HC Deb 23 March 1988 vol 130 cc398-426
Sir Hugh Rossi (Hornsey and Wood Green)

I beg to move amendment No. 75, in page 2, line 6, leave out from `comprises' to `specifies' and insert `religious education and other core and foundation subjects and, with the exception of religious education'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 224, in page 2, line 6, leave out `the core and foundation subjects' and insert— `religious education and other core and foundation subjects and, with the exception of religious education,'. No. 25, in clause 3, page 2, line 26, after '(a)', insert `scripture'.

No. 22, in clause 3, page 2, line 26, after `technology', insert 'religious education,'.

No. 77, in clause 4, page 3, line 32, at end insert— `(c) to arrange that within the provision of the national curriculum, there is flexibility and scope for the governors of voluntary schools to promote and develop the distinctive ethos and character of their schools'. No. 76, in clause 4, page 3, line 33, at beginning insert— 'Save for religious education (the arrangements for which shall be as required by sections 25–30 and section 77 of the 1944 Education Act),'. No. 367, in clause 6, page 4, line 35, at end insert— '(3) It shall be the duty of each local education authority to establish and maintain a Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education, in accordance with its powers under Section 29(2) of the 1944 Act, in order to monitor and support the teaching of Religious Education in the Local Authority's area and act as a conduit for representations as provided for in Section 15 of this Act.' No. 368, in clause 6, page 4, line 35, at end insert— (3) It shall the duty of each local education authority to convene a statutory conference, when requested to do so by their Standing Advisory Council, for the purposes of paragraph 12 of Schedule 5 of that Act, and at least once every 12 years.'. No. 369, in page 4, line 35, at end insert— `(3) Each Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education shall annually produce a report for their parent local education authority.'. No. 78, in clause 17, page 12, line 21, at end insert '(11) This section shall not apply to an aided or special agreement school where the governors have published a figure of admissions which is less than the standard number in the interests of preserving the school's religious character'. No. 79, in clause 19, page 14, line 49, at end insert `or having regard in the case of an aided or special agreement school to the need to maintain its religious character and to the willingness and ability of the governors to meet the financial liabilities arising from the standard numbers'.

Sir Hugh Rossi

I wish to speak to amendments Nos. 75 to 79 which stand in my name and the names of my right hon. and hon. Friends.

The purpose of amendment No. 75 is to establish religious education as a core or foundation subject but in such a way as to allow for differences in treatment from other core and foundation subjects. In particular, the amendment excludes religious education from the national machinery of attainment targets, programmes of study and assessment arrangements specified in paragraphs (a) to (c) of clause 2.

In place of those provisions, amendment No. 76 proposes that for county and controlled schools the existing arrangements laid down for religious education in sections 25 to 30 and section 77 of the Education Act 1944 shall continue. In other words, for those schools the character of religious education remains to be determined by locally established agreed syllabuses and for aided and special agreement schools by the governors and religious authorities who own or are in charge of the schools.

Amendment No. 77 requires that the governors of voluntary schools be able, within the national curriculum, to promote and develop the distinctive ethos and character of their schools. In other words, it asks for recognition that religious education is something more than a single timetable subject with a given number of school periods allocated for it. Its teaching should pervade and influence the entire syllabus.

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Amendments No. 78 and 79 in a sense follow naturally from that. They are offered in the alternative but with a common objective—the ability of governors of aided or special agreement schools to prevent the religious character of their schools from being changed by the statutory requirement to admit up to a standard number of pupils. In theory, under present legislation, the intake of such schools is governed by agreements between Church authorities and local education authorities. In fact, for reasons of their own, local education authorities have entered into relatively few such formal agreements, resulting in something of a stand-off situation.

The requirements in the Bill that schools should admit up to a standard number of pupils creates an entirely new situation and would leave protection of the denominational character of Church schools to the good will of the local education authorities, which I hardly think was in the mind of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State when the Bill was drafted. Unamended, the Bill could place intolerable burdens on Church authorities to incur expenditure in maintaining places not required to meet the needs of their own communities. Amendment No. 79, in particular, seeks to take care of the question of financial burden.

Closely related to those questions is that of the possible change in character or ethos of voluntary schools and the difficulties that could arise for Church authorities seeking to maintain a viable network of schools for their communities as a whole if individual schools are able to withdraw too easily from the maintained sector. The Church authorities do not seek a right of veto, but they feel that the burden should be heavier than it is under the Bill, both with regard to the voting majority and the way in which it is calculated and with regard to the need to give due weight to the overall demands of the national education provision that they seek to make.

The last two matters are covered not by these amendments but by two amendments which unfortunately were not selected but which are part and parcel of the case in relation to the position of denominational schools in our educational system. I hope, therefore, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will spare a sentence or two to reply to those aspects All these issues will be familiar to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, as the Church authorities have made their anxieties known widely and publicly but also personally to my right hon. Friend. There is thus no need for me to argue the merits of the case at great length. The fact that Opposition Members have tabled amendments in virtually identical terms shows the common source of my amendments and those in other names.

Mr. Straw

Divine intervention?

Sir Hugh Rossi

No one claims that, but it is clear that there is wide support throughout the Chamber for the proposals that I have put forward.

On the question of religious education, as I understand it there is no difference in principle between my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Church authorities Indeed, he felt that he had done all that was necessary by leaving the provisions of the 1944 Act in place and strengthening them by the declaration in clause 1(2)(a) about the spiritual, moral … and cultural development of pupils". I believe that he said publicly that the Church authorities were being unduly anxious and that they had not followed through his real intent. It appeared that his overriding consideration was to avoid his own responsibility, either directly or through the lay councils, for the content of religious education, which would be the case if religious education were simply a core or foundation subject under clause 3.

The amendments have been framed in a particular way to avoid the Secretary of State having to assume that responsibility, which he does not want, and at the same time upgrading religious education as a subject in the education system. The Church authorities believe that by not including religious education as a core or foundation subject, the Bill is playing down its importance. Religious education would be forced to compete with a range of optional subjects for limited classroom time and, in county schools, for resources. The Church authorities also feel that there is no effective means in the Bill of implementing the obligations that are carried over from the 1944 Act.

Perhaps of greatest importance to the Church authorities is their belief that religious education is not a single timetable subject, but the foundation of an entire educational process. If the values imparted by religious education are to be of importance and to be understood by pupils, they should pervade the whole of the syllabus, and inspire and unify every aspect of school life. In the light of that outlook, although clause 1(2)(a) appears to meet the requirement, the words "spiritual" and "moral … development" are not given any real substance in the Bill and rise little above the level of a pious platitude.

It is for that reason that I urge on my right hon. Friend these amendments concerning the content of religious education in schools, as a matter of great importance to the Church authorities and in accordance with principles with which he does not disagree, but which those outside the House feel are not given sufficient emphasis in the Bill as it is drawn at present. The object of the amendments is to try to give effect to an agreement that apparently already exists between my right hon. Friend and the Church authorities. I hope that if the wording proposed is not absolutely perfect in the way in which it is drafted or in the way in which the amendments are introduced, they nevertheless carry with them sufficient of the agreement that exists to enable my right hon. Friend to say that he accepts them, in principle, in the spirit in which they are being proposed.

The question of intake into schools is again extremely delicate. There is a real fear among the Church authorities about the requirement for standard numbers. They feel that there should be more in the Bill than there is at the moment to ensure that they can protect the character of their schools from being changed by their being obliged to take in pupils of different denominations, religions and faiths, or of their becoming financially responsible for the education of those to whom they do not have the same degree of responsibility as they have towards the children of the members of their Church.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will have given a sympathetic hearing to what has been said and that he does not make it necessary for me to seek to press the House to a Division on any of my amendments.

Mr. A. E. P. Duffy (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

I hope that the Secretary of State will accept the amendments of his hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) in the spirit in which they have been presented, and that he will especially bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's closing remarks about the problems of school admissions. I shall not say another word about that, because I have no doubt that the Secretary of State is now familiar with the problems that undoubtedly arise in our society through admissions to schools. I am sure that he will appreciate the need, as it is seen by a considerable section of our society, to preserve the character of certain schools.

