HC Deb 16 July 1992 vol 211 cc1246-56 11.46 am
Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

Religious education in our schools is in a crisis, despite the Government's efforts with the Education Reform Act 1988, when they battled to provide a framework ensuring that children receive a mainly Christian education in their religious studies. Frankly, that is just not working. Many children today are being cheated of their fundamental right to a Christian education, and the result is an appalling lack of basic knowledge of Christianity.

A MORI poll in 1991 found that 57 per cent. of the 18 to 24 age group could not say what happened on Good Friday, and 62 per cent. could not identify Pontius Pilate—yet between 80 and 90 per cent. of the population, or of those polled, regard themselves as Christians. All the polls found that barely 3 per cent. belonged to Hindu, Muslim. Sikh or Buddhist faiths, and I stress that it is not they who are asking for special treatment.

We find ourselves being apologetic for acknowledging the obvious—our Christian faith. The daily act of Christian worship is often a mish-mash of multi-faith worship, which in turn has become a secular religion of its own. Its themes centre on contentious issues such as racism, sexism and western exploitation of the third world—issues which have nothing to do with the heart and soul of Christianity.

Many RE lessons have shifted from traditional Bible study to a disproportionate emphasis on other faiths, with Islam, Buddhism and so on rendering Christianity a minority faith. The push for this has come from influential teacher trainers, RE advisers and local education authorities. As a result, children, together with their parents and teachers, are frustrated because they crave a balance.

A parent in my constituency, Mrs. Kay Reid, has a little girl who attends the Avenue primary school. She said to me yesterday: There is so much emphasis on other religions, like children performing a Hindu wedding, that I ask 'What is wrong with putting Our Lord first in Britain which is a christian country?' This liberal view that we should have a little bit of this and a little bit of that means that children end up with no clear picture of christianity. Because my daughter goes to Sunday School, she is able to tell her friends about Jesus. Is that an incredible scenario? I am afraid that it is not. That is happening in schools all over the country.

The emphasis on multi-culturalism has left children bewildered. For example, I received a letter from a 14-year-old girl in Liverpool. She wrote: Please can you help me? I have been forced to learn the Hindu religion for three whole years now. Since I started first year seniors, I have learnt nothing about Christianity. My dad went in and complained and the headmaster told him that he taught a multi-faced religion at his school. My dad asked why Christianity was not included and the headmaster said that he did not want to offend the Muslims. All we learn about is Hindus, Muslims and the Vishnu religion. I don't mind knowing about other religions, but why can't I be taught about my own? Last week my class had to go to a Hindu temple to see how the religion works. She included a circular from her school, the Childhall community comprehensive, which detailed arrangements for the visit to the temple. The circular included a note: The Hindus do not allow the wearing of shoes in their temples. Therefore, could you be sure that your child's socks cause no embarrassment? As this is a place of worship, I expect their behaviour to be extremely respectful. That trendy liberalism has swamped us everywhere, but rarely have I found it so deliberate and disturbing as in religious education. It is hardly surprising that we are producing a rootless and restless society with no moral and spiritual benchmarks. Concern has reached such a pitch that parents, teachers and children are crying for help. They have become aware that children will be unable to answer my questionnaire that I am issuing through Christian Call. It contains basic questions on Christian knowledge, such as: Can you recite the Lord's prayer? Can you name any six of the 10 commandments? Have you studied the apostles' creed? Name the parts of the Trinity. Who betrayed Jesus? Why do Christians celebrate Christmas, Easter and Whitsun'? That last question often stumps people. It is: Have you read or studied the Bible? I regret to say that I have heard reports of teachers treating Bible stories as fairy tales. My questionnaire continues: Have you read the gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John? Have you studied or read the 23rd psalm'? I received a letter from an angry teacher who taught at the New Milton junior school in Hampshire. He complained bitterly that no RE appeared in the curriculum. Children were not taken to church. There were no harvest festivals and Christmas was not celebrated. When he asked the children what they knew about Jesus, he was told that Jesus was God. When he asked who his Father was, the answers included Julius Caesar, Henry VIII and George VI. When he asked where Jesus died, the answer was "Don't know." The answer to the question, "Where was Jesus born?" was "Don't know." When asked how Jesus died, one child said, "Tied to a cross."

