HC Deb 08 April 1982 vol 21 cc1128-36 2.28 pm
Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

No two Members of the House apart from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and myself have longer and deeper experience of secondary schools in this country, particularly in relation to religious education in schools. I think that between us we have some 50 years' experience of schools in deprived and depressed areas, including schools of 2,000-plus pupils, and mixed at that. I therefore believe that we can make a unique contribution to this very important area.

I refer particularly to the second report of the Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts, Session 1981–82 on "The Secondary School Curriculum and Examinations: with special reference to the 14 to 16 year old age group". That report looked carefully, thoughtfully and deeply into the subject of religious education.

Sadly my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) is unable to be here, as are others of my hon. Friends and Labour Members who nevertheless expressed the wish to be associated with my remarks. I note that my hon. Friends the Members for Cheadle (Mr. Normanton) and Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) are present. They have always taken a special interest in this subject, which is of central importance to all of us.

Recommendation 17 of the Select Committee states: More properly qualified Religious Education teachers and inspectors should be appointed. In my view, the appointment of properly qualified RE specialists depends upon five interrelated key factors. I wish at this point to lay down the bare bones of my argument and to build upon them as I continue. I shall begin by being somewhat statistical, and I hope that this will be understood.

First, the recruitment demand of schools to staff RE departments adequately with specialist advisers is also covered by the Select Committee report. Paragraph 5.28 states: Religious education and English are the two most notable instances in the secondary curriculum of what the DES refers to as 'hidden shortages"— staff shortages— or curriculum provision being maintained by 'teachers…who by some criteria are insufficiently qualified'. In my view, religious education must be recognised as a distinctive curriculum element.

Secondly, the adequate teaching of religious education as a distinctive element having parity status with other academic subjects needs from now on to be recognised in both financial and curriculum terms in a way in which it has not been recognised hitherto. The 1979 HMI report on aspects of secondary education states, first, that only 58 per cent. of schools and 50 per cent. of comprehensives offered RE to all pupils. Secondly, 18 per cent. overall and 22 per cent. of comprehensives offered no religious education at all beyond the third year of children's education. To that should be added moral education, and what a situation that is!

Thirdly, after the fifth year provision, post-fifth year provision is significantly low, because RE is being buried increasingly within the humanities area of the school curriculum.

DES bulletin 6/80 said that the average percentage of pupil periods of study for RE was as follows: in the first to third years of secondary education it represented 4.1 per cent. of curriculum time; in the fourth and fifth years that was down to 2.6 per cent. of curriculum time; and in the sixth year it was down to 1.9 per cent. of curriculum time.

I have vividly in my mind a visit that I made only last week to St. Saviour's, Toxteth. I recall all that happened there only a few weeks ago, the essential need for that school and others to be grounded properly upon the proper teaching of religious and moral values, and the fact that such teaching had become secondary at St. Saviour's, Toxteth, in my view was part of the reason for the way that that school fell to pieces during those awful few days.

Other humanities than religious education receive no less than 30 per cent. of curriculum time. There is also a resultant low capitation provision. Not much money is spent on religious education, the provision of books and the rest of it. It follows that there is insufficient teacher-pupil contact to provide the essential background and stimulus that are needed if examination option work is to be undertaken by the children.

The third factor is the existing supply of properly trained teachers of religious education. DES paper No. 2 says that there were 12,800 teachers without formal RE qualifications. Put another way, it means that 50 per cent. of those teaching RE have no formal qualifications to teach the subject.

The HMI report "The Aspect of Secondary Education 1979" says that 43 per cent. of secondary RE teachers have five years' or less experience, 17 per cent. are probationers, and 20 per cent. of those teaching religious education as their first subject have no qualification in it at all. RE teachers are forced away from RE teaching to improve their career status in senior teaching positions due to the low status scale provision of most heads of RE.

In my long experience of schools, I have always felt that the head of RE in a school should have parity with the heads of science, maths, English and every other major discipline in the school and that his scale post should be rated accordingly. The soul of man is more important than the body. The subject that gives him his sense of values and his self-understanding of his relationship with his maker seems to me to be of greater importance than anything else. But no one would think that from the way that the subject is handled.