I wish to speak directly to amendment No. 224 in the names of my hon. Friends and myself, which relates specifically to the place of religious education. It seeks to establish religious education as a core subject, but to allow for the difference between its position and those of other core and foundation subjects. The amendment recognises that religious education need not be subject to the national machinery of assessment targets—it is hoped that the Secretary of State will accept that —or to programmes of study or assessment arrangements. Indeed, there is agreement with the Secretary of State that such criteria are unsuitable for religious education, the character of which is determined either by locally established agreed syllabuses for county and controlled schools or by the governors and religious authorities for aided and special agreement schools.

Without the sort of provision for which we are looking to the Secretary of State, religious education, formerly the sole compulsory subject, is left as a required subject but without any perceived status. What, in common estimation, confers status is not whether a subject is compulsory but whether it is seen to be of sufficient significance or importance to be within the core and foundation of what is to be studied. Moreover, status carries with it certain practical implications — for example, resources, availability of INSET training, encouragement to follow courses, and so on. I stress that without accepted status, religious education in county schools will be in great difficulties.

I should like to speak in a more personal vein and in the context of the schools with which I am most familiar but which I do not necessarily prize most — Catholic schools. Catholics believe that religious education is not one subject among many, but the foundation of the entire education process. They are not alone in seeking to base education on the knowledge of Christ and his teachings.

Such schools, which range across the denominations, have long been dedicated to the education of the whole person. Therefore, the curriculum is seen as all-embracing and providing for spiritual as well as aesthetic and creative development.

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However, those objectives do not apply exclusively to Catholic schools or to Christian schools. The beliefs and values that are sought through such a curriculum today inspire members of many faiths who similarly seek not only their expression but their unity through every aspect of school life. They believe, as I know from representations that I have received from them, that the Bill's preamble, which requires all schools to promote pupils' spiritual and moral development, is unlikely to be fulfilled unless the House endorses the amendment that was moved by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green.

Mr. Anthony Coombs

In supporting the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi), I should like to urge upon the Government my amendments Nos. 367 and 369.

There must be few times in recent history when it has been more crucial to strengthen the spiritual and moral understanding and sense of self-responsibility that good religious education can bring. Nowadays, too often in our schools we hear of truancy at rates approaching 40 per cent. We hear from the Professional Association of Teachers of 80 per cent. of teachers who have been verbally abused by children and one third who have even been physically attacked. Too much emphasis is placed on television and fast food values. A survey of 15-year-olds in Cleveland only 12 months ago showed that no less than two thirds thought that there was little or nothing wrong with acts of vandalism. Finally, there is a Government inquiry on school discipline. Plainly, we have a society that is looking for a spiritual and moral lead. Christian-based religious education should play an important role in giving that lead in our schools.

The fact that religious education needs strengthening is not in doubt. The Pope has said that in Catholic schools religious education is the core of the core curriculum. More generally, the Secretary of State said in Crawley on I1 December last year: What the vast majority of children have been utterly starved of are the riches of the spirit. Their ignorance of the historic faith of this country, a faith which has inspired and guided so many of its greatest men and women, is a national disgrace". That is despite the fact that sections 25 to 29 and schedule 5 to the 1944 Act gave a clear and unequivocal duty to local education authorities and ultimately the Secretary of State to teach religious education. Sadly, it must be said that the 1944 Act has been a cipher. It has failed schools and religious education. Sadly, its tenets have been practically ignored.

Let us look at the facts. Where religious education is taught, at the most it takes up one lesson a week. The religious education statistics bulletin for last year shows that 62 per cent. of fourth-year children and 58 per cent. of fifth-year children are not taught any religious education. There is a lack of specialist teachers of religious education and as a result a lack of pupils taking examinations. Too often in our schools religious education has degenerated into comparative religion and even into humanism. In another place, Baroness Cox called it a kaleidoscope of shallow ideas about myriad belief systems".—[Official Report, House of Lords, 26 February 1988; Vol. 493, c. 1456.] It is not religious education at all.

It is significant that Mr. Mustapha, the chairman of the Moslem Teachers Association, went into a school that he was inspecting because he was an adviser and heard the head teacher say, "We do not mention Jesus in this school. We mention only God." Mr. Mustapha was so shocked that he went and told his imam. The next Saturday, in the central mosque in London one heard Moslems saying prayers to improve the respect for the place of Jesus Christ in British schools.

Sir Hugh Rossi

Is my hon. Friend aware that in the Inner London education authority the great religious emphasis this year is on the fact that it is the year of the dragon?

Mr. Coombs

Indeed I am. I could talk further about ILEA. It has the idea that "worship" is "worthyship", so it has more to do with community values than with religion. That gives one an idea of how wide of the mark the teaching of religious education has become in inner London schools.

In short, as the Association of Christian Teachers said, religious education is safe in the Statute Book; it is not safe in the schools. It is on the way that it achieves that jump from the statute book to schools that this Act of Parliament will be judged. Of course I appreciate that clause 1 refers to spiritual and moral development, and clause 6 refers to section 25(2) of the 1944 Act, although we should be talking about the whole of section 25. Clause 15 establishes a specific complaints procedure of which religious education should be able to take advantage.

The Bill recognises the importance of religious education, but there are two major problems. The first is that if religious education is not a foundation subject, there is a danger that, in practice, because it will not be assessed and may therefore not be examined, it may be practically marginalised in schools. I admit that I find unconvincing the arguments against including religious education as a foundation subject, arguments which have recourse to the virtues of localism and worries about cutting across the degree syllabus in voluntary schools. I have tried to convince religious education teachers, but I have had to come to the conclusion that eventually we shall have a nationally agreed syllabus, which will be predominantly Christian-based, for religious education. Religious education teachers in our maintained schools will be able to agree on that.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Does he not appreciate that he identified one of the problems created by the 1944 Act when he quoted the instance of the head teacher saying that his school did not refer to Jesus Christ but referred to God? Yet in acknowledging the problems created by the agreed syllabus ethic, he seemed to suggest that we should maintain the milk-and-water, dilettante, nondescript pact that we have had since 1944.

Mr. Coombs

All that I am suggesting is that religious education should be predominant and Christian-based, but as with the Christian virtues, it should display tolerance and knowledge of other religious beliefs. That is containable within a nationally agreed syllabus and I believe that eventually we shall reach that position.

Given the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green has moved an amendment that strengthens the position of religious education outside but alongside the national curriculum, I shall be happy to support it.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

The hon. Gentleman may be right in his argument and it is not for me to judge accordingly, but he referred to the need for religious education and the tolerance that it would instil. Is it not a fact that in Northern Ireland there is no lack of education on both sides of the sectarian divide? Is there any evidence that that form of religious education, which may be right — I am not criticising it — has instilled tolerance, understanding and above all respect for human life?

Mr. Coombs

I believe that that is totally irrelevant to the situation in British schools and that that type of intervention debases our discussions.

The second problem that currently faces religious education is the gap between law and practice. Schedule 5 to the 1944 Act only allows for conferences to be set up by local education authorities on a statutory basis to revise the agreed syllabus. There is no regular review mechanism allowed for in the 1944 Act. My amendments would mean that religious education teaching was permanently monitored by standing advisory councils for religious education, on a multi-faith basis, within local education authorities. The councils would act as conduits for complaints about religious education under clause 15 of the Bill.

My amendments would also ensure that there was a maximum period of 12 years within which revisions of the agreed syllabus would have to take place. They would also ensure that the standing advisory councils would report annually to the LEAs on matters such as examination take-up, the time allocated in schools for religious education, teachers' qualifications and so on.

The councils would establish a committed, knowledgeable, permanent driving force within LEAs to ensure that religious education was properly and adequately taught. Whatever fine words we may place on the statute book, good religious education, which will bring tremendous benefit to pupils, depends upon detailed follow-up matters such as teacher training, recruitment and school priorities. The permanent standing councils for religious education would be designed to achieve such objectives.