That was a depressing litany and that teacher resigned from the school because he felt that he was unable to carry out his spiritual duties. It is hardly surprising that early-day motion 446 on Christian religious education has been signed by 52 hon. Members from both sides of the House.

It is also very worrying that some standing advisory councils on religious education—or SACREs—are being manipulated and others appear to ignore good advice. Resource material for teachers is highly questionable. One of the latest fads in RE is a teacher's handbook entitled: New methods in religious education teaching, an experimental approach by the RE advisor for Islington, three teacher trainers and two RE teachers. One would laugh if it were not so downright dangerous. It contains barely a mention of a Christian God. There is more emphasis on dangerous mind-bending exercises designed to teach meditation, which I believe has no place in the classroom.

The handbook claims that its version of RE is Much more interesting than old-fashioned scripture. It states that RE cannot be taught unless it also teaches about politics, society, exploitation, expression, sexism and racism.

The final result of such teaching is that it often causes anxiety in children who are confused by the views of partisan indoctrination. Meditation, guided fantasy and other mind-bending techniques are suggested for children from primary age upwards. For example, nine-year-olds at Woodborough school carried out an exercise entitled, "Who am I?" That was based on an "Alice in Wonderland" illustration of the caterpillar. The children had to imagine that they were something else. Answers like, "I am a brown rabbit," or a heavy, hairy very juicy peach have absolutely nothing to do with the teaching of the gospels of the Christian faith.

Exercises on meditation and breathing exercises for children, which are more widespread than we can possibly imagine, can be regarded only as highly suspect. How can local education authorities and the SACREs allow such abuses of RE to happen? This is a Christian country and we live by a Christian ethos. The Education Reform Act 1988 has provision for a daily act of collective worship which is meant to be wholly or mainly Christian in character. However, the evidence is that schools are failing in that regard.

The RE adviser in the London borough of Redbridge suggested a thematic approach for the spring term school assemblies last year. Apart from Christianity, themes included Elvis Presley, Rod Stewart, Raquel Welch and Brigitte Bardot and every conceivable faith from the martyrdom of the Sikh guru Arjan onwards. Other themes included when the first top hat appeared in London; when the first supermarket opened; the American militant black Muslim leader Malcolm X and Alex "Hurricane" Higgins; the snooker champion; and national days in Gambia and Nepal. A poem on Mahatma Gandhi's death was considered a useful topic for seven-year-olds, as was one about violent black South Africa.

Is that not a waste of public money on such resource materials? The local education authority in Dudley in the west midlands offered an alternative syllabus in RE—folk religion. That included astrology, hippie commune cults and the occult. I am glad to say that, as a result of the Education Reform Act 1988, Dudley is now scrapping non-religious stances such as Marxism and communism. A parent in north London called Georgette Behar, a school governor at Robbinsfield infants school, told me that there was no religious education in her school because the headmaster had told her that he did not believe in anything and so did not believe that he could talk about Christianity or any other religion. Barely a year after the 1988 Act was passed, the chair of the education committee in Ealing, Hilary Benn, issued a press release stating: Multi-faith worship consists of a general religious, moral and ethical content which is not distinctive of any one faith or religion. Under this system schools will be able to use materials for worship from all faiths and take a thematic approach reflecting the values and experiences common to all faiths.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

Does my hon. Friend recall that the Archbishop of Canterbury, in his excellent sermon at the start of this Parliament, made the case clearly that Muslims and those other faiths find it much easier to relate to a strongly expressed and firmly held Christian faith and worship than to some kind of mish-mash which poses as accommodating them?

Lady Olga Maitland

I could not agree more wholeheartedly. In the 1987 general election, I was the parliamentary candidate for Bethnal Green and Stepney, where 35 per cent. of the community were Islamic and the parents were very positive about Anglican church schools. Their views were taken into account.

I refer to Ealing to demonstrate the projects that were suggested to be used in class. I have a teacher's outline which states: Use the South African situation. Children are asked to sit on the floor, and teachers say to them: You are a black young person living in a country with a population of nearly 33 million, 24 million of those 33 million are black like you, nearly 5 million are white, but the 5 million have most of the power. Because of the Groups Areas Act, your family have to move into an African township. You are not free to live where you like. The children must then give examples. They are then told to listen to a soundtrack of "Cry Freedom". That strikes me as far removed from Christian education.

