly what we are and what we believe in.

There is a great change now among students at our colleges and universities. All over the country my view is confirmed that these young people are returning once again to traditional attitudes and behaviour. I believe that they are also turning to Christianity. Similarly, I believe that the minority of teachers who are a bad influence is very small and that teachers as a whole do not deserve the bad press which they sometimes receive.

Finally, never as now has the nation needed leadership so badly—leadership from top to bottom at every level, from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the village priest or schoolmaster, from the Prime Minister to the local councillor. In every walk of life we need leadership in the desperate state of low morale in which we find ourselves. We have to counteract the "could not care less" attitude, the "easy come, easy go" attitude or the more sinister "what I want I must have" attitude, which is the outlook of the mugger and the violent ones.

I speak at many meetings and people often say to me that they feel helpless as individuals and cannot do anything. There is a great fund of good will towards this nation among ordinary people. It is not the badness of ordinary people that strikes me, it is their simple goodness. We all influence each other. First, we must influence our families, then our friends and then our workmates. Then, of course, we must influence our Member of Parliament and people in public life. We all count, and if enough good people count, then we have a good nation.

I believe that of all the influences in this old country, in spite of appearances to the contrary, the Christian influence is still the strongest. I believe in the simple things that we were brought up to believe—love for our country, service for others and the maintenance of the highest possible standards in our private and public life. I do not believe that we shall return, as a country, to our former greatness or deserve the respect of other nations unless we remain a Christian nation and bring up our children in that faith.

1.41 p.m.

Mr. Alan Clark (Plymouth, Sutton)

I welcome the chance of joining with other hon. Members in congratulating the Under-Secretary of her elevation. I do not know whether such gallantries are in order, but perhaps I may say that the only reservation I have about that is that I shall be deprived of the pleasure of looking at the hon. Lady on emerging through the doors of the Division Lobby in future.

Be that as it may, I am sure that every hon. Member must be aware of the acute and growing disquiet that affects all social groups in this country at the direction in which the education system is moving and at the basic quality of the education that their children are receiving. It is an anxiety that is felt by all other than those who regard a school as simply a convenient place for parking their children while they are at work, and this anxiety, as recent polls have shown, is felt by a very large majority of the population.

What are the causes of such anxieties? Often they cannot be defined by those who feel them. I suppose one would say that lack of discipline is probably the primary cause. Lack of discipline includes intellectual discipline—examinations, it often seems, are now simply papers with the answer already printed, and the sole duty imposed on the pupil is to tick one of three boxes, which may or may not produce the correct result—and physical discipline, and the increase of violence, bullying and victimisation, particularly of pupils who for one reason or another stand out or are different.

I believe that for the majority who are aware of these shortcomings, who feel an increasing disquiet at the direction in which the education system is moving, any attempt to change, still less to dispense with, religious instruction in schools would be the last straw.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison) on bringing this motion before the House. We should not delude ourselves as to its timely character, because there have recently been published the recommendations of the British Humanist Association that religious instruction should be removed from the curriculum and that there should be substituted in its place—I defy any hon. Member to beat this expression for sheer modish claptrap—a school known as "ESL", which is "Education for Stances of Living". In other words, it intends to destroy or eliminate ancient traditions and evolved beliefs and substitute something totally material, flexible and without any foundation in anything other than a spurious kind of logic. These recommendations and such a move would be utterly destructive. Make no mistake: it is intended to be so.

I believe—and we should not delude ourselves on this matter—that there are those present in many fields, certainly in the British Humanist Association—I am sorry that the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Edge) and some of his colleagues have not been present at all throughout the debate, because if they had been here perhaps they could have refuted what I am saying—there are many so-called humanists whose sole purpose is to undermine and subvert the existing structure of society. This measure which they recommend, of removing religious instruction and substituting this absurd "stances for living" is a very good example of the way in which such persons go about their work.

First, one removes the belief which is held and the ancient tradition. Then one brainwashes the subject by substituting a whole muddle and mixture of conflicting beliefs and assertions which utterly confuse the pupils. Then, when the pupils, or victims, are no longer capable of seeing clearly and making up their own minds, and when their ancient beliefs have been removed, they are ripe for whatever specific indoctrination one cares to impose upon them. This is simply an intellectual extension of the economic subversion which their colleagues practise. That is that if one brings down the material fabric of society, it is upon the ruins that one can build the new kind of order to which one is, whether secretly or overtly, committed.

Any number of logical arguments can be put forward to prove that the earth is round, flat or whatever else, and that the universe is an enormous mass of rotating pieces of pumice stone. It is all too easy, with the scientific devices that we have available now, completely to disintegrate the ancient tenets of religious belief. But the fact remains that it is these beliefs that are at the very basis of our moral observances and the way in which we conduct our society. It is these beliefs which have shaped our culture, our conduct, our art and our architecture. To attempt to eliminate the beliefs is in itself a fundamental attack on society.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) described how he had got all the groups in his school to form a kind of universal act of worship and how they all performed this act in their differing ways. He illustrated what is the essential difference which the humanists ignore, which is the difference between philosophy, which is capable of logical argument and substantiation, and religion, which is something altogether different. The Christian religion is concerned not with welfare and not even with the conduct of daily life but ultimately with the redemption of the soul. It is this that children must first be taught. They must be taught that right and wrong and conscience, and a benevolent and Numinous Being in the remote distance, are something from which they can draw guidance and inspiration for their daily life. In other words, they must be taught to believe in God.

If that is removed—this is what is so important for young people—if they have no belief at all, if even their ancient and traditional beliefs are removed and the vacuum is filled simply with a lot of illogical and conflicting claptrap having the guise of giving breadth of philosophic understanding, the disillusion which will follow is something for which I am certain we shall all pay a heavy price.

1.50 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Mayhew (Royal Tunbridge Wells)

I had intended at the outset to congratulate the hon. Lady the Under-Secretary of State on her recent appointment and, even though she is sadly absent at the moment, I do so none the less. Indeed, I had it in mind to commiserate with the hon. Lady that we had seen her for so long today, like the woman of Samaria, sitting alone, and to hope that she, in her turn, would turn this occasion to account.

Perhaps I can best begin, in the hon. Lady's absence, by quoting some words of Sir Winston Churchill in a broadcast to the nation in May 1943, at a time when the Education Bill was very much in the country's mind: Here we have freedom of thought as well as freedom of conscience. Here we have been the pioneers of religious toleration. But side by side with all this has been the fact that religion has been the rock in the life and character of the British people upon which they have built their hopes and cast their cares. This fundamental element must never be taken from our schools …". Those words, spoken in the heat of the war by the then Prime Minister, were, it seems to me, an apt indication of the importance which that great man rightly attached to this subject even then. Sir Winston Churchill could, of course, be wrong, but he was very seldom wrong in his identification of the great themes of the history of the British people, and he was certainly not wrong in the instance which I have cited.

It is true, as a generalisation, that the formal practice of religion in this country has declined. In my view, the Churches themselves have some responsibility for that, and I include here the faithful laity, for how many are the occasions, for example, when one notices the faithful laity paying no attention to a stranger who has come to church, cold-shouldering him, in effect.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barkston, Ash (Mr. Alison), to whom I also offer congratulations on giving us this opportunity—all too rare an opportunity—to discuss a matter of this kind, referred to the opinion polls which have been taken. I am not surprised by the results of those polls, taken in 1964 and 1968, because I believe from my own experience of life that there is an underlying faith in our people at large, though the pity is that it underlies such an awful lot.

We find that underlying faith revealed in the great personal crises of life, in the climaxes of birth, marriage and death. In these great personal events one often sees revealed that residual and fundamental faith, an acknowledgement of the existence of God, an acknowledgement of the divinity of Christ and of the subordination of man to God. I believe that it is there, and in that sense, I am sure, we remain a Christian country. It is, of course, an inadequate sense, but there is that allegiance which is owed by a far wider section of our people numerically than to any other cause which one could mention.

