HC Deb 21 October 1981 vol 10 cc325-32
Lords amendment:

No. 23, after clause 15, insert the following new Clause A— A. Subsection (2) of section 66 of the principal Act (exclusion of religious instruction from inspection under section 66(1)) shall cease to have effect.

Mr. Alexander Fletcher

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we may take Lords amendment No. 31.

Mr. Fletcher

The effect of the new clause is to remove the prohibition on the inspection of religious subjects in schools by Her Majesty's Inspectorate. It arises from the Government's wish to ensure that religious education is not placed at a disadvantage in relation to the other subjects in the curriculum whose development is aided by the fact that they are all subject to review by Her Majesty's Inspectorate.

Since taking office, the Government have sought in various ways to foster the place of religious education in the curriculum. In the summer of 1979 my right hon. Friend established a joint committee of the Consultative Committee on the Curriculum and the Scottish Certificate of Education Examination Board to consider non-examinable courses in religious education and the need for SCE examinations in religious studies. On the basis of the joint committee's work, my right hon. Friend announced in September his agreement to the introduction of an SCE O-grade in religious studies, for which the board envisages examinations being set from 1984.

On the teacher training front, the Government asked colleges of education to treat religious education, from 1980, as a priority subject for the intake of students to pre-service training courses. For the primary schools, my right hon. Friend authorised the committee on primary education of the Consultative Committee on the Curriculum to set up a study of the contribution of home, school and community, including religious aspects, to the education of primary school children. In August, the Consultative Committee on the Curriculum published guidelines for general courses in religious education in the secondary schools intended to mesh with the SCE O-grade syllabus on which the examination board is now working. Parallel with these developments, the Government have been conscious of a view, well established even before we took office, but expressed with increasing emphasis by Church and educational interests since, that the development of religious education would continue to be held back unless the prohibition on inspection by Her Majesty's inspectors contained in section 66(2) of the 1980 Act was removed. In announcing to both Houses of Parliament on 28 July our proposal to repeal section 66(2) and in seeking simultaneously the views of various Churches and educational bodies about the principle of removing the statutory prohibition on inspection, the Government affirmed that they shared the widely held view about the disadvantage under which religious education labours.

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The bodies which my right hon. friend consulted were asked to express a view on the principle of repeal on the basis that the practical implications would be discussed fully with them before the repeal was brought into effect. The educational bodies, including the teacher associations and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, wholly approved the principle while touching on various practical aspects which would need to be covered in the further consultation—for example, that the religious education to be inspected should be taught by properly qualified teachers and that suitably qualified inspectors should be recruited. Of the major Church interests approached, both the Church of Scotland education committee and Catholic education commission welcomed the proposal. Again, practical difficulties were referred to, particularly concerning the need to maintain the safegaurds for the special position of religious education in denominational schools, provided for in section 21 of the 1980 Act.

These practical considerations are for later discussion with the interests concerned. I merely wish to reiterate at this stage that my right hon. Friend intends to pursue them carefully and in detail in the consultations which will follow enactment of the Bill. The Government have no intention of bringing the repeal provided for in the new clause into effect until there has been full consultation on the practical issues with religious and educational bodies.

There was a complaint in another place when the amendment to repeal section 66(2) was introduced that a measure of such significance should have been introduced earlier in the passage of the Bill. The implication was that the Government's action had been hasty and ill-conceived. That is not true. The measure is of considerable significance, and it would have been wrong to have introduced it without adequate consultation. The Government concluded that the prohibition on inspection should be repealed only after serious consideration in the light of a continuing dialogue that my right hon. Friend has had with Church representatives since the Government look office in 1979 and following the consultation during the summer to which I have referred. The new clause is the culmination of a lengthy period of discussion and consultation with all the parties concerned.

Mr. O'Neill

It would appear that everyone except the House has been consulted on this matter. The announcement was made in the form of a written answer on the eve of the Royal Wedding, a day when it was designed to catch maximum publicity for an educational innovation described by the Minister as being of considerable significance. I am concerned because the Minister talks blithely about deleting from the 1980 Act a section containing three elements that I do not think that he has covered adequately. The section of the act that he seeks to remove states: It shall be no part of the duty of a person authorised under this section to make an inspection of any educational establishment, to inquire into instruction in religious subjects given therein or to examine any pupil in religious knowledge or in any religious subject or book.