The Bill, if successful, will present a unique opportunity to improve standards of education, not just in an academic, vocational or technocratic sense, but in a spiritual and moral sense. If the Bill does that, it will exceed everyone's wildest expectations and will provide a tremendous boost to educational standards in this country.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I support the intentions of the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) who has tabled the amendment and I hope that his efforts and the efforts of others will lead to some new development in Government thinking, perhaps announced today. I hope that the amendment will ensure that this matter is given a great deal of attention when the Bill proceeds to the other place. I am glad to have the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith), who is a prominent Unitarian—the Free Churches are to the fore on our Bench today.

There is widespread concern about the state of religious education in maintained schools—that concern extends beyond churches to many parents. They want to see a firm foundation of religious education available in the schools and they increasingly complain when they do not find that. An understanding of religion, especially the Christian religion, is essential to an understanding of the society, history and heritage of these islands. Such religious understanding is also essential to appreciate the breadth of human experience and the way in which people's lives have been motivated and affected by their religious beliefs.

Religious education is widely sought by parents as a framework within which their children can grow up. It is one that those children may reject or maintain as they choose as they grow up. Indeed, religious education has never prevented children from taking a different course. There are many stories of those who have in later life rejected the religious education of their childhood and adopted a different approach to religion. However, many of those who have changed their approach to religion have been thankful for the particular religious foundation they originally received.

It would be wrong to assume that the proper reestablishment of religious education in our schools would lead to some form of pietistic docility within children. Some people on the Right assume that such teaching will lead children to accept completely the decisions presented to them from the powers that be on earth. It is just as likely to lead young people to challenge increasingly aspects of our existing society and to develop a radical approach to what should happen within it. It is for them to choose and decide on the basis of their religious education.

Should religious education be wholly Christian-based? In that connection one should think of a character in one of Fielding's novels, Parson Thwackum, who said: When I mention religion, I mean the Christian religion; and not only the Christian religion, but the Protestant religion; and not only the Protestant religion but the Church of England. There is no place for such arrogance in our assumptions about religious education. Such education should be broader and more tolerant than that described by Parson Thwackum.

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We should enthusiastically recognise that we live in a multicultural society. That does not mean that the place of Christianity in our religious education should be diluted or reduced. The fact that we have so many black-led Churches, together with Christians from different cultural backgrounds and such a strong Moslem presence, underpins religious education and has increased the demand for it to be effective and strongly based. Even if we were not a multicultural society, it is important that children should have an understanding of the approach taken to religion in other societies.

Such understanding, however, should not mean that there is no longer a firm, credible basis for understanding Christianity. We would be doing a disservice to the people of our community if they did not understand the basis of the religion that has predominated in these islands for so many centuries. Many people in other religious groups recognise that and would not wish the religious education in maintained schools to fail to provide a proper grounding and understanding of Christian religion.

The extent of the concern that now exists is illustrated by the dramatic change that has taken place over the years. At the beginning of this century Nonconformists and Liberals — at that time, for many purposes, they were almost identical groups — were rebelling vigorously against Church of England schools. They refused to pay their rates, they were sent to gaol and in some instances they had their property distrained. They did not want to have imposed upon them or pay for a wholly denominational system of religious education. They fought to have a county school in every village so that they were not required to send their children to a church school where the religious education was based on the catechism of the Church of England. My party was helped to win the 1906 election with such a resounding majority because of the sheer strength of feeling among Nonconformists about religious education.

Today there has been a profound change. Many Nonconformists willingly send their children to Church of England schools; many Nonconformists and members of the Church of England willingly send their children to Roman Catholic schools. They do so because they want some religious basis in the education of their children and they feel that that basis has been diluted within the maintained sector.

Now there is a willingness on the part of Christians of different denominations to cross the denominational divide in search of a Christian-based education; that illustrates the gap that has opened up in parts of the maintained system. It also reflects a growing recognition within the Christian denominations that the things we have in common are more important than the things that divide us.

At the heart of the argument is the core curriculum. Many people believe that the dominance of the core curriculum will, like it or not, be such as to push religious education to the margin. The pressures on schools are such that it seems extremely likely to happen. Therefore, I believe that religious education should be part of that core curriculum even though I prefer a pattern of local determination regarding the content of the religious education syllabus. Indeed, I was unhappy about the core curriculum from the start because of the centralisation involved. If there is a core curriculum the absence of religious education from it is likely to be to the detriment of such education and likely to marginalise it.

That leads me to believe that we must consider seriously the case for including religious education in the assessment procedures which are developed. My hon. Friends have criticised those procedures, but if they are there, the exclusion of religious education from them opens up the risk that because it is not assessed it becomes less important.

Unless we find an alternative way—and in this we look to the Secretary of State who has said that he regards religious education as important — to assert the importance of religious education in the curriculum, we may have to consider the pattern that he sees as the pattern which makes other things important in the curriculum, and through which resources will be concentrated. There is a real fear that religious education will have to jostle with many other worthy and necessary subjects which are excluded from the core curriculum.

Some of the same considerations apply to voluntary schools, but there are also special considerations which apply to Catholic schools, Church of England schools and schools founded by Nonconformists. In those schools there is a strong desire to safeguard religious education, perhaps through the core curriculum procedure or some other, so that it is not squeezed out. However, these schools particularly do not want their religious education provision centrally determined, to the exclusion of the rights and responsibilities of the managers and trustees of the schools. The members of the Churches have invested a great deal of money, time, energy and effort in the development of their school systems, and for them to he robbed of the ability to influence religious education would be wrong. In their view that component is not just one subject on the timetable; it is the influence of religion on the life of the school.

Voluntary schools are also worried about the possibility of a total change in the character of the school which could be brought about under the admissions procedures. That is a legitimate fear. They are worried about the effect of the opting-out procedures on an investment in which they have entrusted so much over the years.

The voluntary sector of education is an important partner. As I said earlier about Nonconformists, it is a partnership which is widely supported. It is no longer some sort of exclusive ghetto; it is a sector to which many parents turn because it provides some of the values in education that they feel are missing from the state sector.

Our ideal is that there should be proper provision of religious education in state schools and that the voluntary sector should have the opportunity to develop and safeguard the investment it makes in those schools. There are genuine and deeply felt anxieties on those issues and I hope that the Secretary of State will answer them tonight. If he does not, not only will hon. Members feel that they should support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green, but they will feel even more strongly that the other place should consider the matter carefully.

Mr. Raison

I agree with a great deal of what the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said.

Amendment No. 75 remains strictly unnecessary. Having written many letters to my constituents explaining that it is unnecessary because the safeguards being sought are already in the Bill, I certainly acknowledge that my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) made an eloquent speech, as always. If it makes people happy to have his formulation written into the Bill, I would have nothing against it. It would not even begrudge the time spent writing all those letters. There is a good case for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to listen sympathetically to what my hon. Friend has said. In effect, he seeks a symbolic reaffirmation of the place of religion in our schools.

My amendment No. 25 seeks to include scripture among the foundation subjects and it is an alternative to my hon. Friend's amendment. There are basically two reasons why we should think about scripture when we think about these matters. The first reason was touched on by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed: our scripture is a crucial part of our culture. I tried to include in the criteria set out in clause 1, which is meant to govern the whole of our educational system, a criterion saying that the curriculum should help to transmit the best in British culture from one generation to the next. I am sorry that we have not had a chance to debate that, but perhaps the other place may select such an amendment.

If we can include the notion of scripture in the Bill, we can help to remedy that gap. Hon. Members will recall that when T. S. Eliot was writing his notes "Towards a Definition of Culture", he said that he regarded religion as being the essence of culture. I would not go as far as that, but it is wholly impossible to understand British culture without a knowledge of the Bible and, I would add, the Book of Common Prayer. Those are the two greatest prose works in the English language and any child who grows up under an educational system which does not give him experience of them is significantly deprived.

Mr. Cormack

I entirely agree with everything my right hon. Friend says. Does he agree that it is indeed important that those who teach the scriptures believe what they are teaching? At the root of the problem in many schools, excluding Roman Catholic and Church of England schools, is that those who teach religion do not believe in what they are teaching.

Mr. Raison

As a generalisation, I accept that. It would be desirable, but I would still rather have children exposed to the scripture by honest teachers who do not necessarily believe profoundly in religion, than not exposed. It is a cultural experience.