There are many evil influences at work in our country today, but I should be surprised if more than a handful of people would number the nation's Christian allegiance among them, and I cannot suppose that there would be any in this House who would do so. Whether we subscribe or do not subscribe to the Christian religion, we should all, I guess, agree that our residual Christianity as a nation is a force which operates only for good, and it is against that background that we observe that the vast majority of parents today, as my hon. Friend has reminded us, want their children to receive religious education.

Why should that be so? Why should it be, when in too many cases—the vast majority, no doubt—those parents do not themselves practise their religion in any active way? They do not go to church. They do not practise their religion in any committed way. Why, then, should it be? I venture the answer that it is because they acknowledge that a religious insight into the meaning of life is something much to be desired for their children, even though they, sadly, may have found themselves incapable of attaining it.

Again, there is the question of the value of historical continuity. We teach history in our schools, and no one suggests that history should be removed from the syllabus. We teach it, I suppose, so that our children may better understand the society in which we all live. What an extraordinary omission it would be if we left out of our syllabus the subject of religion, and especially, of course, that religion which has done so much to shape our nation.

There are, therefore, those three factors. Religion's influence is good. Its instruction is requested by most parents. It has profoundly influenced our country. Those are three major pluses for retaining religious education in its place in our school syllabus. But the matter does not end there, for there are, I believe, three other arguments of substantial weight.

First, parents often do not teach their children what they ought to teach them about religion. My hon. Friend the Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell) made that point, and it is unhappliy true. Parents seek to shelve or shoulder off on to the schools responsibilities which primarily must be theirs. Regret it as we may, that is a fact, and it argues strongly against withdrawing religious education from its present place in the school syllabus.

Next, I believe that our Churches still today are, unfortunately, too often unimaginative in the way they seek to teach Christianity to children. Although I fully sympathise with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Stokes) about the beauties of the 1662 Prayer Book, I have to say that our Churches too often fail to realise that what may be beautiful and meaningful to the practised, experienced and educated ear is meaningless to a child making his first acquaintance with organised religion in church.

Third, the countervailing influence of materialism is every year growing stronger.

With those three additional factors, the argument for keeping religious education in our schools becomes all the stronger.

I turn now to the two principal points made by the hon. Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Davies) on behalf of the humanist side of the argument. As I understood them, they were these: first, no act of worship ought to be required of a child unless his heart is in it; second, the Education Act is an example of intolerance in this regard, and we need not more but less intolerance in our society.

I have considerable sympathy with the first argument. I vividly recall from my boyhood how I was made at school to go to chapel daily, and twice on Sundays, being quite unable to understand how any value could be derived from a service which one did not intend or want to attend and in which, indeed, one actively wished not to be participating. There is substance in that point, but it has two answers.

First, an analogy is validly to be drawn with the sowing of seed. I well know that for me there was a belated germination that was virtually entirely responsible for the fact that today I regard myself as, however inadequate, a committed and practising member of the Church of England. It is the result of germination of seed sown during the religious education that I all too unwillingly received at school.

Secondly, it is not a compulsory act of worship that the Act requires. It requires that the syllabus should comprise religious education. A child may be withdrawn from the act of worship of which the Act speaks, if his parents wish.

I do not believe that there is any mileage in the point that the Act breeds intolerance. On the contrary, I believe that intolerance would receive a substantial fillip if the arguments of the very small humanist movement were allowed to countervail the wishes of the majority of parents.

One of the most engaging characteristics of the British people is that we do not take anything for granted just because we are told about it. We have historic- ally and temperamentally always wanted to test any case that is made. Nowadays we are so good at testing arguments that we sometimes fail to get round to deciding them. We have forgotten how to decide, and how to act upon a decision. By all means let us take a balanced view and let religious education be balanced, but the act of balancing something only rarely results in complete equilibrium. The scale comes down on the side of that which is heaviest.

We are deceived if we allow ourselves to be persuaded that the scale does not come down very heavily—on grounds of reason, let alone those of faith—in favour of permitting religious education not only to retain its present place in the syllabus but to improve its place. Let us acknowledge that Christianity is the true source of what is best in our history and what is best in our distinctive way of life today. If that is its source, let us acknowledge how decadent we should be if we did not lead our children to it at their schools.

2.3 p.m.

Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas (Chelmsford)

I join with all my colleagues and Members from other parts of the House in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison) on his initiative in introducing the motion. It is not my task to sum up the debate, because this is a Private Members' day, but it may be convenient for the House if I intervene now before the Minister replies. I congratulate my hon. Friend not only on his choice of subject but on the manner in which he presented it. If it is not presumptuous, I should like to congratulate him on his broad approach to the subject, eschewing a strictly legal analysis of the situation: as we both know, the letter kills but the spirit gives life.

I congratulate the Minister, who is making her first appearance in the Chamber at the Dispatch Box, on her appointment. She has already graced our discussions in the Committee on the Education Bill. It is no reflection on her if I agree with those remarks which have been made about the absence of the Secretary of State. No doubt there are adequate reasons for his absence, but I believe that in a matter of this importance, for which the Department of Education has direct responsibility, it would have been helpful to have had the Secretary of State's presence and opinion.

As a number of hon. Members have said, this is an important debate. We should not judge the importance of a debate by the attendance in the Chamber. Fridays are always difficult because hon. Members often have constituency engagements. A debate of this character is likely to be remembered long after the economic disputes, which loom so large in our consciousness, are forgotten. Today we are dealing with fundamentals. The resolution of these problems will affect many future generations of children.

It is untimely to suggest that religious education should be banished from our schools. Abolition was suggested by the hon. Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Davies), who represented a view which is more widely held among Members on his side than his lone presence there indicates.

Mr. Bryan Davies

The hon. Gentleman must recognise that I directed the burden of my remarks to the issue of collective worship and assembly in schools and not to the concept of religious and moral education in the classroom.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am grateful for that intervention, but it seems to me that my argument is equally applicable to the aspect of the subject about which the hon. Member spoke.

It is untimely to reject the provisions for an act of worship now, when there is so much religious and moral uncertainty. I do not know whether one could say that there has been a religious and moral decline in the country—that is another matter. People now have different ways of expressing their religious views, but there is a greater uncertainty about these matters than at any previous period in our history. The need for religious education in the broadest sense has, therefore, never been greater.

Fortunately this is not a party political matter, and that perhaps explains why the debate has been of such a high standard. It moved even the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price), to intervene. That was an unprecedented action because such creatures as Parliamentary Private Secretaries are normally bound by a vow of Trappist silence. It was religious education in general and the Latin of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir S. McAdden), in particular, which moved him to intervene. He took my hon. Friend to task over his Latin.

I assure the hon. Member for Lewisham, West that my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East was completely correct not only in his English but in his Latin as well. My hon. Friend quite rightly referred to the etymology of the word "religion" as coming from the verb religane, which is "to bind". It is true that there is another opinion that is backed by no less a person than Cicero, who attributes the etymology to relegere, which is "to read over again". Whether my hon. Friend is right or whether Cicero is right, on these matters, I cannot say definitely, but I prefer to bow to the opinion of my hon. Friend the present Member for Southend, East, rather than to that of Cicero. The criticism of the hon. Member for Lewisham, West was quite uncalled for and unfounded. He was referring to a Latin noun when he should have been referring to a French noun—namely a religion. I hope that I have been able to dispose of that issue. It is a minor but important matter.

We are discussing these matters in a context of moral uncertainty as well as in a context of what I may describe as spiritual starvation. That makes it a singularly inappropriate moment to think of banishing religious education from our schools. Although we have a society that is suffering from spiritual starvation we are witnessing something very important, which has been referred to by other hon. Members—namely, the beginnings of a change of view and the beginnings of a religious revival. Many people are now rejecting the repellant doctrine of materialism. They are looking for a religious interpretation of life.

It is in that context that religious education in our schools is so important. As I have said, this is not a party political issue. We can be thankful that that is so. But that has not always been the position. Religious education was at one time a subject of bitter political dispute. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East, with his profound sense of history, drew attention to the fact that education—and I do not mean "religious education"—came in the first place from the Churches. They provided that system of education. It was the State that came late upon the scene.