We recognise that the Minister seeks to afford the opportunity to newly appointed inspectors of schools to be allowed to look at the teaching of religion. There are, however, certain questions that must be raised. Is it expected that all children will have to sit SCE O-grade exams in religion? Is it a subject that will be optional in the third and fourth years. If considerable expense is to be involved in setting up yet another section of the schools inspectorate, it would be appropriate for all children in secondary schools to be required to receive religious instruction.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Will my hon. Friend think carefully about what he says? I hope he does not mean what he says. He seems to suggest that all children in secondary schools must take religious education. That would be an affront to many teachers who do not hold religious views.

Mr. O'Neill

I am not very grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention because he has not allowed me to develop the point to the extent I had intended. There would obviously have to be the parental right to withdraw from such education. This is a substantial point. If this course is to be made available and if it is of the significance that the Minister describes, is it to be a central part of the curriculum in schools with the obvious opt-out provision that exists at present for parents who, for conscience reasons, have no desire that their children should be exposed to religious education? If so, who can withdraw their children from these classes?

I should like to raise the issue of denominational schools. I accept that the Minister has had consultations with the Roman Catholic Church. Can he say whether the Roman Catholic Church is happy that inspectors should be going into schools to look at what has hitherto been its exclusive preserve, namely, the provision of religious education in regard to examinations?

The Minister has referred to examinations. Are the SCE changes worth while at this stage? The Minister is committed to the implementation of those recommendations of Munn and Dunning that he can get through with minimum expenditure. Will he say whether it is appropriate to set up new courses that will be quickly superseded by the new arrangements in the mid-1980s? We may see that no sooner are examinations organised than the structure that has been created will be dismantled. Had this proposal been introduced earlier, during consideration of the Bill, as it should have been if it is of the importance that the Minister thinks, we would have been able to consider the subject in a more leisurely manner and perhaps give it more careful scrutiny.

We do not object to the amendment. We are concerned, however, about the points that have been raised. One hopes that there would be no question of teachers being required to fill their timetable with periods of religious education in any period of teacher shortage. It is to be hoped that at times when there are insufficient numbers of teachers of religious education, teachers will be able legitimately, on grounds of conscience, to opt out of taking the extra religious education classes that will be called for. The Minister must make this point clear.

I do not suggest that the teaching profession consists of atheists. However, a considerable number would be most reluctant to participate in such courses. Their consciences will have to be honoured. It would be helpful if the Minister made clear that there is no suggestion that, because of timetabling difficulties at a time of teacher shortage, any teacher will be required to undertake work that their conscience would preclude them doing.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Until I heard the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. O'Neill) I had not intended to take part in the debate. It may be surprising to some that, as an atheist, I adopt a catholic approach to religious education in schools.

If those who hold strong religious views wish their children to receive religious education or instruction I am happy to see that done, but I object to the attitude of schools that religious education is the norm and parents who do not wish their children to have such education have to exercise their conscientious rights to withdraw them from the subject. That is nonsense in an age when perhaps the majority of the population are atheists or agnostics.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

That is absolute nonsense.

Mr. Hughes

If the Minister is saying that, following discussions with the Catholic Church, the Church of Scotland and educational bodies, there is to be provided from about 1984—perhaps an appropriate date—an SCE O-grade course in religious education, that is fine by me. If he says that it is therefore necessary to have properly trained teachers to provide the course and a properly qualified inspectorate, that is also all right by me.

However, if that is the Minister's argument he ought to put religious education on all fours with every other subject taught in schools and parents should be able to decide whether they want their children to take that course.

I hope that we are moving away from the idea that religious education should be compulsory in schools. I do not think that the Minister is suggesting that, but I hope that as a result of his discussions he will accept that religious education should be an ordinary subject, on a par with mathematics, geography and the rest, so that parents may choose whether they wish their children to take religious education.

It is nonsense that parents who withdraw their children from religious education, and such parents may be Jews, Moslems or atheists, should be regarded as different or abnormal.

I hope that the Minister will give us a categoric assurance that there is no question of adding religious education as a compulsory subject to the curriculum of primary or secondary schools. I hope that the views of parents such as myself, who are not religious, will be respected, because they have as much force and morality as do the views of those who have a religion.

Mr. Maxton

I start with a small, but important, point. The Minister said that religious education had been disadvantaged in the past because it had not had an inspectorate. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) for letting me see a letter that he received from the Minister on 24 April this year in which the hon. Gentleman said: In the light of the developments I have outlined I do not believe it can be argued that because Religious Education is not subject to inspection by HM Inspectorate of Schools the interests of the subject are prejudiced.