My second reason for including scripture is that it is at the heart of religion, so it should be firmly at the heart of religious education. Far too often, scripture is not at the heart of it.

We recognise that all the great religions have their great books and that they need interpretation. I am not simply suggesting that we should read the Bible and stop there. Such books need both interpretation and to be applied to the world in which we live. Nevertheless, without a firm basis in scripture, or the other essential books of other religions, religious education can easily degenerate into a cosmic waffle which does no good to anybody. It can be a type of subjective interpretation of good words without even as much as a nod in the direction of faith. Religious education should, if possible, include some exposure to the actuality of worship and belief as well as to study.

We are faced with the crucial question: whose scripture and religion should be taught in our schools? After all, the word "religion" does not apply specifically to Christian religion. Every hon. Member who took part in the debates on the 1944 Act assumed that they were talking about Christianity. I have not found a single hon. Member who doubted that religion equalled Christian religion. We must acknowledge that we are living in a rather different world today, so we must ask different questions. We live in a country with a variety of religions. How, therefore, should we interpret the requirement to have religious education?

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed spoke wisely. We would apply common sense and say that the religious education given to children should, to some extent, be affected by the locality and circumstances in which they are growing up. If they live in the Sikh-dominated world of Southall, that should be reflected in their religious education. If they live in the Moslem areas of Luton, the same should apply. There should be some attempt in religious education to consider the society in which our children are growing up.

On top of that, at the heart of religious education must still be Christianity. The reasons are very much to do with the fact that it is so deeply embedded in our culture. It is not possible to grow up, play a full part in life and derive the benefits of society if a person is cut off from something which was of such fundamental importance in shaping English civilisation.

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In a sense that is a profound reason why Christianity should still be at the core of religious education. If parents dislike the idea, their right under the 1944 Act to opt out has not been tampered with. They can take their children somewhere else. If they wish to do so, no one should stop them. That is a part of religious freedom which we should accept. If they opt out and can be provided instead with teaching in another faith, such as the Moslem faith or whatever, I see nothing wrong with that. That again is part of religious freedom and good education.

I believe that there should be religious education in schools and that it should be rooted firmly in scripture. It should also be about faith which should still find expression through Christianity rather than through innocuous platitudinising.

Mr. Frank Cook

I wish to speak on amendments Nos. 75, 79 and 224. First, I should confess an interest in that I was a product of Church schools—Catholic schools and Jesuit Catholic schools. I taught for six years in a voluntary Church school before entering state education, so I understand the importance of the subject of religious education—if subject it is—to people of the Catholic faith and of other readily identifiable religious sects, for want of a better word.

In the schools in which I taught, teachers of my generation believed that religion should permeate every subject in the syllabus. We thought that it should permeate not only English language, but geography and history. The version of English history taught in a Catholic college is different from the English history taught in a non-Catholic college because we used to concentrate on the truth. [Laughter.] I thought that hon. Members might like that. We need the subject of religion in the curriculum because we need the opportunity to explain regularly the code of ethics which we hold dear, the way in which we interpret it and the scripture on which it is based. That is a reasonable aim for anyone.

It is not often that I agree with Conservative Members, but I agree with almost every word uttered by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi). Had I been moving the amendment — I would greatly have valued the privilege of doing so — I would have repeated almost word for word what he said. However, his amendment had the advantage of being tabled before ours. I commend his words and I agree with every point he made, as I agree with every point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy).

Mr. Ken Eastham (Manchester, Blackley)

His was in Latin.

Mr. Cook

Had it been in Latin, I would still have followed it, being a classical student.

The amendments have been the subject of much consultation, careful thought and attention. I understand that the Secretary of State is reported as having said, in response to a question about why religion was not granted the status of a core subject, that he thought that the Churches had never asked for it. I suppose that we should look upon the amendments as a second chance for the Secretary of State. I am not suggesting that he was misrepresenting the truth; that would be improper. But I suggest that he was mistaken or perhaps had not checked the facts. While we do not look to the Secretary of State to do penance, we are certainly seeking a firm purpose.

Sir Rhodes Boyson (Brent, North)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) and to see almost overwhelming agreement on both sides of the Chamber on an important educational issue. Religious education matters in schools. It is most important because man is a moral being. He is made differently from animals. When God breathed on man in the Garden he gave him a soul, a conscience and a sense of right and wrong. Man must know how to make that judgment.

Aristotle said that man is always higher or lower than the animal. When he is carrying out a moral purpose correctly, he is higher; when he betrays that moral purpose, he is lower because an animal has no sense of right or wrong and no conscience. It is no good blaming the animal in a moral sense or condemning it to hell. It has to follow its instinct for survival. It is most important that we have religious education in assembly, that it is taught and that it suffuses much of the rest of the curriculum.

Reference was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) to the 1944 Act. I have read the debates on that Act. The provision for religious education was opposed by only one hon. Member, if my memory is correct. It was said time and time again that that Act came into being because we had seen in Nazi Germany the bestiality that man could display. Therefore, we were determined to teach religion in our schools so that what had happened in Nazi Germany would not happen here. That is why people felt so strongly about religious education then.

There are troubles all around the world at present. Indeed, we have seen them nearer home during the last week. It shows that our fathers were right in 1944 in regarding religious education as important and in requiring it to be taught in schools. It is needed even more now.

There are two important points about religious education in schools. The first is the assembly and the other is teaching in the classroom. There is a secular defence of assembly. Any school which cannot get pupils to stand up straight in assembly, in quietness, will never control them in the classroom. I sometimes think that schools do not have assemblies now because the head teachers cannot take control. What will teachers do if they cannot ensure once a day that the pupils are quiet and that the imprint of the teachers is put on the school? I am an old-fashioned defender of the assembly. If a school does not have a hall which is big enough, there is plenty of room outside, even if umbrellas are needed. It could be an extension of physical education.

There should also be a short service, with not too many homilies. Boys do not like homilies. There should be a good tune to which they can sing and a prayer which will have meaning in their lives. A reading should be done by one of the pupils. If some of the best pieces of scripture were read, they would become part of their lives and might be recalled in times of trouble or delight, in the case of the Psalms.

The fact that we have so many children of other faiths is a challenge to the Christian religion. It is not an excuse to do nothing. Many schools, local authorities and churches use all the different religions as an excuse not to do anything. The churches do not evangelise or go to see what the pupils are doing.

My first headship in London, which started me on the path that led me to this place, was at a school in the east end, where my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) also taught at one time. Indeed, we lived together in the Oxford university settlement in the east end of London. That school had a large Jewish contingent, a large Moslem contingent and a large Christian contingent. When I arrived there, the school did not have assemblies because, if there was a Christian assembly, everyone became Jewish and if there was a Jewish assembly, everyone became Moslem. It was obvious that the only way to have an assembly was to get them all together.

I met the leaders of the three religions in the area, and we chose 10 hymns that worshipped the Almighty without any mention of any deviation into other religions, and at our first assembly everyone came in to sing those 10 hymns. Religious education was taught by people sent into the school by those religious leaders. Rabbis came in to teach the Jewish pupils, imams came in to teach the Moslem pupils, and we had enough Christian teachers—here and there — to take religious education for the Christian students. The point is that we were prepared to do it, instead of making excuses.

I do not wish to reminisce too much, but at Highbury Grove school, the West Indian pupils were Christian. They liked good singing, with a few hallelujahs thrown in, and a few tambourine bands went down well. But we also had to cater for the Catholic pupils. I met the Catholic priest. I will not mention which church he came from, in case I get him into trouble with the Pope, the bishop or my friend the cardinal. But the priest and I agreed that the Catholic pupils would come to my assembly—not to worship me but to worship God—four days a week and the priest would come in and say mass on the fifth day. We did not tell ILEA about it. A good head never tells anyone what is going on, as long as the parents and children agree. The result was fully attended assemblies.

It is amazing that Her Majesty's inspectorate, the local education authorities and the Churches have not enforced school assemblies. Most schools either have no assembly or do not know what they are doing. It is no wonder that people are anxious to have it in black and white in this Bill, even though the provisions of the 1944 Act have not been enforced.