If we are being historical we must recognise that at the beginning of the century the country was riven by disputes over the place of religious education in the schools. The Education Act 1902 was as controversial a measure as ever Parliament has passed. It split the whole country along party lines. In that respect we have made progress, but there are some who think that we have done so because of a general indifference to religious matters. There is truth in that analysis, but, more important and more valuable, we have made progress because of greater tolerance. That is something that is much more positive than indifference.

We have also made progress because of the advance of ecumenism in this country and throughout the world. Those who take a religious view of life have seen how important it is that they should try in unity to present to others what they have in common rather than to waste their energies in squabbling among themselves. That has transformed the situation, and is directly relevant to the future of religious education in our schools.

I shall set out the Opposition's view on the religious sections in the Education Act 1944. On a subject such as this, which involves delicate questions of religion and conscience, there is room for a wide difference of opinion among individual Members. However, because there is a statutory responsibility, just as the Government must take a view on the religious sections so must the Opposition.

I make it clear that we fully support the maintenance of the religious sections in the Education Act. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash that the provisions in the 1944 Act are the beginning of the argument and not the end of it. There can be no question of the Opposition's doing anything other than supporting the retention of the religious sections. I hope that we shall have a similar statement from the Minister of the Government's view.

The 1944 Act dealt with religion in two ways. First, it provided a means of support for the voluntary schools, the majority of which are religious schools. We support the dual system of schools in the maintained system of education. We believe that the religious voluntary schools make a notable contribution to the moral and religious welfare of the nation. It is only in those schools that the teaching of religion can be principally doctrinal. We cannot have such teaching in a county school.

The reason for the Churches struggling so hard for the preservation of the voluntary schools is that they want the doctrinal teaching of Christianity to continue as an intrinsic part of the education which the churches are providing. When I say doctrinal I mean doctrinal; I do not mean good manners, good behaviour or anything of that sort. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Sir J. Hall) will forgive me if I say to him that politeness is not enough. It is right that doctrinal teaching should be continued and that children should be taught about the great facts of existence—namely, death, judgment, Hell, Heaven, salvation, incarnation and redemption. That is a mouthful of very big words, but they represent extremely important subjects. It is right that the teaching of those truths should be provided for within the maintained system.

It is to be welcomed that the capital grant to the denominational schools has recently been increased from 80 per cent. to 85 per cent. I welcome that increase on behalf of the Opposition when it was announced. But I utter a word of warning to those who have responsibility for religious schools. To seek ever higher financial support from the Government for such schools is to run a grave risk of losing independence. In this sphere of education as in others, money is the power.

One effective way of guaranteeing the independence of religious schools is to ensure that there is a source of finance separate from that of the Government. Any Government will need to think a long time before attempting to take-over, because they will have to find the money that is lost from that independent source.

My second note of reservation applies in the special context of Northern Ire- land, mentioned by the hon. Member for Enfield, North. I should be the last person to ascribe difficulties in Northern Ireland primarily to religious causes, because there are other factors. Religion acts as a label in Northern Ireland to identify warring races and communities. But the Churches in Northern Ireland, through the educational system, have the opportunity of making a contribution to harmony. I would welcome any progress which the Churches could make there in finding ways to educate children of different faiths together, at least in part, so that they would be instructed in the truths rather than in the distortions of each other's religions, and so that they should have some experience of how the different denominations there worship. Northern Ireland, however, is a particular case, and the conditions there, mercifully, are not reflected in other parts of the United Kingdom.

The voluntary schools educate a minority of our children—an important minority but a minority nevertheless. A principal concern must be with the majority of children who are attending fully maintained or county schools. The Opposition's policy is to support the present provisions in the Education Act, the principal requirements of which are that there should be a common act of worship to open the school day and that there should be periods of religious instruction provided in the county schools.

Voices have been raised questioning whether that situation should be allowed to continue. They are a minority. The figures quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) were good evidence of that fact. There is equally strong evidence that the overwhelming majority of parents want to see religious education continued in schools.

Let me deal first with the act of common worship. My hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash laid great stress on the importance of preserving the act of worship and he was supported by other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson).

It has been alleged by others that the decline in church-going is a reason for abandoning the provisions for an act of common worship. I believe that the realities are quite different. The fact of declining church-going makes it all the more important to preserve this act of worship in the schools. This is an answer to the point raised by the hon. Member for Enfield, North, who asked why children should take part in an act of worship in a religion the tenets of which they rejected. One may answer that by saying that the experience of prayer and worship in common is an essential part of human experience. Thus, the act of common worship transcends denominational boundaries.

Mr. Bryan Davies

Is the burden of the hon. Gentleman's argument that the Conservative Party, which constantly calls for choice in education, on this occasion suggests that voluntary attendance at church should be substituted for compulsory attendance at acts of worship in school?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

No, I am not suggesting that at all. Attendance is not compulsory, as the hon. Gentleman knows, because anybody who wishes may contract out. That makes a difference. I shall not take up the analogy of contracting out or of contracting in in relation to a trade union, although I shall be tempted to do so if the hon. Gentleman interrupts me further.

I do not know whether one can describe our society as a Christian society, but we can surely describe it as a society that is benevolent rather than hostile to religion. People still go to church, even though there has been a decline in church-going. They go to church to be christened and to be married. They may go to church for aesthetic as well as for religious reasons. I always think that a church marriage is preferable to marriage in a register office. I believe that marriage should be as cheerful as the circumstances allow. A marriage in a register office tends to be a depressing event.

I agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Stokes), the last—except for myself—of the Tory Romantics, when he mentioned the beauty of the words of the religious services in the Book of Common Prayer. We should not deprive children of the opportunity to hear that most beautiful English, particularly at a time when our language has become so poverty-stricken. I think of the words of the Coronation service: Here is wisdom; This is the royal Law; These are the lively Oracles of God. Such language, repeated throughout the Prayer Book, brings the realities of religion and the spiritual world into the lives of many. If we cannot enable people to have that experience in church, it is surely better for them to obtain it in the schools rather than not at all.

I have been impressed in the schools I have visited by the effect of the act of daily worship on the life of the school. It must be imaginatively and sensitively interpreted and applied, but it can be an important instrument of spirituality, particularly in primary schools. I have been given an insight into religion by seeing children taking part in those acts of worship. Parents who object in conscience must have the right, if they wish, to withdraw their children from services. That has been part of our law since the Cowper Temple provision in the 1870 Act. We must recognise in this matter, as in all matters, that moral and religious conscience in the last resort is king.

Provision is made in the Education Act for religious instruction on the basis of an agreed syllabus. In the past the agreed syllabus for religion has been ridiculed by some as a religion empty of content. It was the late Archbishop Downey of Liverpool who described the syllabus of religion in rather caustic terms: The religion of nobody, taught by anybody, and paid for by everybody. I thought I caught echoes of that attitude in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell). In this ecumenical period we should all revise our views on the utility of agreed syllabus religion. We should see it as providing something of importance and should not dismiss it in the derisive terms of the former Archbishop of Liverpool. We must recognise, however, that it is not working satisfactorily in the schools.

That is why I particularly welcome the reference to improving religious education which is an intrinsic part of my hon. Friend's motion. There are grave problems. There are the problems which have arisen, for example, in Birmingham, of which we were reminded by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North, in a typically trenchant observation on the situation. There has been acute controversy over the local agreed syllabus in Birmingham because of the existence of a handbook giving suggestions to teachers about how to conduct religious education. In this handbook 40 pages are devoted to a discussion of atheistic and materialistic Communism. The view of the Opposition is that it is quite right that non-religious matters should be included in a syllabus as long as they advance the instruction of religion. But these matters must always be subordinated to that end.

This is the view not only of the Opposition but of the Education Act 1944. It should be clearly understood that Communism, as such, is not a religion. It is a political ideology, opposed and alien to the democracy which we enjoy in Britain. Children must learn about Communism. The right way for them to do so is as part of a syllabus dealing with political philosophies, where it can be treated to the intense critical examination which is appropriate. There is little doubt that an agreed syllabus on religious instruction which devoted a major section to the imparting of non-religious views would be contrary to the provisions of the Education Act and open to challenge in the courts.