There has been a remarkable volte face since then. The Minister now says that religious education must be included in the Bill and his main argument in favour of that is that if it is not inspected the interests of the subject will be prejudiced.

I do not want to duplicate the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes), but I agree with him and I am glad that he expressed his views on the Floor of the House. Such views are not expressed here often and it is necessary that we give voice to them on occasions.

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The Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North and my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. O'Neill) all referred to religious education, but the 1980 Act and the Lords amendment contain no reference to religious education. The reference is to "religious instruction".

Mr. Donald Stewart

They are the same.

Mr. Maxton

I do not believe that instruction and education are the same thing. The Minister also made that point. He spoke of religious education, but he was talking about religious instruction.

Whom has the Minister consulted? The Churches, of course. We are talking about the instruction of particular religion in particular schools and not about the development and history of religion, comparisons between religion or comparisons between religions and non-religions. Specific religions and credos are taught in our schools under the guise of religious education.

I have no enormous objections to religious education if it gives children an idea of what religion is about, its place in the history of our culture and other cultures in the world and how it has played, and is playing, a part in our society and its development. There are different religions. Some people do not believe in a religion and their views must be respected. I have no objection to a sort of religious education as a voluntary subject in schools.

However, religious instruction is indoctrination—something that is condemned by the Minister and Conservative Members in other parts of our society. I should like the Minister to guarantee that he will ensure that what I have described as religious education is taught in our schools.

Did the Minister consult the Churches of ethnic minorities, such as Muslims and Hindus? Will any attempt be made to ensure that some element of their religions is included in religious education? If not, schools will be failing those minorities. What part will there be for those who do not believe in religion? They may be anti-religious, but anti-religion is part of religion. The forces against religion also have to be taken into account.

How many inspectors will be needed? Will they be divided among the traditional areas? What qualifications will they need? Many senior people in religious education in Scotland are ministers of the Church of Scotland. Will inspectors be ministers? Many questions remain to be answered.

Mr. John Home Robertson (Berwick and East Lothian)

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) referred to the brief correspondence that I had with the Minister earlier this year on this question. I dissent from some of my hon. Friends in welcoming the Minister's conversion. Whether that conversion was the result of education or instruction, we cannot be sure. However, as recently as 16 June 1981 the Minister wrote to me saying I have yet to be convinced that to introduce inspection... could, on balance, be justified".

Evidently, he has been persuaded rather rapidly.

All the detailed consultation with the Churches and the other interests that he mentioned must have been carried out in an extremely short time. I am glad that this matter is to be subject to inspection, perhaps on the ground that it is the only subject that has to be taught in schools compulsorily. It is, therefore, altogether welcome that a subject that all children have to take at school should now be subject to inspection. I hate to dissent from my hon. Friend in any way, but on this occasion I find myself in agreement with the Minister.

Mr. Alexander Fletcher

I hope that the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) does not feel too apologetic. I am glad to have his support.

I have listened carefully to the views that have been expressed in this short debate. We were determined that religious education in schools should be enhanced. As the hon. Gentleman said, we are talking about the one subject that is compulsory, yet we felt that it was not given its correct place or status in schools. The first step that we determined was that it should be an examinable subject—obviously, an optionally examinable subject—but, nevertheless, that the Consultative Committee on the Curriculum and the Scottish Certificate of Education Examination Board should set up the joint committee to advise the Secretary of State whether an O-grade in religious education was practicable.

I hope that the paper will be acceptable to the various denominations, certainly to the Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches. I understand that there may be one or two optional questions in the paper, but it would be helpful if there were some recognition of the fact that although the Christian religion spans different denominations it is essentially the same religion.

felt, first, that religious education should be an examinable subject. Secondly, I was persuaded, albeit late in the day, that it would further enhance religious education if the inspectorate were brought in. On further examination by my right hon. Friend and myself, it appeared that the final contribution that the Scottish Office could make to ensure that the status of religion in schools was enhanced was to introduce inspection, in addition to making it an examinable subject.

Mr. Robert Hughes

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He should use language precisely and make it clear that the examination paper, this SCE O-grade subject, is a Christian religion paper and should be so defined. So far he has said that there might be questions about Catholicism and that there might be questions about Protestantism. He has said nothing about the Jewish faith, or the Muslim, or anyone else. So perhaps he should describe it properly as a Christian education SCE O-grade paper. Then we shall all know where we stand.