The fourth factor to which I refer is the training of properly qualified religious education specialists. Government policy has seen the mass closure of colleges of education, not just under this Government. In fact, the criticism applies less to the present Administration than to former Governments. Most of the colleges had RE departments. The colleges have been absorbed in the polytechnics, which do not have RE departments.

Christians wishing to train for religious education teaching are put off by two key factors. The first is the liberal theology of most university or training college courses. I think that the Minister and society at large will understand what I mean by that. The second aspect is the failure to receive mandatory grants for CNAA validated theology degree courses in advance of teacher training at non-maintained theological colleges, for example—and one must mention them—the London Bible college and Oakfield theological college.

The fifth factor to which I refer is the fact that in recent years religious education has lacked a specific national syllabus that coincides with what I would call educational necessity and teacher certainty. It is a question for the individual, to some extent. I would content myself with saying that curricula in religious education need to be kept abreast of the way that society and theological thought move at the same time as preserving the fundamental and unchanging values that Christ, at the centre of Christianity, came to present. From these, any pupil following such curriculum can get that deep sense of what is right and wrong, how to conduct himself both in family and social terms, and that philosophical, moral, and religious faith from which to live his life in a contented and full way.

I remind the House that the most recently published report of the Education, Science and Arts Committee contained the recommendation that more properly qualified religious education teachers and inspectors should be appointed". Since that recommendation was made fresh evidence has been published that shows even more clearly how great is the need for more RE teachers. Part of the evidence comes in a document published only last week by the Religious Education Council, and the rest comes in DES statistical bulletin published earlier in March giving the Government's figures. The Religious Education Council document is described as an RE directory and it gives an account of the sort of provision currently to be found across the country both in terms of resources for the subject available in the schools and in terms of support available to the teachers of the subject. This is very important, as my hon. Friend knows. It gives a picture of lively activity, ingenious initiatives and considerable mutual support of a practical nature. The appearance of the directory is a significant example of this.

The directory also reveals a picture of inadequate support from both local and central Government to religious education in schools. I shall give some details of this. As we all know, local education authorities have the responsibility for ensuring that the educational needs of their area are met. To help them carry out that duty they appoint advisers or inspectors, the labels being interchangeable. Many of these inspectors have specific responsibility for a subject or group of subjects.

The new directory reveals that, although most of the LEAs have such a post relating to religious education, the proportion of time that the relevant inspectors can spend on the subject is, in most cases, very small. Only 46 per cent. of the local education authorities have an inspector able to give more than one-tenth of his time to religious education. How can a subject be given adequate support from this sort of provision?

The Select Committee's recommendations for further appointments in this subject needs to be pressed home hard on the local authorities as a priority commitment, even in this time of financial constraint. It seems to me that the fundamental cause of the difficulties that we have in society, such as violence and riots, is a complete lack of values on the part of those who riot and cause social distress to their neighbours. It shows a complete failure to understand what the brotherhood of man and its responsibility means between one citizen and another. That must come as the result of the failure of religious education in schools and we must put that right so that we get things right at the grass roots, from which society can grow once more to that true sense of responsibility from which alone people will behave fairly and reasonably towards one another. It cannot be done by force, and religious education has always been the basis of this cohesion in our society.

The Select Committee also called for the appointment of more properly qualified religious education teachers in our schools. I have already given the statistics to show the current position. The new evidence adds considerable weight to the urgency of that call. I recognise that statistics about shortage subjects have in the past been open to a certain amount of argument, but these newly revealed facts seem to be incontrovertible in their implication.

Among the witnesses who appeared before the Select Committee were the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, the President of the Methodist Conference and the Moderator of the Free Churches. The evidence could not have been more high-powered. In its evidence, the DES distinguished between three kinds of teacher shortage—overt shortages, hidden shortages and suppressed shortages. The first was calculated on the simple evidence from school vacancy lists; the second was indicated by the presence in the classroom of people teaching a subject that they were not adequately qualified to teach; and the third was revealed by inadequate timetable provision of a subject because teachers were not forthcoming in sufficient numbers to teach it properly.