It has always been difficult, especially in secondary schools, to timetable religious education because there has always been a shortage of teachers of religion and in many non-denominational state schools it is often difficult to keep order in religious education classes. So it is not a subject that people are queuing up to teach. Schools often use it to balance the curriculum. Teachers may be down for 28 periods of teaching, only 26 of which are in their own subject, and if they have been to church at any time in the past 10 years they are asked to teach religious education. It is probably better than being landed with domestic science, which they may never have done.

Mr. Straw

Has the hon. Gentleman cooked in the past 10 years?

Sir Rhodes Boyson

I must not allow the hon. Gentleman to interrupt me, even though Blackburn Rovers did not win their match last week. That is worshipping of a different sort. I do not wish to cause any ill-feeling in Blackburn, which is near the place of my birth. The hon. Gentleman and I will stand shoulder to shoulder if Blackburn Rovers go up into the first division. We want to put religious education into the first division —[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] That was a good one, Mr. Deputy Speaker!

Mr. Straw

The hon. Gentleman's comments will be a cause for great celebration in Blackburn. Indeed, the players will turn out tonight with a skip in their stride, especially since Blackburn Rovers' finest hour was when they beat Rossendale United 11–0—a match at which the hon. Gentleman's grandfather was present.

Sir Rhodes Boyson

We talked of nothing else. Perhaps I should just say amen and go on.

When the Bill becomes law, and core and foundation subjects are introduced, there will be a great battle for the remaining periods. Should they be used for extra science, second languages, the classics, home economics, business studies or economics? Religious education will be at the end of the line. It will disappear unless it is written into the Bill.

This week, I received a letter from a teacher at a renowned independent school in London—the wife of a minister of the cloth in my constituency—which said: I am also concerned with the Education Bill and what is happening to the teaching of Religious Studies. Since it is excluded from the Core Curriculum it is being squeezed out of the syllabuses and even in my independent school it is no longer being offered from next year as a GCSE subject. 7.15 pm

As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) always says, there is the reality. The hon. Gentleman is not listening. I shall speak to him privately later. The hon. Gentleman is a close friend of mine, and 1 respect him greatly—

Mr. Flannery

Will the hon. Gentleman repeat what he said?

Sir Rhodes Boyson

The hon. Gentleman regularly uses the phrase, "That is the reality." The reality here is that, if religious education is not a core or foundation subject, it will disappear.

I understand the difficulty about constructing a syllabus for religious education, but I believe that the amendments meet it. It cannot be laid down nationally. We shall have to find a different method. I understand the problem of the many different religions in Britain, but I believe that people should be taught the faith of their fathers in schools. If, as in Dewsbury, 95 per cent. of a school's pupils are Moslem, it seems to me that that school should be given over to the Moslem faith. What it is doing as a Church of England school, goodness only knows. Why not introduce some reality, instead of everyone pretending to do things for everyone else and nothing for themselves along the way?

As hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, religious education must not be a parade round a museum of religion. There must be faith. Those who teach religious education must believe in it. Presumably people who teach art believe in it. Those who teach physical education or football believe that it is a good thing. Teachers must sell themselves. I was a non-believer in woodwork, so I produced advertisements for the magazine instead. My teacher did not win in that case.

Religious education must be a foundation or core subject, and the Churches, Her Majesty's inspectorate and the local authorities must ensure that it is taught. Its teaching was not enforced under the 1944 Act. They were simple words. If these are only words, we shall have wasted our time tonight, but I trust that what we have said will convince the Government of the strength of our case.

Mr. Dalyell

The collective mind of the House of Commons can be forgiven for boggling at the serried ranks of the pupils of Highbury Grove, with their umbrellas, listening to the roll call conducted by the right hon. Member for Brent, North (Sir. R. Boyson).

One disadvantage and shortcoming of the House is that when those of us who have been here for a long time speak from personal experience, by its very nature that personal experience is dated. But I am brave enough to do so, because for four years of my life I taught a great deal of religious education at Bo'ness academy. Anyone who has taught it must have found it very difficult.

Incidentally, I do not agree with the right hon. Member for Brent, North, who was a distinguished and successful headmaster, that those who teach religious education must have faith. As the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) knows, because he and I were taught scriptures by remarkable men, those who teach religious education do not always share the faith. But that is a minor issue.

The hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) made an important point. He said that if scripture or religious instruction was not examined, it would become marginalised. I say to the Secretary of State: I believe that is true. It is difficult enough at any time to teach divinity, religious instruction — call it what one will. If that subject is not examinable, and other subjects in the curriculum are, it is impossible to obtain the same seriousness of attention from the pupils for it. What is the Secretary of State's thinking on the issue of examinations?

This raises another tangential issue. Last Thursday I had the interesting experience of being invited by my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant) to the neighbouring constituency of the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) for the opening of the Alexandra Palace. My hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham introduced me to many of his friends, including the chief education officer for his area. For those of us who do not come from inner London, it is staggering to be told that 86 languages and 200 dialects are spoken in the borough of Haringey.

We are not here to argue the rights and wrongs of ILEA; I have no locus in that. However, that leads me to another question that I want to ask the Secretary of State about an issue that has been discussed for a long time in the House. Where on earth will the teachers come from? My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) and others know that many people are shy and coy about teaching religious instruction. I do not say that they funk it—that is a nasty word—but such teaching is daunting for many.

It is all very well to go on about what is desirable, but we shall not get far unless we are clear about where the teachers will come from, not only for biblical studies but for Moslem and Hindu studies. At the function to which my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham invited me, I sat next to a Cypriot bishop. The Cypriots have their own history and culture. Where will the teachers for them come from? Incidentally, where will the resources come from?

I cannot sit down without asking one question in this context of morals and behaviour. Can we be let into the secret of what happened about that letter?

7.21 pm
Mr. Harry Greenway

The speech made by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) would not have been complete without that concluding sentence, which we enjoyed. He mentioned 86 nationalities in Hornsey. I was the deputy headmaster of a mixed comprehensive school of 2,200 children; 85 languages were spoken in that school alone. Yet the school was able to hold assemblies based on a Christian theme or a theme of another world religion. So that sort of thing can be handled in a school, but a central religious theme must be taken. That should be based on Christianity, but it should not exclude other world religions for comparison purposes. It is only possible to get across to children an understanding of one religion in 10 years or so. Other hon. Members have said that, and I agree with them.

It is ironic that the Churches should be struggling to retain their place in education and the place of religious education in schools, when one remembers that it was the Churches and religious leaders and teachers who brought mass education to this country. The great movement of Church schools was the foundation of schooling in this country.

The legal requirements of the 1944 Act for teaching religious education are increasingly failing, so the position is serious. Five years ago, the Religious Education Council said that in two thirds of primary schools, teachers of religious instruction were confused about what they were trying to teach. So what chance would the children have? The same report said that four fifths of children over 14 received no religious or moral education. Alas, too, in many schools in this country there was no reference to Christmas last year. In some areas people said that it would be offensive to talk about the nativity of our Lord to people who were not Christians. That is sad, and we need to do something about it.

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson), that the assembly is an essential part of the school day. In the school in which we both taught, and of which he was such a successful head, and in all the schools in which I have taught, whatever their ethnic make-up, I have always made certain that every pupil could recite and understand the Lord's Prayer as the basis of something to turn to in their hour of need—and much more besides. The ability to pray is a basic human requirement and should not be forgotten.

Is not the education of every child enriched by some teaching and understanding of the Sermon on the Mount and the great parables and teachings of Jesus, with their pedagogic contents? We must remember that our culture is based on the Sermon on the Mount, the Ten Commandnents and the parables of Jesus, as was all Christendom. Hon. Members who have said that to understand our society children and adults needs an understanding of Christianity are right. That is why Christianity should be the centre of religious education, although not to the exclusion of all else.

In late February I wrote to The Times on the important theme of religious education in schools, and I based my amendment No. 221 on that letter. I discussed it with Cardinal Hume, with other Christian leaders and with leaders of other religions. All are agreed that the legal back-up for religious education in the 1944 Act has been unsatisfactory, and I do not think the legal back-up in the Bill is of any value, either. I do not mean to be rude to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State when I say that.