Mr. Fletcher

I was coming to that point in due course. However, I shall deal with it now, not because the hon. Gentleman invites me to do so, but because I believe that it is right to state my position on the matter. The hon. Gentleman will be aware from his experience at the Scottish Office that the CCC advises the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of State himself is not empowered to interfere directly with the curriculum. The view that I take, as one who holds this office temporarily, is that it should be essentially a paper on the teaching of the Christian religion. I, as an individual, have no objections to the broader dimensions of world religions being taught in our schools, but I see nothing wrong, in a Christian country, in the essential teaching in the subject that we are discussing being teaching of the Christian religion. I make no apology for expressing my personal views.

My experience of the so-called minority religions. whether Muslim, Jewish or anything else—and it is something which I very much envy—is that they usually look after their own religious interests far better than the majority religions in this country. Those who claim to have some experience of teaching, particularly Labour Members, will be aware that children from the minority religions who attend our schools usually have a stronger basic religious training at home than those of the majority Christian religion. That is something that should be borne in mind. I repeat that I have no objection to a broad perspective of religion being taught in our schools, but I do not apologise for my personal view that the emphasis should be on the Christian religion.

The purpose of the exercise is to enhance the standing of religious education in our schools. Unlike Labour Members, we are not half-hearted in our desire to do so.

I come to the more specific points that were raised. I was asked whether the Catholic Church was happy with these arrangements. I have said that the Catholic Education Commission has been consulted and is happy with the arrangements. It has accepted the principle, and sees little practical difficulty in the inspection of the examination course. There may be more practical points to discuss about the inspection of the general course for all pupils, but there will continue to be supervision of the content by the Church supervisor, who is often the parish priest, while the inspectors will be able to help with the method and assessment of the effectiveness of the courses.

I was asked about the right of teachers to opt out. The general expectation now is that religious education will be taught by specialist secondary teachers who have chosen to qualify in that subject. Quite a number have already done so. There should be no question of dragooning unwilling teachers of other subjects to teach religious education. Nothing would be more damaging than that.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) said that he takes a catholic view of education. I know that he takes a catholic view of parental choice, and I have always appreciated his support—mainly silent, but I always know that it is there—when we discuss matters of parental choice. Let me repeat, if I have not made it clear , that the conscience clause, section 9 of the 1980 Act, will still apply, and parents who do not wish their children to receive religious education will be entitled to have their children withdrawn.

Mr. Home Robertson

I shall be grateful if the Minister will satisfy my curiosity in one regard. As he was totally opposed at the end of June to arranging for inspection of religious education in Scottish schools, will he explain at what point on the road to Damascus he saw the light?

Mr. Fletcher

It does not matter. The important fact for the hon. Gentleman should be that I have seen the light.

Mr. O'Neill

I want to ask the Minister two questions that he has not yet really answered. With the opt-out provision, will it be compulsory for children in third and fourth years of secondary schooling to do a religious education course, in the same way as it is compulsory at present for them to do English and arithmetic? Although they do not have to go on to CSE examination, they nevertheless have to undergo courses in these two subjects. Does the Minister propose to elevate religious education to the same position as those subjects? Will the Minister make that clear?

Secondly, will the Minister also take account of the fact that many of the people who have been trained and are qualified to teach in religious education at present do so on the assumption that they will be teaching in schools what is to all intents and purposes comparative religion, which, although it may well have a strong Christian content, nevertheless does not imply that they themselves subscribe to the Christian religion?

Therefore, if there is to be some test of faith of the individuals concerned or some implication that there is faith in the Christian religion among the specialist secondary teachers, problems could arise if people decide to act on the basis of conscience and say that they are happy to teach comparative religion but are not happy to teach a Christian-based religious education course, the like of which the Minister has been referring to.

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Mr. Alexander Fletcher

I think that the answer to that point is that the enhancement of religious education in our schools, which we hope will follow as a result of the steps that we are taking, may well cause some teachers of comparative religion to consider the new syllabuses that we expect will be devised. There is much consultation still to take place on these matters, but if the syllabuses that are brought into schools are too Christian, for example, for some teachers of religious education and they do not wish to teach them, that is entirely a matter for them. These points will be subject to continual consultation. As I have already said, none of these steps will be introduced until we have settled many important matters in much more detail.

I repeat that our aim is to enhance religious education in our schools. This means that the present arrangements in some of our schools, where the minimum of lip service is paid to religious education, will have to be substantially improved. The extent to which that will affect pupils in the third and fourth year, and in the first and second year, will depend on the arrangements that now exist in schools. I would hazard a guess that most of our schools will, as a result of these arrangements, provide more effective religious education in the future than they have been doing in the past.

Question put and agreed to.

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