That is a particular difficulty which has arisen in Birmingham. There is a wider and perhaps more important difficulty. What positive meaning can be given to the words "religious instruction" in the conditions of today? I would not object to the phrase being modified to the broader one of "religious education" provided that that phrase is taken to imply a commitment to the spiritual and not to be a mere course in comparative religion. That was a point, I take it, made by my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash. It was a point also made in the Durham Report on religious education—that there must be a commitment to the spiritual—although "religious instruction" may not, in the changed conditions of today, be the most appropriate term.

The purpose of religious education today should be the awakening of children to the spiritual dimension of life and to the possibility of making religious choice and commitment. I take it that that would be in accord with the views expressed by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Toxteth (Mr. Crawshaw) in his important contribution to the debate. To do that effectively there must be an actual religious model. The model which should be used in Britain for cultural and historic reasons is the Judaeo-Christian model. Christianity as a fact has shaped our history and Christianity is the principal form through which the spiritual has come to the majority, although not to all, of our people. It should, therefore, retain its central position in any scheme of religious education, not on theological grounds as such but on historical ones.

That is the claim of general application on historical and cultural grounds, that can be put forward, in a pluralist society, although clearly those who are committed Christians will put forward theological reasons as well. There is clearly room for comparison between Christianity and the other faiths. Moral education is an intrinsically important part of religious education. It is not only Mrs. Whitehouse who is concerned with what passes for moral education in many of our schools today.

I believe it is essential that moral education should remain closely connected with religious education. If we separate the two there is no telling what content the moral education programme will have. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Benyon) that moral education cannot be neutral as such. The giving of sexual instruction and information, for example, in sex education divorced from any relational context and of a purely technical character, far from being morally neutral is morally pernicious, because it gives a lop-sided view of sexuality which, to be meaningful, must be seen in the setting of personal relationship. Without that setting the connection between sex and responsibility is inevitably severed.

This is a complex and difficult area. Home and school should co-operate instead of pulling against each other as they too often do, or instead of one party contracting out of the picture and saying that it is a responsibility which the other party must discharge. We should concentrate our efforts on seeing that parents are positively involved in the giving of moral education to children. This should not be left to teachers alone. Much more time and effort should be devoted to helping parents discharge this task than is presently the case. I sometimes think that parents need sex education as much as the children.

We have had a reference in the course of the debate to the subject of religious education being treated as a Cinderella in the curriculum. There is justification in the judgment, but let us look ahead rather than backwards. If I may take the analogy of Cinderella, which I believe was first raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash, and follow the plot of the play, there was in it, if my memory serves me right, a transformation scene, when the pumpkin is turned into a carriage and the beggar-lady transformed into a princess.

Mr. Alf Bates (Bebbington and Ellesmere Port)

What about the mice?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I cannot take the mice into account at this stage, yet I suppose that if one happened to be a mouse the transformation into a charger, presumably white, would be a fairly important and dramatic occurrence in one's life. I was using this as an analogy to give us some divination as to what to do in the future. I draw attention again to the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash stressed the improving of religious education.

My hon. Friend mentioned a number of practical suggestions which I shall certainly study carefully. I am sure that if teachers are to be successful in their duties in this sphere there must be the opportunity for in-service training. The colleges of education need to think constructively about how they can help in the religious and moral sphere both with the initial and subsequent training of teachers.

We need more centres such as the Borough Road College centre on religious studies—which the College was kind enough to ask me to open—to help in this most important work. We need adequate provision in schools for specialist staff, and religious education should be enabled to compete on a basis of parity in option schemes and examinations for the CSE and for O and A levels, so that religious education can be an attractive option to be taught in the schools.

The reality of the situation is that, although we can rely for the time being on the support given by the clauses on religious education in the Act, unless those who are really concerned about the matter bestir themselves and make a living reality of the dead law, it will only be a matter of time before these clauses are excised from the Act, and a great opportunity will have been lost. The opportunity is there now and I hope it will be seized by those who are working in this field.

No one in Britain today should underestimate the threat to the whole of our values and to our way of life that at present exists. There is, of course, the external threat from the Communist countries, and in that connection I should like to quote from a remarkable article by the Chief Rabbi, Dr. Immanuel Jakobovits, in The Times on 27th January 1976. He said: Past civilisations did not decline and fall simply because some inept heads made the wrong decisions in moments of crisis, but because of the ailments afflicting the body of society, largely in the intangible domain of the soul and the spirit. For the first time in history, we have not only individuals but powerful states dedicated—indeed, constitutionally committed as a matter of national policy—to the overthrow of all religion and to the eradication of belief in any Deity from the hearts and minds of men. There can be no brotherhood of man without the Fatherhood of God. It is only as children of a common God that we humans are brothers. Take away the link, and the chain of human fraternity and understanding disintegrates. Dethrone God, and the dignity of man created in His image is bound to collapse. Those are sagacious words from a great spiritual leader, and we should heed them.

The barbarians are not only outside the city; nowadays they are within it. Those who are undermining the values which hold society together can be likened, without exaggeration, to barbarians. If we ask ourselves what constitutes the essence of civilisation, we see that it is not technology. Morally, Concorde is no advance on a dug-out canoe, although I concede that it may get us to our destination rather quicker. Civilisation is not technology. It is not even the arts. What constitutes the essence of civilisation is the agreement to live together, respecting certain religious and moral values. That is what constitutes the essence of society.

That common possession constitutes the basis of society, and, just as the retention of that common position constitention of that common possession constistitutes its dissolution. Those who are arguing today that we should do away with moral and religious education in our schools, those who argue that we should weaken them as curriculum subjects, those who say they should be made optional, are engaged in a destructive and dangerous work. They are doing the work of barbarians even if they wear no bearskin and wield no club—and, indeed, have nothing in their hands more lethal than a ballpoint pen. They are destroying the values of religion and civility which form the basis of our society.

I am not an adherent of Moral Rearmament, but I am not an adherent of moral disarmament, either. There are moral disarmers among those who should be in the forefront of the defence of these values. There is, in the literal sense of the word a trahison des clercs going on in our society today.

Let us defend religious education, but let us improve it as well. Let us bring parents and teachers together in a joint enterprise. Let us devote adequate resources to this important part of the curriculum, and let dedicated men and women in the teaching profession come forward and sacrifice their time and their energy to the high calling of imparting religious and moral education to our children. Therein lies a constructive, a positive and hopeful way forward for the whole of our society.

2.45 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Miss Margaret Jackson)

I should like first to thank all the hon. Members now in the House—and, indeed, those who have been forced to leave before the end of the debate—who referred to me with kindness in the course of the debate.

My natural diffidence on making my first appearance at this Box is increased by the references made by the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) and his hon. Friend the Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell) to the regretted absence of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who, I assure them, is carrying out a long-standing engagement at the University of Warwick. As hon. Members know, these Private Members' motions have rather short notice, and it was impossible for my right hon. Friend to be here. I assure the House that I regret this as deeply as perhaps everyone else does.

My diffidence was lessened somewhat by the contribution of the hon. Member for Southend, East (Sir S. McAdden), who seemed to me to identify a potential conflict of interest between religion and psychiatry. I am not sure that he was fair to either side, but at least it made me feel rather better, coming from a family which contains both a nun and a psychiatrist. I now feel admirably placed to steer an impartial and unprejudiced course.

I should also point out that I shall be forced in my speech to reiterate many of the attitudes, and perhaps even some of the phrases, expressed by hon. Members in the course of the debate. It is so long since we have had a debate on religious education in the House that it seemed right to set out the Government's position in full, so that no doubt can be expressed as to precisely where we stand. If I am repetitious, I apologise to the House in advance.