Despite this subtle and important analysis, however, the only figures made available to the Committee related to the first of those categories—the simple evidence from vacancy lists. On the basis of those lists, religious education was categorised as not being a shortage subject. However, as everyone admits, that evidence ignores completely the other two kinds of shortage, quite apart from a fourth kind, which I would call a planning shortage, identified by the Committee, and which has its own importance when one is thinking of the future and not merely seeking to remedy the deficiencies of the past.

There are fewer vacancies in religious education than, say, chemistry because schools are beginning to despair of recruiting specialists in religious education, and, especially at a time of falling rolls, are understandably unwilling to keep open a vacancy month after month when they could fill the vacant position with, say, a good geographer or historian. Even the teaching of religious education must be cut back in that sort of school as a result.

In the Department's own terms, the absence of evidence for overt shortage can often be explained by the presence of suppressed shortage. A more reliable measure of shortage is clearly the DES's second category of hidden shortage. To calculate that, one looks at the number of people teaching a subject who are not adequately qualified to teach it. As I am sure my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will agree, there is no more difficult subject to teach.

This was the technique used by the Cockcroft committee when calculating the present shortage of mathematics teachers. Now that we have DES statistical bulletin 5/82 in front of us, we can see the position of religious education in this respect, and the evidence is striking and disturbing. Table 16 of that bulletin reveals that well over half—no less than 59 per cent.—of people teaching RE have no recorded qualification in the subject whatever. That is by far the worst position of any subject on the curriculum. It is far worse than science and twice as bad as maths and technology.

Of course, many of those non-specialists teach only one or two periods of religious education each week at the most. Therefore, a more accurate picture of the extent of unqualified teaching will be drawn from an examination of the percentage of time taught by non-specialists in the various subjects. Here again, I am sorry to say that religious education is clearly shown as being in the worst position—29 per cent., or almost one-third of all periods taught, is taught by non-specialists. For maths and technology, the comparable figure is only 15 per cent. That is bad enough. Even for physics, way out at the top of the vacancies table, the figure is only 22 per cent. I shall say no more about similar percentages, but the House can take it from me that the situation is very serious.

What can be done? The least that can be done is for the DES to acknowledge the facts and take steps to safeguard existing provision in the subject. The Department should not let the situation get any worse. It can be done in two ways, neither of which will require any additional financial resources. First, the Department can use the network of Her Majesty's inspectorate to work with LEA inspectors to discover the full extent of suppressed shortage in religious education, and, secondly, it can safeguard the training routes for RE specialists, at both in-service and initial training levels.

The very existence of Church schools—denominational schools—which were the basis on which education first came to this country for the masses, is threatened by the Labour Party, led by the Socialist Education Association. There are similar insidious and hidden attacks on religious education in the school curricula of non-denominational schools. Neglect is as bad an enemy as attack, and we must tackle that problem. We should remind ourselves that the very basis of our civilisation has always been a Christian one. In my view, religious education should have that at its centre, at the same time as taking account of the fact that our society now contains many ethnic groups, which should be included in the curriculum in terms of their own background and religions. What we cannot do is to let the situation stay as it is. Otherwise our society will fall apart, and that would be disastrous for our nation.

2.46 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Dr. Rhodes Boyson)

We all owe a debt to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway), for raising this important subject. I particularly noted his suggestions about the responsibility of the Department of Education and Science in carrying out improvements. I am glad to see with us my hon. Friends the Members for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones), Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) and Cheadle (Mr. Normanton), who are all concerned about the problems of religious education in schools. I am glad also to see the hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. BrocklebankFowler). We often have Adjournment debates when there is no one on the Opposition Benches.