Successive lawyers from the Department of Education and Science, who have been pressed before the Select Committee to respond to hon. Members' concern about a failure to teach, for example, mathematics in one particular school for two years, have said that, provided that the local education authority and the school concerned had made efforts to find teachers to teach that subject, they were covered. The law could not touch them and any parental complaints would fall to the ground. It would be the same for religious instruction under the Bill. Sadly, the Bill has no significant value in that respect.

We need to get religious education into the core curriculum, and I should be happy to accept the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi), to which I have added my name. It subsumes my amendment and would put religious education into the national curriculum, thereby giving it the status of a core subject without the restraint of the national curriculum council. That is of great importance.

7.30 pm

As other hon. Members wish to speak, I shall be brief. Never has there been a greater need for an assertion, an improvement and a re-establishment of religious education in schools. There is considerable social violence not only at football matches but in many other areas. One in three of the population is convicted of a criminal offence by the age of 28. Families are under great stress, with the breakdown of one in three marriages.

I recently met a nice 10-year-old boy and had a nice chat with him, but his headmaster said later that he had tied a banger to a cat's tail and was greatly amused to watch it running along with a fizzing banger on its tail. The explosion damaged the cat to such an extent that it had to be put down. Yet that boy, who was a perfectly nice lad, could not understand that he had done wrong. He simply does not understand the difference between right and wrong.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will accept that lying behind the amendment is pressure from the majority of the population, especially from parents, demanding that society, if it is to be healthy, must ensure that children know the difference between right and wrong and that they are prepared to stand up for that.

Mr. Straw

This has been a thoughtful, as well as an entertaining debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery), for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) and for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) for their contributions. I also pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson), who always presents himself as some sort of latter-day Gradgrind. However, I represented Islington on ILEA when he was the headmaster of Highbury Grove school, and I can tell the House that the image that he presents is wholly confounded by his reputation as a progressive headmaster who sought high standards for every child in the true spirit of the comprehensive school that he ran.

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North referred to the great anxiety felt not only by the Catholic but by the Anglican Churches about the impact of the Bill on Church schools. They are worried not only about religious education but about the consequences of the open admission and opting-out policies. From the inception of the Committee stage, my hon. Friends and I sought to raise those issues, and they were discussed at great length. As a consequence, the Government have made some movement. I hope that this evening the Secretary of State will acknowledge, although I am not sure in what way, the anxieties expressed.

The Government cannot allay some of those anxieties while they press ahead with their so-called free market education system — that is, opting out and open admission. Although there is a wide measure of agreement about the importance of religious education, the Churches should not be fooled that unless there are major modifications to the operation of the opting-out and open-admission policies, the position of Church schools may, and probably will, be seriously undermined.

The fact that the Bill is being changed at this late stage illustrates the point made in many quarters at the beginning of the process last July, that the Secretary of State should have taken a great deal more time to consult affected bodies before introducing the Bill. The parallel between his 10 weeks for consultation and Rab Butler's two years is striking. Like other hon. Members, I have been studying the debates of the 1944 Committee relating to Church schools and religious worship and instruction.

It is interesting to note that the issues being raised today are similar to those raised 44 years ago. The aptly named Member for Ayr Burghs, Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Thomas Moore — [HON. MEMBERS: "We remember him well."] Perhaps I have been in this place rather less time that some hon. Members, because I certainly do not remember him. He put forward an amendment proposing that religious instruction should be limited to the accepted Christian principles of truth, honesty, kindness, clean living and self-respect. I am pleased to say that that was not accepted by the Government.

The anxiety that schools were not undertaking their proper duty towards worship and religious instruction was also expressed. Rab Butler said: It is perfectly right for those who have spoken … to say that there is a great deal of nonsense talked about schools being God-less and about there being no worship or religious instruction. In fact, within the limits of what we have been able to achieve, the schools are doing great work in this field, but it is absolutely right for me, as the Minister in charge, to say that the schools, although they can play their part, cannot do everything. The great part of the responsibility for this religious worship or instruction must fall on the denomination, or on the parents themselves in the family circle, and what the schools can do is to help with this vital part of a child's upbringing."—[Official Report, 10 March 1944; Vol. 397, c. 2402–2416.]

Mr. Dalyell

Perhaps we can reminisce about Sir Thomas Moore for a moment. He used to sit where the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) is now sitting, although it must have been before his time. Every day he arrived with a fresh red rose in his buttonhole.

An Hon. Member

Before Neil Kinnock.

Mr. Straw

It was before the day of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. I understand that Sir Thomas Moore wore a black shirt as well as a red rose: of course, my right hon. Friend does not.

If there was a recognition of the same issues and the same anxieties, there was also a recognition in those 1944 debates that the question of religious instruction and worship had the same potential for social division. That was touched upon in a joke made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North, who said that the history that he was taught in a Catholic school was different from that taught in other schools, and that what he was taught was the truth. That was a joke, but—

Mr. Frank Cook

It was not a joke; I was serious.

Mr. Straw

In that case, we would do well to remember that it is not only one part of the United Kingdom that has capacity for great religious tension and strife. It is not true to say, as some do, that the Irish problem is nothing to do with us. If we knew anything about our history, we would know that the Irish problem was the English problem exported, and that it reflects the deep social and religious divisions in this country that caused great carnage and bloodshed over many centuries.

Sir Hugh Rossi

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that were he to pick up a French history book and read about the Napoleonic wars, he would think that he was reading about an entirely different historic period from that portrayed in English history books? It has more to do with tribalism than with religion — and so has Northern Ireland.

Mr. Straw

The next point in my notes is that we must remember from our history that we did not abandon Anglican tests for admission to colleges in Oxford and Cambridge until 1871, and that there was discrimination against Catholics throughout this century. We must remember how easily religious devotion can turn into tribal destructiveness. There is a fine and delicate line between the two.

Mr. Winnick

Is my hon. Friend aware that, unfortunately, the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) misrepresented the point that I was making? I was making the point that the position in Northern Ireland demonstrates that the teaching of religion —Protestant, Catholic or any other religion; it is not confined to Christianity — does not produce tolerance and respect for human life. That was the only point that I was making. I certainly mean no disrespect to any form of religious teaching.

Mr. Straw

My hon. Friend is right. The great achievement of Butler and the Churches in 1944 was to secure a lasting religious settlement for this part of the United Kingdom between Church and state in education. We should not disturb that settlement unless we are convinced that the change will be for the better.

I accept the importance of religious worship and education in schools, for reasons on which hon. Members have expanded. We can have no understanding of our history and culture unless we understand that we have a Christian tradition. We cannot even understand the architecture of the Palace of Westminster unless we know about this nation's Christian heritage. It is impossible to understand our literature, poetry, classical art and music without that knowledge. Alongside that, all of us, whatever our political beliefs, wish society to operate according to ethical codes and faiths. Political ideology can never by itself provide that.

Hon. Members have recognised that we now live in a multi-religious society, in which there are not only Christian faiths but other faiths of equal importance to those who practise them.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)

Does the hon. Gentleman advocate that religious education should become part of a core curriculum?

Mr. Straw

I was about to deal with exactly that point. The question is how best we achieve those aims. The problem is that a national curriculum lays down a core of subjects which will be followed by all pupils and provides that there should be assessment and testing of those subjects. We can argue about exactly how that will work, but there is agreement about the framework. The difficulty about including religious education in the national curriculum—it may not be insurmountable—is that it does not fit within that framework.

Under amendment No. 75, religious education is to be excluded from the testing and attainment targets, for reasons which I understand and to which I subscribe. In any event, it is difficult to test a subject fairly when some children can be withdrawn from it. That is the problem with including religious education in the national curriculum. The difficulty with excluding it—this point was made by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) — is that RE may be crowded out by the imposition of the national curriculum.

Our suggestion, which I hope better meets hon. Members' aspirations and expectations — I know that the Secretary of State will want to think about this before the matter comes before the other place—is that there should be a special status within the Bill for religious education. There should be a new clause which provides that the time and approach to religious education will be laid down by order, after wide consultations with the Churches, LEAs and parents, and which accepts, for the reasons on which the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green has expanded, the difference in the quality and character of RE.