I think we should first examine briefly the historical background to the 1944 Act, which is still very relevant to the continuing arguments about both the purposes and the methods of religious education. I shall discuss briefly the main provisions of the Act as they affect religious instruction and worship, and then give a number of examples of developments in the last 30 years since the Act came into force. I shall conclude with a summary of the position, and particularly some of the contemporary problems and difficulties. I must emphasise, however, that my major theme today is the way in which the provisions of the 1944 Act have shown it to be capable of meeting changing needs and demands in a rapidly changing society, and I shall assert firmly that the Government have at present no intention of introducing any amendments to that part of the Act.

I think that a certain number of exaggerated fears have been expressed today that the suggested change might be brought about. It is not at present our intention.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The Under-Secretary is seeking to give a reassurance but may have been sowing doubts. When she says that the Government have at present no intention of modifying the Act, does that imply that the Government have an intention of modifying it at some point in the future?

Miss Jackson

No, it means precisely what it says. The Government are at present not intending to amend the Act. They are not considering proposals for it at the moment. I perhaps used that phrase which the hon. Member found a little unfortunate because there is, as he knows, a certain amount of contemporary discussion about certain provisions of the Act, not merely by those, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Davies), who feel that the provisions should be abolished because of their opposition to them, but, indeed, by the British Council of Churches, which would wish to reconsider whether the existence of the provisions in the Act are of assistance to religious education and to the task they seek to do or are a hindrance. It is therefore, in the context of the turmoil of a fresh discussion that I made that comment.

I also remind the House that the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for religious education rests in England and does not cover Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, where—especially in Scotland—the legislative position is completely different.

Nor do I intend to cover in any detail the working of the dual system. My right hon. Friend made it plain during the Second Reading of the Education Bill last month that we wished to uphold the dual system and to continue to encourage the Churches and other voluntary bodies to play a full part in our education system. We are happy to preserve the balance of this historic partnership which is fundamental to our whole education system.

The roots of the present position of religious education in county schools can be traced back to the time of the Elementary Education Act 1870. One Opposition Member observed that, before that date, all grant-aided schools had been provided by religious bodies and that it had been accepted that they would give religious instruction according to the tenets of the sponsoring denomination. It was not until 1870 that the State became responsible for the provision of schools, and the legislators had to decide what to do about religious instruction. After the passing of the Act, it was decided that voluntary schools should continue with their denominational religious teaching, but school boards were offered the choice of no religious instruction, Bible reading without comment or Bible reading with suitable explanations, subject to the clause referred to by the hon. Member for Chelmsford which required that no religious catechism or religious formulary which was distinctive of any particular denomination should be taught.

It is worth reminding ourselves that the birth of State education was accompanied by vigorous disputes about religious instruction, and the echoes of them can still be heard reverberating today. In the event, the overwhelming majority of boards in England followed the lead of the London Board, which approved the teaching of the Bible together with such explanation and instruction therefrom in the principles of morality and religion as is suited to the capacities of the children. In the 1870 Act and in the decisions taken by the school boards, we can discern three fundamental principles which still apply today. The first is that State-provided schools should accept some responsibility for the moral and religious education of their pupils. The second is that this education should be planned to secure as broadly-based a consensus as possible. The third is that the teacher must not push his or her own denomination. These principles have been expressed in different ways over the years but they seem to have an abiding validity.

The most important development between 1870 and 1944 was undoubtedly the emergence of the agreed syllabuses. Their importance lies in the fact that they are the products of co-operation between the Churches, the teachers and the local authorities. It is important to emphasis that. By 1944 the great majority of local authorities were using an agreed syllabus, most of them drawn up by one or other of the authorities which had shown particular initiative.

It is probably clear from what I have said already that the 1944 Act did not introduce new principles of religious instruction in county schools but rather codified and made compulsory what was already almost universal practice. The provisions of the Act on religious education are an integral part of the religious settlement which underlies it and of the regrouping of the dual system. They were preceded by vigorous debates. I think it right to pay tribute to the remarkable achievement of Lord Butler in reconciling the forces and tensions which were then acting.

In county and voluntary controlled schools, the staple religious instruction continues to be non-denominational and is given in accordance with the agreed syllabuses drawn up by representatives of the Churches, the teachers and the local education authorities, though in certain circumstances voluntary controlled schools have power to provide denominational instruction on request. In the voluntary aided and special agreement schools, religious instruction is under the control of the managers or governors and is normally given on denominational lines.

It is appropriate to remind the House that the hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) called on the Churches to take a more active part in the provision of religious education in schools and to keep a keener eye on what is happening. It is, of course, open to them to do so through their participation in drawing up agreed syllabuses.

The Act was being drafted and discussed at a time when religion was considered to be virtually synonymous with Christianity, and little consideration was given to the position of non-Christians other than the Jews who already had established rights. Nevertheless, subsequent events have made it clear that an Act which was drafted for different conditions is capable of meeting the implications of today's multi-racial and multi-faith society.

Unfortunately, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Weitzman) has had to leave before the end of the debate. He asked me to comment on the difficulties experienced by a Jewish school in his constituency. I think he is aware that the situation there is somewhat complex. I assure the House that I shall be writing to my hon. and learned Friend about it.

The 1944 Act aimed to secure in schools a broadly-based approach to the Bible and to the Christian ethic in the confidence that these provided a basis for belief and behaviour which was in accordance with the convictions of the great majority of teachers and parents. To this day, Christianity still retains its central position in the content of religious education, but in other respects there has been a continuous process of change and development in this subject over the past 30 years. Authorities have found, as the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) pointed out, that the Act does not preclude education regarding other faiths. It can also permit the statutory conferences which draw up agreed syllabuses to include members of other faiths. The changes over the last two decades can also be exemplified by the description of the subject as "religious education" rather than "instruction".

The publication of research into children's religious thinking in the early 1960s led to a greater recognition of the need to take account in religious education, as in other areas of the curriculum, of the process by which children develop in their ability to handle abstract concepts. The same decade also saw investigations into the response of pupils in the upper forms of secondary schools to religious education. These investigations clearly showed the need to relate religious education to the concerns and preoccupations of adolescent pupils.

These two factors led to changes in emphasis and content. Many teachers in primary schools adopted methods of religious education which start from the everyday experience of children in promoting an understanding of the language and thought forms of religion, and in secondary schools the subject began to address itself more directly to the concerns of pupils soon to enter the world of work and adult society.

In both cases religious education has been brought into close association with other areas of the curriculum. Indeed, an interdisciplinary approach to the subject has been common in primary schools and in some years of secondary education. Although this may bring benefits when it is carefully planned and thought out, schools will realise that care needs to be taken to ensure that in such schemes the religious education component is clearly identifiable and that the subject is represented in more than an incidental or occasional fashion.

Historically, there has been a close relationship between religious and moral education in schools, and the movements which sought to relate religious education more closely to the present and prospective experience of pupils were drawing upon that traditional connection between belief and behaviour. A few people doubt that conduct is powerfully influenced by our underlying attitudes and beliefs.

In recent years, however, specific attention has been given to the nature and goals of moral attitudes. As a result, it has been recognised that religious and moral education are not synonymous terms and that both are necessary in helping children to understand moral obligation and to explore the ultimate questions about meaning and purpose in life to which many hon. Members have referred.

In the approach adopted by agencies concerned with moral education, such as the Social Morality Council and the Schools Council Moral Education Curriculum Project, whose work has become widely known in schools, religious and moral education are seen as complementary activities, not as contrasting or alternative parts of the curriculum.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I apologise for interrupting the hon. Lady's brief or thesis. Is it the policy of the Department of Education and Science—this is the vital point at issue—that religious and moral education should continue to be closely connected or that they should be separate one from the other?

Miss Jackson

I cannot have been engaging the hon. Gentleman's interest. I have just said that they are seen as complementary activities, not as contrasting or alternative aspects of the curriculum. They are seen as being related.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The hon. Lady was giving what sounded to me like some verbiage from her supporters. I was asking for a forthright statement from her as Minister—not as representative of her civil servants—on the importance of keeping these two aspects of education closely together, because there is a strong movement to separate one from the other.