Another difficulty is that parents find it extremely difficult to complain and to obtain a satisfactory response. That has certainly been the case in Ealing. A popular model for SACRE is based on the syllabus that has been adopted by the Rotherham local education authority. I am sorry to say that it has been adopted by my own LEA in Sutton. Significantly, the Diwali festival is featured on the front page, but not our faith, Christianity. Taken as a whole, Christ's teaching is barely mentioned.

A page devoted to the syllabus reads more like a social science course with key words such as "self-understanding, exploration, investigation, analysis, lifestyles, concepts, moral values, open-mindedness, critical mind" and so on. Christianity is included—in a shopping list of religions after Judaism and before Islam. There is no sign that Christianity has more significance than any of the other five religions. Clearly, it is not a mainly Christian syllabus. It is very much a matter of a child taking it or leaving it on the shelf in favour of another religion, perhaps with more amusing festivals.

Manchester LEA is no better. Its syllabus, "Multi-Faith Manchester", has an introduction which begins: We understand the term to include the normal meanings given to the related words 'spiritual' and 'ethical', including non-theistic standpoints. It spells that out further by saying: No policy for multi-cultural education can avoid consideration of racial prejudice and racism. The rest is a loose Cook's tour of world religions which is more obsessed with inter-faith dialogue than with any study of our own Christian faith.

Bradford's agreed syllabus for religious education is entitled "Living in Today's World", and, like the others, has little time for Christianity. Among its general objectives for four to nine-year-olds is a section on self-awareness and enjoyment. A detailed diagram of the inter-relationship between religions, using light as a theme, links a complete mishmash of ideas and religions, from Christmas lights to Florence Nightingale, birthdays, volcanoes, Diwali and Hannukah.

Our great and glorious 19th century hymns are under pressure. Teachers are advised to change words that might offend Muslim children, especially references to Jesus as the Son of God, and are warned that representations of the crucifixion are obviously sensitive issues for Jews and Muslims and need to be presented carefully.

What is to be done? I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to include my suggestions in the Government's forthcoming White Paper and revised circular. Will he make the complaints procedure easier for parents who are unhappy about how RE is being taught in schools? Grant-maintained schools should be allowed to opt out of a local authority's influence and develop their own RE under the mainly Christian requirement of the Education Reform Act. That is not a licence to ditch RE, for that would come under the new inspectorate. The Government should consider giving a clearer guideline regarding what is put into RE and what should be left out. Is there not a case for the Department of Education warning against dangerous meditation techniques? Christianity must he given a clearly defined and fully recognised status. It is, after all, the established historical faith of Great Britain.

Religious education nowadays tends to put Mecca and Lourdes on the same level, but are they equivalents? That just reduces Christianity to a take-it-or-leave-it faith. Schools need to be reassured by the Department of Education that it is quite acceptable to spend 80 per cent. of their teaching time on Christianity. It is extraordinary that good schools now worry about that. The Department for Education must ensure that religious education is about genuine religious study and not political debates about western imperialism, feminism, gay rights and the allegation that Christ's teaching is little more than Eurocentric education. We must tackle the fact that two thirds of LEAs are clinging to their old RE syllabuses. Many of them deliberately undervalue Christianity. The time has come to bring them all into line with the provisions of the 1988 Act.

I should like to take heart from Sutton's education department. It was so stung by parents' complaints and criticisms that it has drawn up guidelines based on the Act for collective worship in schools. The document is not yet published, but it is a welcome start. I am encouraged that in that document there are more mentions of Christianity in its 20 pages than I have seen in years of Sutton's education materials. The crunch will really come when the Government's new schools inspectorate comes into operation next year. My concern is that the inspectors may not be wholeheartedly behind the spirit of a mainly Christian education.

Surely there must be room for the Churches to take some responsibility, especially in RE. I was encouraged to hear that the Archbishop of Birmingham's office feels keenly that the moral and spiritual elements of the curriculum should not be judged by a secular body, especially in Church schools. Would this not be an excellent opportunity for ecumenism to show its real strength? All Christian religions must co-operate in defining what is acceptable in schools today and perhaps supply inspectors who are committed Christians.

This is a cry for help from the bottom of the hearts of the people of Great Britain. The debate would never have come about if I had not had such a swell of information from all quarters. I very much hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take my words to heart and respond to the anxious parents of this country.