Religious education will not be tested. It should pervade the curriculum as a whole and not just be taught as a single subject. We believe that that would meet the Churches' concerns better than simply spatchcocking RE in the national curriculum. This is a crucial issue. It is crucial that we take our time and get it right.

Mr. Kenneth Baker

Anyone who has heard our discussion for the past two hours could not help but be impressed by the quality of the debate and the interesting matters raised. I have been a Member for 20 years. My anniversary falls next week.

Mr. Straw

We shall send a card.

Mr. Baker

Many happy returns as well, I hope.

In those 20 years, I do not recall a debate on religious education. I recall debates on the Prayer Book, the Synod and other aspects of religion, but this debate has been specifically on religious education. It has been improved immensely by the experiences of at least four hon. Members who taught in schools and had to deal with religious education—the hon. Members for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) and for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway).

7.45 pm

The Government have continually stressed the importance that we attach to religious education. As evidence of that, we have made RE a national priority within the Government's grant scheme for the in-service training of teachers. We are providing about £1 million this year and next for that training.

The hon. Member for Linlithgow asked me about the position of RE teachers. The latest figures show that the intake has been about 80 per cent. of target. In January 1987, there were vacancies for 75 RE teachers in the whole of England—a low figure. There is a problem with the deployment of teachers qualified in RE education. In 1984, a secondary schools staffing survey revealed that, of the 16,200 full-time teachers with a main or subsidiary qualification in religious education, only about 9,000 were teaching the subject. The survey also showed that about 25 per cent. of tuition was given by teachers with no qualifications in RE. I think that the hon. Member for Linlithgow said that he was one of those.

The problem is being tackled through in-service training. As I have said, training in the teaching of RE is one of the national priorities of the training grants scheme, which provides grants at the rate of 70 per cent. of LEA expenditure incurred on RE training, up to £1 million in each of the years 1987–88 and 1988–89. In the current financial year, local education authorities have told us that they expect to provide about 32,000 teacher in-service training days in religious education.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)

Who is responsible for that training and on what basis is it worked out? Is it training in contemporary religion or training based essentially on Christianity?

Mr. Baker

The training would be based at local level and would be arranged by the local education authorities, so I cannot answer directly. I should be happy to provide my hon. Friend with information on the syllabuses of the teacher training colleges.

Mr. Cormack

If there is no requirement that those who are trained believe in the religion that they are to teach, will it at least be certain that they are not hostile to it?

Mr. Baker

All good teaching comes basically from the enthusiasm that one feels for the subject. I should have thought that the great majority of teachers, if not virtually all, have a deep understanding of religion—not only of the texts and scriptures but of the aspects of faith and belief.

We have spelt out in the Bill the duty of local authorities to provide religious education in accordance with the provisions of the 1944 Act. It is a matter of concern—this has been expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House—that the quality of religious education provided in many schools leaves much to be desired. In many schools that are not Church schools, religious education has become very perfunctory. We have therefore tried in the Bill to strengthen the provision for RE in the 1944 Act. Far from playing down the importance of religious education, the Bill puts the promotion of spiritual and moral values at the forefront of any consideration of the curriculum and makes a statutory requirement in that respect.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) spoke of the importance of the study of the scriptures as texts, and certainly, the Cranmer Prayer Book and the King James version of the Bible are great literary as well as religious texts.

Mr. Cormack

They are not much used in the churches these days.

Mr. Baker

Those of us brought up with an understanding of, and a familiarity with, the Prayer Book and the King James version will carry phrases and words from them rattling around in our memories until the day we die. I agree with the assertion of my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury that the study of the scriptures is vital, although my study of the scriptures at school was particularly narrow, as we spent a lot of time tracing the detailed voyages of St. Paul in Asia Minor. Our RE lessons became more like geography lessons. That gives the House a small window into my experience.

Religion is not just about studying the text. Religious education should involve exposing children to the possibility of belief and the experience of faith. Education should not be concerned only with the mental and physical development of a child. The moral and spiritual dimension should be opened up.

Clause 1 provides that the curriculum of all maintained schools should promote the spiritual development of all pupils at schools and of society as a whole. Clause 6 places a direct statutory duty on local education authorities, head teachers and school governing bodies to ensure that religious education is provided, and that duty is explicit rather than implicit.

In addition, in clause 15 we have for the first time provided specifically for parents and others to lodge a formal complaint if they believe that religious education is not being provided in accordance with the statutory requirements.

We hope that the clear spelling out of duties in the Bill will go a long way to improve the quality of religious education and that resort to the new complaints procedure will be exceptional. But it is no part of our intention that religious education should be any less well underpinned than the foundation subjects of the national curriculum—a point made by the hon. Members for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) and for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North.

All the provisions strengthen the existing duty to provide religious education and will help to improve the quality of what is provided. However, for reasons that we fully understand, the Churches have been anxious to ensure that religious education should be further strengthened within the national curriculum. For many people, religious education, in its widest sense, lies at the heart of the curriculum. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Dr. Glyn) asked about the core nature of the subject, and the very use of that word is significant. Some have argued that religious education should be a foundation subject, but that would involve the determination of the syllabus by the secular and central authorities — the National Curriculum Council and the House of Commons.

We firmly believe that if religious education is to continue to be taught well in our schools in the longer term, what is taught must reflect the views and values of local religious communities. As the law stands, religious education in county and in voluntary controlled schools is provided in each local education authority in accordance wth an agreed syllabus, determined locally by religious educational interests in the area.

For aided schools — the full Church schools —provision is determined by the governors of each school in accordance with any trust deed relating to religious education. The arrangements have stood the test of time, and while there are good grounds for strengthening them, it would be most unwise to remove the existing local dimension. The 1944 Act got the balance right and it would be a retrograde step if the House determined centrally what is taught in religious education, as we would if religious education were made a foundation subject under the Bill.

The Government have no wish to decide what religious education should be given in Catholic or Jewish schools. It is for the leaders and practitioners of those faiths to decide what should be taught. Nor would we presume to require that religious education should be the same in county schools in Devon as in schools in Bradford. That is rightly a matter for local decision, and we have no wish to tamper with the local discretion currently provided.

The House will know that I have held extensive discussions with the leaders of the Church of England, with the Catholic Church in England and with the Methodists to consider how their worries can be met. I am glad to say that our discussions have been rewarding and that we have had some success in finding common ground and reaching agreement. What I am about to say reflects that agreement with the Churches, which amounts to a new religious settlement.

The Churches wish local discretion to be retained. I acknowledge their desire for even greater emphasis to be placed on religious education alongside our national curriculum proposals. We have therefore agreed to amend clause 2 to ensure that religious education is statutorily identified as part of the basic curriculum to be provided for all pupils by all maintained schools and that it takes its place before the core and foundation subjects. I therefore welcome the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) and by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), supported by the hon. Member for Attercliffe, among others. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green for the way in which he spoke to the amendments.

I also welcome the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) which provide for the strengthening of the locally agreed syllabus procedures for RE. I am also well aware of the value of standing advisory councils in ensuring that RE is properly provided in county and controlled schools and in making sure that agreed syllabuses are reviewed from time to time. That is why, in principle, the Government agree with the aims of the amendments and would be willing to amend the 1944 Act along the lines proposed.

Mr. Straw

I note what the Secretary of State said about the inclusion of religious education in the basic curriculum. Do the Government intend that section 25(5) of the 1944 Act, which provides for parents to withdraw their children from RE as well as worship, should continue to apply?

Mr. Baker

The clear answer to that is yes. That is one reason why we cannot accept the amendments as drafted. I have given my hon. Friends a clear undertaking that the spirit and meaning of the amendments will be incorporated in the Bill in amendments tabled in another place. I have to take advice from parliamentary counsel, and one point that would have to be spelt out is that parents would continue to have the right to withdraw their children from religious education or from collective worship.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

Under the settlement that my right hon. Friend has announced and the provisions that he has promised to introduce, will it be possible for Christian instruction to take place in all schools? It seems to me that, under the local arrangements that he described, certain schools might be instructed in a religion other than Christianity. That would mean that the culture of this country—the adoptive culture of many from overseas—would not be taught to children.