Miss Jackson

The hon. Gentleman has had it twice. I do not think that I should waste the time of the House by giving it a third time.

The developments which I have described have led not to a standardised approach to religious education but to the widespread acceptance of two important principles. The first is that the adequacy of religious education is to be judged not only by the knowledge which it imparts but by the extent to which it illuminates the experience of the pupil and assists him in reflecting upon that experience. That was what the hon. Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison) was calling for when he said that religion must not be approached as another subject in the curriculum.

The Church of England Commission on Religious Education, which produced the Durham Report, referred to by several hon. Members, suggested that The aim of religious education should be to explore the place and significance of religion in human life and so to make a distinctive conribution to each pupil's search for a faith by which to live. Individual teachers might wish to place more emphasis upon one or other of the main clauses in that statement. However, the views expressed there find wide acceptance among those engaged in religious education.

The emphasis on understanding and the pupil's own experience and quest is particularly appropriate in view of the diverse nature of our society and of the presence in schools of children from a wide variety of religious backgrounds. We are now a multi-cultural society. That fact has brought a positive response from teachers in many areas of religious education.

Mr. Alison

The phrase "multi-cultural society" is freely used nowadays. I hope that the Department will not overlook the fact that Great Britain—I have made no comment upon the hotly controversial subject of immigration—remains a country in which the immigrant element in cultural and religious terms represents a tiny peripheral minority. At most, there are 2 million post-war immigrants from the new Commonwealth and between 50 million and 60 million of our own indigenous people who were born and brought up in a Christian culture. We must not carry the multi-cultural argument too far in this context.

Miss Jackson

I hope to be able to reassure the hon. Gentleman on that matter later. Indeed, I will come to it now if the hon. Gentleman is anxious about it.

On educational and social grounds there is a strong case for the treatment of other faiths within religious education. We acknowledge that, since Christianity has shaped our national culture and that of most of Europe, the study of Christianity must play a leading, if not the major, part in religious education in our schools.

Any reference to the multi-cultural nature of our society merely seeks to emphasise that teachers have a responsibility to ensure that in their studies and examination of religion with their pupils they should be free from bias and from that superficiality which results in ill-informed or dismissive judgments upon the faiths of other men. This is in line with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North, who drew attention to the dangers inherent in a much more biased approach to religious teaching.

In my view, it is right that the teacher's authority should be directed as much as possible towards encouraging sympathetic and informed inquiry and not towards prejudging its conclusions. Moreover, as many hon. Members have expressed concern about the degree of pressure on religious teaching in our schools, the more objective the teaching of education and the more teachers seek to demonstrate than to pre-judge, the less will be the need for people from other faiths to withdraw their children from religious education.

The revised agreed syllabuses, which a number of local education authorities produced in the 1960s, reflect some of the developments we have been discussing. The most recently published agreed syllabus, and the one to which not only the hon. Member for Chelmsford referred, is that of the Birmingham authority. I do not think that hon. Members have dealt fairly with this syllabus. It is a relatively brief legal syllabus accompanied by a substantial handbook of information and guidance for the people who use it. It allows for religious stances for living to be exemplified by reference also to non-religious stances. It also contains information on Communism and humanism to assist teachers who wish to consider either of these stances for living as one of the minor courses within the pattern of their education as prescribed by the syllabus. The syllabus requires one major and three minor courses for the pupils in the age range from 12 to 16 years and states that Christianity must always be one of those courses.

Two of the minor courses must be based on other world religions. To suggest that the Birmingham syllabus subordinates religion in general or Christianity in particular to the study of Communism or any other secular ideology is not accurate. The agreed syllabus says specifically that contextual studies—the study of other religions and philosophies—contribute towards a critical appreciation of distinctive features of religious faith. It is for the light that they can cast on the study of religious education and on Christianity in particular that these matters are included in the Birmingham syllabus. To suggest that they in some way subordinate or replace the teaching of Christianity is a considerable misrepresentation of the facts.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Will the Minister explain how it can be in accordance with the provision of the Education Act which deals with religious instruction for instruction to be given in Communism which, whatever may be said for it, is certainly not a religion? Does the hon. Lady agree with that proposition?

Miss Jackson

As I have already pointed out, this is a matter for the local community, the members of the Churches and the teachers and educationists within the local community. They must decide what to put into their syllabus. If the central theme of the syllabus is the study of religion, how they decide to illuminate or cast light upon that study is a matter for local decision. I am sure that the hon. Member for Chelmsford will find that to be the legal position.

It is for the statutory conference of the local education authorities to agree on the syllabus which will take into account local opinion and local situations. As I said, my right hon. Friend has no standing in this matter as long as there is agreement in the local community. In any case, I do not believe that the cause of religion has anything to fear from the acknowledgment that there are other ways of looking at the world.

The hon. Member for Brent, North also referred, I think in a somewhat misleading way, to a document published last year by the National Foundation for Educational Research. For one thing, it is not a Government-backed publication. The views expressed in the book, as it makes plain, are those of the individual contributors. The books contains 20 essays, of which the hon. Gentleman quoted from one. The views expressed are those of individuals concerned with various aspects of moral education, and it was far-fetched of him to seek to suggest that the NFER is trying to undermine religious education.

Considerable concern has also been expressed about the existence and the carrying out of the provisions for school assembly and for worship according to the 1944 Act. Some hon. Members have suggested, from the point of view of either agreement or disagreement, that schools occasionally find it difficult to comply with this section of the religious education provisions.

The hon. Member for Yarmouth, who has unfortunately left, asked for the numbers involved. We do not have them, because this is a matter within the supervision of the local authorities. Her Majesty's Inspectorate inquires into the provision of religious education in schools as with all other subjects and from time to time publishes surveys of particular areas. One is due out shortly on Wales.

Part of the reason why individual schools have difficulty in complying with the precise provisions for worship is that some large schools now have particular systems of organisation in which the natural unit is the house or the year group rather than the school as a whole. In some areas, it may be physically difficult to bring the entire school together daily. The law allows some latitude. The Act recognises that there may be circumstances which make the strict observance of daily worship impracticable. When this is so, authorities are free to authorise alternative arrangements.

Dr. Glyn

The Minister was talking about Her Majesty's inspectors making a report and said that one was due on Wales. Is that report entirely confined to religious instruction? If so, has the inquiry been conducted by the normal inspectors, who are not particularly aware of religious instruction?

Miss Jackson

I do not think that there is a strict conflict here. In the ordinary course of an inspection, religious instruction is looked at. In addition, there are specialist inspectors in particular divisions who concentrate on that sector in consultation with the Department's adviser. There is, therefore, scope for both approaches; there is not necessarily a conflict.

Some people also see difficulties in having a particular form of religious ceremony or service for the daily act of worship. They feel it inappropriate in a community of mixed beliefs or in one in which some people express no religious belief. However, many—I think most—schools have found ways appropriate to the setting to hold assemblies which celebrate and reflect those shared values, common to all the communities, to encourage the diversity and the response which can give quality and depth of a mixed and multi-cultural character. I hope that the hon. Member for Chelmsford will forgive my using that last phrase. I am sure he is better qualified than any other hon. Member to suggest an alternative, and I look forward to a communication from him on the subject.

It has been suggested that some schools dispense with the act of worship altogether for reasons of administrative convenience, physical impossibility and so on. If so, it may be that the law is not being complied with. But I think that hon. Members will acknowledge that it is often true that, where departures from the strict letter of the law may have been made, that has been done so that its spirit may be better preserved.

The theme of this debate seems to have been the necessity to preserve the spirit of religious education. One of the most important difficulties faced in having adequate religious education in our schools is the supply of specialist teachers. It is not sufficient, and has not been for some time, to meet the needs of the schools. In 1973 one-third of the teachers in one large authority had no specialist qualifications in religious education. Although we are trying to encourage more teachers to specialise in this area, at 121 of the 150 establishments in England and Wales there are courses which would be appropriate. Sixty of these are at secondary level. However, there is still a lack of qualified candidates applying for courses. We are trying to encourage teacher training institutions to ensure that recruitment to specialist courses is maintained. We have also drawn attention to the need for courses in religious education in the training of primary and middle-school teachers.