It is highly appropriate that my hon. Friend raises this subject today, Maundy Thursday, the day when we recall the Last Supper and the events which began that evening, leading to the Passion and Crucifixion of our Lord, and leading again to the most important feast within the Christian calendar, that of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. Of course, as Christ was celebrating the Feast of the Passover at that Last Supper, today is also an important day for our Jewish friends, as it is the Passover.

Religious education is the only subject in the school curriculum which is compulsory by law. I am glad to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst is in total agreement with that statement. Of course, many other subjects are vital, starting with literacy and numeracy, without which a child is most surely deprived. But those who framed the Education Act 1944—it is within that framework that my hon. Friend spoke today—while assuming that all the basic subjects would be taught in school, thought it right to spell out clearly that all children of compulsory school age should receive religious education.

It is as well to reiterate here exactly what the law says. Section 25 of the Education Act 1944 has not been amended. It is still there, as passed by this House nearly 40 years ago. It reads as follows: Subject to the provisions of this section, the school day in every county school and in every voluntary school shall begin with collective worship on the part of all pupils in attendance at the school, and the arrangements made therefor shall provide for a single act of worship attended by all such pupils unless, in the opinion of the local education authority, or, in the case of a voluntary school, of the managers or governors thereof, the school premises are such as to make it impracticable to assemble them for that purpose. Subject to the provisions of this section, religious instruction shall be given in every county school and in every voluntary school. There is no harm in reminding ourselves about what was put in the 1944 Act intentionally and with all-party agreement.

The section goes on to give the rights of parents to withdraw their children from such religious instruction and worship, but also spells out clearly how arrangements should be made within schools, if possible, otherwise outside, for those of minority faiths to receive instruction in their own faiths. We have many minority groups in our community now. I wish to make it absolutely clear that this is the law on religious education and the school assembly, and that we have no intention of changing the law, but every intention of seeing that it is upheld. It is relevant today as it was all those years ago, and of course, even before the 1944 Act, religious education was to be found in practically all schools. The daily act of worship was found in most schools well before 1944.

Mr. Tom Normanton (Cheadle)

May I endorse strongly the line that my hon. Friend is taking on the whole question of religious education. I am convinced that it has widespread support in the House and, certainly in my constituency, widespread support among the parents and those children who have experienced religious education. However, it is not sufficient to make it compulsory that a formal day's curriculum should start with a religious tract. It is also important that we maintain and encourage the continued existence of schools that have a religious basis. I have in my constituency such a school which is on the verge of demise. Its future lies entirely in the hands of the Secretary of State and I would be grateful to hear about it.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bernard Weatherill)

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not make a speech.

Dr. Boyson

I am grateful for the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mr. Normanton), just as I am grateful for your intervention, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I wish to put some matters on the record. I was talking to my hon. Friend yesterday evening and what I said must have impressed him because he has stayed behind today to talk about it. I shall draw his remarks to the Secretary of State's attention.

I have said that literacy and numeracy are essential, and without them a child is deprived, in the true meaning of that word. The old-fashioned term for literacy and numeracy, but still a very good one, is the three Rs. Religious education is the fourth R, and the child is equally deprived if we neglect that fourth R. Furthermore, we are talking about religious education throughout the school, and that is much more than just Bible stories for the toddlers. It means religious education at least up to the age of 16, and I deplore the custom that has crept into some schools, and which I believe is against the law, to exempt the older children from morning assembly and to drop religious education from the curriculum altogether in the fourth and fifth years. Religious education should be compulsory up to school-leaving age.