Mr. Baker

I shall come to that point in a moment. It is an important point and it has been touched upon by several colleagues. My right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North told us from experience how he had handled that point.

The outcome of the discussions that have taken place over the past few months is a worthwhile, workable and, in many ways, historic agreement. It is historic not least because it will reinforce the quality of religious education in our schools.

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Mr. Spearing

The right hon. Gentleman will know that for 14 years I taught religious education on a voluntary basis. On the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), will the Secretary of State agree that whatever arrangement he comes to or whatever adjustment of statute there may be, the possibility of increased quality must depend on the people who choose to take up the profession? When he has discussions with the Churches about this matter, will he ensure that they are as concerned about it as we are?

Mr. Baker

I am willing to give that undertaking. I have already mentioned the number of trainee teachers in religious education. When I talked to the bishops and discussed numbers, I said that there are not only the teachers who are trained in religious education. There are many vicars and priests in our country and there are members of other faiths who are well trained in the understanding of their religions who could contribute a great deal.

The other point I have made to the bishops of the Anglican Church and the Catholic Church is that many parents are not believers, who do not attend church and who may be agnostic or even atheist but who believe that if their children could be subjected to the moral teaching and possibly the spiritual awareness of religious education, they would benefit enormously. Therefore, this settlement represents a great opportunity, which I hope the Churches will now seize.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford)

The Secretary of State made the point about those who have no faith themselves but choose to send their children to schools where religion is taught. May I refer him to the problems of Church schools and invite him—perhaps not at this point in his speech — to address the problems of the admissions system and opting out? He knows that those are still matters of great concern to the hierarchies of the Catholic Church and the Church of England.

Mr. Baker

That is on cue, because I am about to deal with admissions policies and open enrolment, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green.

The Churches have pressed on me their concern about the effect of more open enrolment on their schools. The solution offered by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North and others in amendments Nos. 78 and 79 would effectively be to exclude aided and special agreement schools — nearly one fifth of maintained provision—from the effects of chapter II of the Bill. I cannot accept that. I want to see all schools responding as much as possible to the preferences of parents. However, I am prepared to strengthen the existing safeguards for the special ethos of denominational schools so as to reassure the Churches and their champions in the House.

We have always emphasised that the safeguards in the Education Act 1980 will continue to apply under more open enrolment. It was the 1980 Act which, for the first time, built in safeguards, particularly on admissions policies for Church schools.

As at present, aided and special agreement schools will not be required to admit children where that would conflict with admission arrangements they have agreed with their local authority — for example, to limit the number of non-Catholic pupils entering a Catholic school. In such cases, some non-Catholic pupils may legitimately be refused admission even where there is space left in the school because their admission might dilute the essentially Catholic ethos of the school.

Church leaders fear that local authorities may not always be willing to reach such agreements. Therefore, I intend to bring forward amendments in the other place that will require local education authorities to conclude admission arrangments with the governors of aided and special agreement schools where they are requested to do so. Where the two parties fail to agree on the terms of an arrangement, there will be provision for the holder of my office to determine what will be reasonable in the circumstances.

I have also been asked about the position of grant-maintained schools. With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker—I apologise: Madam Deputy Speaker.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

Long live the difference.

Mr. Baker

I apologise. I will not enter into a discussion of women or women priests.

I should like to emphasise that the safeguards for Church schools in the local authority sector will continue when such schools become grant maintained and the Churches should have nothing to fear from the proposals in chapter IV.

If a voluntary school becomes grant-maintained, the foundation will continue to appoint the majority of governors. The assets of the trust will remain secure and the school will have to offer religious education in accordance with its practices as a voluntary school and will remain part of the broader Church community.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green and others have proposed that the governors of a voluntary school should not be able to make an application for grant-maintained status without the agreement of their trustees. If grant-maintained status was going to remove the trustees' influence at the school or threaten the assets, I might have some sympathy with that point of view. However, as it will not do that, I do not see why the parents and governors of Church schools should be denied the rights and opportunities that we are offering to parents and governors at other schools. The Bill provides that the trustees should be informed as soon as a decision is taken to hold a ballot of parents, and gives them the right to object to any proposal that may subsequently be put to the Secretary of State.

Mr. Frank Cook

The points that worry me, in view of what the Secretary of State has just said, are whether time would be allowed and whether trustees would get the opportunity to take account of the trusteeship in relation to other schools that may be part of their group so as to bring to the consciousness of the parents who will take the decision the consequential impact of any decision they may make.

Mr. Baker

I think that I can answer yes to that question. I should like to spell out the way in which we would envisage that being done. The Catholic Church has asked for a direct veto, and I am afraid that I cannot agree to that. However, it would be possible to bring forward amendments spelling out clearly the opportunities that would exist for the trustees in a Church school to make clear the consequences not only for their school but for others in their area. We would expect that to happen in the process of public consultation.

I should like to calm the fears of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members who are concerned about the matter. I propose to bring forward certain amendments in the other place. They will be along the lines mentioned by the hon. Member for Stockton, North. More specifically, I propose to table an amendment to provide that no grant-maintained school will be able to propose a change in its religious ethos without the prior consent of the trustees.

I shall make it clear that, should a school at any stage need the assistance of additional governors appointed by the Secretary of State, the trustees will have the right to appoint more foundation governors to preserve their majority. After a Church school has become a grant-maintained school, it will be clear that it cannot cease to be a Church school. The trustees and the foundation will still be in control.

To sum up: first, the teaching of spiritual values should imbue the whole curriculum. Spiritual values are not something to be taught in half an hour on a Friday afternoon. Secondly, religious education should be statutorily required in clause 2 as an essential part of the curriculum for all pupils at school, regardless of their age or other circumstances, unless they are withdrawn by their parents.

Thirdly, what is taught should be decided locally by those concerned in the community, according to the well tried procedures set out in the 1944 Act—or, in aided schools, by the schools' governors. It should not be prescribed by Parliament.

Fourthly, the arrangements for advising on locally agreed syllabuses and for keeping them up to date should be strengthened, first by making the appointment of standing advisory councils on religious education compulsory and, secondly, by requiring local education authorities to set in motion procedues for reviewing their locally agreed syllabuses and keeping them up to date if advised to do so by the councils.

The duties of local education authorities, governing bodies and head teachers to secure that religious education is provided for all pupils in accordance with the locally agreed syllabuses or the wishes of the governing body should be clearly spelt out. They should also be capable of being reported on and enforced through complaints from parents or others in the same way as the Bill proposes for foundation and core subjects in the national curriculum. This is a thoroughly worthwhile outcome of a civilised debate, the more so because it reflects the shared views of the main Churches.

Mr. Harry Greenway

May I ask my right hon. Friend whether Her Majesty's inspectors will have an overseeing role in this area?

Mr. Baker

Yes, of course, and a senior inspector is particularly responsible for religious education.

My final point in response to my hon. Friend is on the Christian faith. A fundamental part of any religious education syllabus should be the Christian faith. That faith was brought to these islands by St. Augustine and it has woven its way through our history. It is in the weft and warp of our country and any understanding of our country without an appreciation of that is poor and inadequate. However, we must recognise that there are other creeds and faiths that are now strongly established in parts of our country and one must respect those.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North, in his experienced way, told the House how those could be accommodated in the practice in our schools. If it is done by mutual respect and understanding, one can lead children of different faiths to understand one another's faiths. My right hon. Friend rightly said that nearly all the faiths in Britain believe in a god. That was the unifying element that he sought to build upon in the way that he conducted his school. I commend that approach to the House.

Across the party and religious divides, the House has decided to reinforce and strengthen the position of religious education in our schools and in the national curriculum. I hope that future generations will thank us for that.

Sir Hugh Rossi

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the very generous way in which he has responded to the amendment. He has shown a characteristic flexibility of mind. He will forgive me when I say that we shall want to study very carefully the wording of his amendments in another place. There may be a need for further discussion. Subject to that caveat and in view of what my right hon. Friend has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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