All those concerned with training students in these courses are well aware of the developments that have taken place over the past few years and of the need for increased scope for religious education. Most of the specialist courses include provision for the sort of study of world religions which we have seen take place in many areas of our society.

In-service training is also important, as the hon. Member for Chelmsford pointed out. Despite the problems which local authorities face in finding the right type of candidate and sufficient candidates, as well as establishing suitable courses, the number and variety of courses that have been established over the years have been maintained, although there are difficulties in some of the longer courses which need secondment from schools. We currently support several specialist centres which are concerned with the provision of resources and with in-service training for religious education. The centres in Birmingham and Isle-worth were established in response to an initiative from the Christian Education Movement, which is active in in-service training, as are other associations. These centres are a great help to teachers.

The growing partnership in the approach to religious education is best exemplified by the Religious Educational Council, which brings together professional organisations in the sphere of religious education, representatives of the Christian Churches and other religions with members from other interested bodies, including the Social Morality Council, the British Humanist Association and other bodies. The Council provides a valuable forum for those who teach religious education and those whose beliefs are often the subject of study to learn from and about each other, and to consider jointly development in this subject. This is an extension of the system of locally-agreed syllabuses, which ensures that proper consideration is given to the needs of all concerned.

We must acknowledge that the provisions in the 1944 Education Act have provided a flexible framework for the development of religious education over the last 30 years and have given reasonable safeguards for the rights of individual conscience. The development of the agreed syllabuses has preserved the tradition of local responsibility while recognising the particular interests which local communities have in this subject.

Therefore, we have no plans at present to introduce changes in the law on religious instruction. If any legislative changes were to be considered, there would have to be the fullest degree of consultation with all those concerned. This subject touches upon diverse and deeply-held convictions, as the debate today has exemplified. It makes religious education one of the most difficult tasks for any teacher.

I hope that those who have responsibility for this subject in schools will be encouraged that in this present public discussion, although people may differ radically in the views they hold and the solutions they wish to see, they all express a common concern for the serious examination of beliefs and values in our schools and for the young to have the opportunity to formulate and test their own convictions on these matters.

3.20 p.m.

Mr. Michael Marshall (Arundel)

I am very glad to have the opportunity to speak following the Minister. Like hon. Members on both sides of the House, I should like to take this opportunity of saying that we welcome her appearance at the Dispatch Box. We recognise that for those of us who are arguing for the maintenance of religious education in our schools, what she has had to say has been of some comfort.

Those of us who remember the hon. Lady in the muted form in which she was during the Committee stage of the Industry Bill are pleased to see her now giving vocal expression to her views. I hope that she will not take it amiss if I suggest that although today she was following her brief closely, and no doubt sensibly, on her maiden appearance at the Dispatch Box, we shall hope to hear her in the future reflecting some of the passion and conviction that she holds on this and other subjects.

This is a matter about which hon. Members on both sides of the House feel very strongly indeed. I was glad to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) putting the case with great conviction and putting a very broad statesmanlike view about it—a view that has been widely shared today. I got the impression that perhaps the Minister was trying to face all ways when she spoke of differences of view, because there has been very much a concerted view from the House today.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison) certainly performed a signal service for the House and the country, in a moderate balanced, factual and constructive speech.

At this stage, I shall be brief and simply look at the whole question in perhaps a wider context, which will bring into the argument the rôle of this House itself, because my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash made an unanswerable case as to the degree to which Christianity is an established religion in this country. If one takes that view it follows that the maintenance of religious education is a basic fact. I do not think that the differences in view to which the Minister referred can be shown to be of any great degree, because there is, I believe, a near-unanimous view.

Let us try to think of this matter in the broader context of what we in this House have to say about it. The suggestion that religious education should in any way be altered, within the framework of the 1944 Act, stems directly from what we all know and recognise to be an attack on the established values of many parts of our society. I do not intend to be mealy-mouthed about the matter. That attack is coming from various quarters. We should not let this occasion pass without remarking that the attack is based on a tiny minority view and that hon. Members ought to stand up to the attack and be willing to repel what is, after all, a minority view of strictly limited appeal.

When one talks of the attack on established views one is apt to get into the whole question of establishments, with the somewhat emotive overtones that are sometimes inferred. However, it seems to me that we ought properly to recognise that establishments are, after all, the personification, the distillation, of many of the best things in our society, and I believe that that is true of our religious establishment.

I am in no way seeking to be contentious on what has been a non-political occasion, but at present the Minister's own party is going through all the democratic mechanisms of readjusting its formal establishment, and establishments within major political parties are a reflection of precisely the principle that I have just outlined. This is true of the Minister's party just as much as it is of the Conservative Party.

If we regard this attack on religious education as part of the attack on established values, it behoves all of us to say where we stand in facing up to this kind of attack. This is not a matter that can simply be related to church-going as a manifestation of religion. For example, I do not for a moment wish to suggest that religion as a general principle relies simply upon church attendance. I would immediately argue that it is much better measured in the large number of those who believe in the power and efficacy of private prayer. This has been brought out repeatedly in the debate. Certainly the NOP polls, and others cited by my hon. Friends and others, show that in this country religious feeling and the recognition of Christian values not only lie very deep but are held by the vast majority of our population.

What should be the rôle of the House of Commons in this matter? There is, perhaps, a reluctance on both sides to appear to cash in on a religious vote. We are all aware of the way in which, in other contexts, as in Northern Ireland, perhaps, this issue may become very difficult or, some would say, dangerous, in the sense that it presents a mixture of religion and politics. But in this House, representing the majority of the United Kingdom, that is not true.

I was especially glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Sir J. Hall) brought out a fact which, I suspect, is not recognised in the country anything like well enough, namely, that on every day when the House meets our first act is to have prayers. I thought it very good that my hon. Friend not only quoted from the prayers but emphasised that in so doing we give a true reflection of the Christian values that go very wide and deep in our society, and we reflect also the fact that the Queen is head of the established Church.

How would people react if we did not make clear, as a House of Commons, where we stood on these issues? I suspect that they would regard it as another reason for the criticisms that are levelled against us for failing to give a lead on many matters. As I have said, we reflect here the majority view. It is the majority view in our society that religion, formal or informal, is of fundamental value, and that is true also throughout the House of Commons, irrespective of party differences.

The attitude that the House is reflecting today was highlighted, I thought, by the speech of the hon. Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Davies). He spoke in a very moderate, balanced and reasonable way, as those of us who have worked with him on Select Committees and elsewhere would expect, but I feel that he must accept that there were certain flaws in the argument that he presented about attendance at prayers in this place. In effect, he implied that one could draw a conclusion from the varying numbers that he might see here each day. Indeed, the numbers may well vary, but I wish to put on record that the identity of those who attend and take part in prayers varies equally. The identity of those who attend the Chamber for prayers very much depends on the day of the week and the business in hand. There is not some sort of regular hard core of Members who attend. In fact, it is essentially a varying gathering, depending upon work in Committees and other obligations that all hon. Members have.

Perhaps it is a fair reflection of the views of the House that the hon. Member for Enfield, North has been the only one on the opposite side of the argument willing to come forward and present the humanist point of view. I think that the House and the country can fairly judge from that fact that what has been said by hon. Members on both sides, as well as by the Minister, is a far more accurate reflection of the deeply held view of the House of Commons.

I am taking this matter in a broad context because unless the House is will- ing on such matters as this to take a clear and strong line people in the country will, I suspect, feel that the undoubted decline in the moral values of our society is a feature of life from which the House feels it can stand aloof. The truth, of course, is the contrary, and we have here an excellent opportunity to express our view and give the strongest possible support to my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash. We can play a part in making clear beyond a peradventure that our views on this matter are strong deeply felt, and shared on both sides.