Religious education—especially in the Judea-Christian tradition—is basic to an understanding of our society, culture and learning. The famous Durham report put it this way: 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. Of course, in today's society, there are more non-Christians than there were in 1944. We have welcomed into our midst many good people who are just as firm in their faith as the best of the Christians. I have in my constituency, as do you in yours, Mr. Deputy Speaker, possibly as great a diversity as any and certainly some of the largest groups of non-Christian minorities. Apart from the Christians, who themselves are diverse, I have many practising Jews, Hindus and Muslims. Those children have a right to be taught the faith of their fathers, just as Christian children should grow up knowing what their faith is, with roots that will carry them through the problems of adolescence and through their lives. They should not be taught a mish-mash of everyone else's religion and there should not be a Cook's tour of the world's religions. They should have clear religious education which, for the majority in Britain, is Christianity. The Archbishop of Canterbury referred to that in a speech only a few weeks ago. For others it may mean the Jewish faith and for others again the faith of their fathers. I am not asking for evangelism. I ask not for indoctrination, but for induction. When the child grows up, of course, it will make its own choice; it will decide, but decide on what? On a mushy, do-good sociology? If we give our children that, no wonder they reject it when they are older, for that is no faith.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, when she was Secretary of State for Education, made a shrewd observation which is as true today as it was when she said it. She said that in too many schools children were being taught doubt before belief. I remember a debate on a Friday morning in 1976 which was inaugurated by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Benyon), who has joined us today with his usual zeal.

We want fifth formers to have a critical analysis of their faith and of that of others, and for them to debate about God, religion and worship. But, for Heaven's sake— literally "for Heaven's sake"—let the young children know what their faith is. We can then discuss it. The first thing, as in any other subject, is the structure of the subject.

Let the young child from a Christian family learn the Christian faith, the life of Christ, the meaning of the life of Christ, and learn, for example, the tremendous significance that Christians place on the events that we commemorate this week, about which I reminded the House a moment ago.

The young adult cannot accept or reject his Christian faith if he does not even know what it is; similarly, the Orthodox Jew and those brought up in the faith of Islam. However, it is important that faith should be taught from conviction. That is the essence of religious education. That issue also arises on the question of the retention of voluntary schools, on which I totally agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle.

The numbers of declared vacancies for teachers of religious education is probably an underestimate, since too often the establishment for a religious education teacher has been allowed to lapse and the job is done as an extra by others. Even those teaching partly or mainly religious education are not necessarily committed to the faith that they are teaching. Indeed, as my hon. Friend said, only 29 per cent. of those now teaching religious education are qualified in the subject. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the great need for more religious education teachers, both qualified and committed to the subject.

The Christian faith needs to be taught by a committed practising Christian; the Jewish faith by a practising Jew and so on. Children should be taught tolerance and respect for other religions, but their teaching must reinforce their own living faith from which a real tolerance will develop. There is a tolerance of strength, which is good, and there is a tolerance of weakness which means that one has no values and that there is no structure upon which judgments can be made.

It is sometimes said that we are no longer a religious or Christian country, that religious education is an anachronism in the world of today and that parents do not want their children taught RE anyway. Let me say quite categorically that all the surveys and all the evidence show that the vast majority of parents, whatever their religious practice, want their children taught their religion. The parents may no longer go to church, or not very often; they may or may not still hold to the basic tenets of their faith. However, quite rightly, they want their children to learn the faith of their fathers; to know and to understand the tenets of that faith. It is then up to each one of us whether or not we accept that faith; whether or not we accept God himself.

It is worth remembering that more children go to church or chapel on a Sunday in this country than watch or play football on a Saturday. The argument that not everyone watches or plays football never stops it being taught in our schools. It would be equally stupid to say that because not everyone goes to church on Sunday religion should not be taught to our children.

Religious education is important, both to the child as an individual and to the society of which that child is a part. Religious education was rightly made compulsory under the law for all children of school age in this country, and it will remain so.

I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North about the provision of religious education teachers. Similarly, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle raised a point about voluntary schools. Indeed, we held a debate on that about three weeks ago. What we need, and need desperately, is a greater commitment on the part of all of us and, dare I say it, especially on the part of the churches towards the teaching of the faith, clearly and with commitment. I do not need to refer to liberalism and religion. Of course, I mean no disrespect to the Liberal Party. However, there is a vague mish-mash of blancmange permissiveness. Nevertheless, children want a structure in which they can believe. For most, but not all, that means the Christian faith and the faith of our fathers. However, for others it will mean their faith and values.

The Government have such a commitment and will continue to be committed to religious education.