One may argue why our political system and our roles as Members of Parliament are today more subject to criticism, why the machinery of Government appears more complex, and why our decline in the world has in some ways, perhaps, made it easier to criticise politicians. But on this basic issue, a matter on which we all feel strongly, we should speak out firmly, not seeking to excuse ourselves from giving a lead. The lead that we should give is to reaffirm the need to preserve and protect the kind of Christian faith that is shared by the majority of our people.

That brings me to my final word. What is the starting point of that shared majority Christian faith? It is, quite simply, religious education. We have shown in the Chamber today our belief that in that religious education, whether from church, from home or from school, the school has a vital part to play in the triangular educative process. Indeed, it has a unique position among the three.

The initial impact on the young mind is crucial to the continuation of many of the best values in our society. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) suggested, it is that induction on which we, as parents and Members of Parliament, are entitled to take a view. No one has challenged the suggestion that the continuance of religious education in our schools is a matter about which parents feel passionately. They feel strongly about the value of the shared experience in religion which schools uniquely provide.

The Minister spoke of the multi-cultural input. We all recognise that we should in no sense play down its impact in the religious sense. Among the average immigrant population it is typical to find that West Indians and Asians have a deep religious faith. The West Indians have a strong Christian faith and the typical Asian is also religious. The values that they bring to the school assembly and the more formal side of our religious education in schools enrich the religious experience of young people.

Anyone looking at the humanists' charter must conclude that their ambition is to confuse. They seem to bring together the more trendy aspects of our society and to take any kind of philosophy under their umbrella, however charlatan it is. We want no part of that nonsense. We should stand full square for the maintenance of religion in our schools.

3.3 p.m.

Mr. Peter Mills (Devon, West)

I congratulate the Minister on her maiden speech from the Dispatch Box. We shall read carefully what she said in the Official Report. I was somewhat reassured by some of her remarks.

I am grateful to my hon. Friends for raising the matter. It is high time the subject was aired, and time that those of us who believe in certain things took the initiative. I am wholeheartedly behind the motion. "Maintain and improve"—yes. Far from weakening the position, we need to restore it in practice, because religious education has in some ways slipped. I speak with some experience as a parent. My children have been—one still is—pupils at a State comprehensive school. I am full of praise for the devoted primary school headmaster for the way in which he taught the basis of religion and gave both of my children a first-class grounding. But I am not so happy about their religious education in the comprehensive school. It is as well that they had a firm foundation.

It has been a timely debate, which I am sure will continue outside the House. That is healthy. I agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison), when he stressed the importance and benefits of the corporate act of Christian worship at school. That is of immense value. The side effects also play a real part in the general running of the school. I hope that the Minister will read carefully the wise words of my hon. Friend about the steps that should be taken to improve religious education.

We listened to a powerful speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson). My hon. Friend exposed some of the nonsense that is now going on. He said that religious education is to induct rather than to indoctrinate or to evangelise.

We should be grateful to the hon. Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Davies), who is not in his place, for having had the courage to put the opposite point of view. He made his position quite clear. Although many of us disagree with him, we believe that it was right that he should state the opposite view.

We recognise the problems of religious education but it is necessary to have the will to overcome them. That is what is lacking at present.

It is said that the responsibility for daily prayers falls on the headmaster. That need not be so. They can be taken by a senior master. I wish that I could say this to the hon. Gentleman's face, but the hon. Member for Enfield, North seemed to be retreating from responsibility which is the opposite of what I want. I remind him that the school is a community. It is important to carry on with what we believe are the essential parts of the 1944 Act.

The hon. Gentleman did not mention parents. It seems extraordinary that humanists are willing to leave out the parents. They talk about teachers and children, but not about parents. I believe that parents have a real rôle to play and that they want to play it. That does not seem to be taken into account.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) answered most of the points made by the hon. Member for Enfield, North. He spoke with authority and with knowledge, having been a Minister in the Department of Education and Science. I agreed with much of what was said from the Opposition Front Bench by my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas). I agree that a religious revival is taking place and that the pace is increasing. It seems that people are turning away from the sickness of the past. They wish to return to a living faith. They want to return to a firm foundation that is to be found only in religion and in Christ himself. This movement is being seen among many young people. They are searching for a firm foundation and there is a revival.

Britain's heritage, institutions and history are rooted in Christianity. Every child should have an opportunity to study the Bible and the life and teaching of Christ. That is the starting point. May that never be forgotten. That is why the 1944 Act must be maintained and strengthened. We need to make it clear that what is compulsory is the teaching of Christianity, not a hotch-potch of religious and non-religious philosophies, including political philosophies and ideologies.

The humanists have made it clear where they stand. They wish to abolish a compulsory religious education. It is no good mincing matters. There is a real clash of opinion on this important matter. I and many others are extremely disturbed by some of the proposals that the humanists bring forward. I believe that many parents are disturbed. It seems that the humanists want Fascism, Marxism and various occults to be taught in our schools. I have even heard of witchcraft being taught in a period of religious education. How far can we remove ourselves from what is right and proper? There should be opportunities to discuss these matters, but not in a period devoted to religious education.

I have had a great many letters from parents who are concerned about these matters. What disturbs me about the humanists is that they leave out of account the role of the parents. We recently had a meeting with the humanists in a Committee room, and they made no mention of the parents' role. Education involves not just teachers and pupils but also parents, who have a right and a duty to be concerned.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

My hon. Friend referred to the humanists, but does he not agree that the great figures of the humanist movement, such as Thomas More, Erasmus and Colet, would be horrified at the way in which the movement they stood for has been taken over, at least in name, by those he referred to as "humanists"? These great men would have rejected the inhuman approach of those who describe themselves today as "humanists".

Mr. Mills

I agree with my hon. Friend, who is far more expert in these matters than I am. The fact that my hon. Friend is shocked by these matters makes me doubly shocked.

Let us turn to the polls which have been mentioned in this debate. It is interesting to note that the National Opinion Poll and the Gallup Poll showed that there was overwhelming support for religious education in the State schools, with the exception of the poll undertaken by the Humanist Association. That is very strange indeed.

The mood of the country is changing, in regard not only to education but to discipline and to the permissive society. Many people are saying "Enough is enough". This House is firming up in these matters. I hope that one day we shall have a full debate on this topic, followed by a vote. I believe that some people will be very surprised at the result of that vote. For too long we have drifted, we have become slack in our thinking, and we have moved away from essential Christian principles. There is a great desire to get back to those principles. Woe betide politicians if they do not note that mood and the changing climate of opinion in regard to parents' attitudes. I appreciate the fact that parents who feel strongly on these matters should have the right to withdraw their children from religious education and instruction. This right is extremely important and should be honoured.

What concerns me is that the Church is not as well organised or as well-briefed as it should be to maintain the 1944 Education Act. I must not generalise, but I wish to emphasise that the Church is much too wishy-washy in its thinking. It does not speak out loudly and clearly. The trumpet sounds only a weak note. I think that the Church has forgotten the one who said "I am the way". People want something firm and definite to be said on these matters by the Church. I only hope that the Church will speak with a united voice, with far more firmness and clarity, in a world that needs a rock-like Church. It is sad to see the faith being watered down. A watered-down faith is of no use at all. A faith must be firm and strong.

The issue of religious education rests or falls on the supply of good, dedicated teachers to teach children the meaning of Christianity and to help them discover the richness of God's word—the Bible. That is what is needed today, and there will be a richness indeed in store for those who are prepared to discover the truth. We need to encourage dedicated people to teach religious education and to undertake specialised training. The Church as a whole is in a missionary situation. We must retrieve the ground that has been lost.

The debate will rage. I understand many who feel violently opposed to what I am saying. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash for bringing this motion to the attention of the House. I hope that those who want fundamental changes will realise how strongly many people feel. There is a great desire to get back to what is right. In a strange way, people know what is right. An ancient prophet once said Some would remove the landmarks. There are many today who want to remove the landmarks of the Christian heritage of this country. Some people want to remove the landmark of Christian education. This has brought us great benefits in the past. It is our only hope in the future. I say, reverently, that under God's help this landmark of Christian education and our Christian heritage will not be removed.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House recognises the need to maintain and improve the opportunities for religious education and an act of worship in schools.