12.7 pm

Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth)

I apologise to the House for speaking on this matter.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. With respect to the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright), I do not want to stop him speaking, but I do not think that he has come to an arrangement with my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland), who has made an arrangement with other hon. Members.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)


Mr. Enright

That is right, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I put down my name at the beginning of the day. If the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) does not wish me to speak, I shall not do so except by intervention.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That is a matter for the hon. Lady.

Mr. Enright

I am at a disadvantage. I taught religious education for 20 years. The hon. Lady's remarks are offensive to people who teach religious education. My four children were taught absolutely splendidly. We did a not unreasonable job in our teaching.

I take particular issue with the hon. Lady's topics. There are two laws—love God and love your neighbour. Last week, "love your neighbour" was the Gospel at mass. It is an important part of Christianity and should be taught. Equally, other faiths have to be taught. I speak as a Catholic under the direction of the hierarchy and splendid guidance of Bishop David Constant. In Catholic schools, Hinduism, Sikhism and the Jewish faith are all rightly and properly instructed. I have taught those subjects. To suggest for one moment that they are a mish-mash is appalling.

The hon. Lady does not understand what education is truly about. It starts with the family. No one will know who Jesus is or know the gospel and epistles unless he or she is brought up with such teaching in the family. That is a crucial part of education. The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) will bear out the fact that teachers of not only religious education but all subjects need the backing and willingness of the family if they are to succeed.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam mocked some of the subjects taught. I refer her to the beatitudes and the corporal works of mercy, which are an essential part of the Christian faith. The beatitudes say, "Blessed are the peacemakers". Does that mean making nuclear bombs and throwing them all over the place? Or do we teach a passive attitude? The teaching of the beatitudes is crucial, but when one does so, it is difficult to explain the selfishness, greed and determination to succeed at any cost and no matter whose cost which is rampant in our society and has been taught to us.

It is right that we should reach out to the third world. It is right that we should talk to our brothers and sisters there. The religious content of what we say is the heart and core of being a Christian. That is how we show that we love Christ and that we are trying hard to be Christians. We do not pretend to be perfect; we merely try. Christianity should he taught in the context of the home, openness, looking out and tolerance and understanding of others. In that way we shall succeed truly in being Christians.

12.11 pm
Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) for initiating this most important debate and for her interesting speech. I meant no offence to the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright) when I said that I had arranged with my hon. Friend to speak in the debate. I did not want to miss the chance to do so.

The hon. Member for Hemsworth addressed the subject in a particular way. I went to a funeral the other day of an 18-year-old constituent whom I had know all his life. He was an immensely brave person who died of multiple sclerosis. He talked to me on his deathbed about death. The funeral was one of the most moving spiritual and religious experiences that I have ever had. The music of Elvis Presley was played at that funeral not to offend those of us who were keen on the Christian religion but because Elvis Presley was a love of that young man. The music fitted completely in the context of the Christian funeral. We must understand that such experiences can be translated into the classroom and real spiritual and Christian understanding can arise from them. That is an important point. It is important to get that point across as a basis for understanding how religion can be taught.

For many years, I took assemblies of more than 2,000 children two or three times a week, with 160 or 170 teachers on the stage with me. One must start with all those people where they are. One cannot take them out of the world in which they live and teach them religion in a vacuum. So it was with young Daniel. His funeral included the music of Elvis Presley because it had been part of his life. The lives of modern children in my constituency and many others are subject to pagan influences and pressures, which, unfortunately, are difficult to deal with. But if one starts where children are, one takes the right Christian approach.

After all, the great quality of Christianity and the difference about it is that Jesus came to people where they were. He did not bring down tablets of stone and say, "This is how it has to be." That is what we have to do with children today to put the subject across. I make no apology for saying that.

I agree wholly with my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam about the Ealing syllabus. Is she aware that the syllabus, which has been withdrawn by the Tory administration, made no reference to Jesus, God or the bible? That was its basic problem. My hon. Friend put her finger on it. Unfortunately, acts of worship in schools have deteriorated for many years. In many schools they have ceased to be acts of worship. Assemblies are often simply programmes of announcements from the headmaster or headmistress, with perhaps a prayer if one is lucky. That is not good enough. That sort of thing can be tightened up. There is nothing to stop a sound act of worship taking place in all schools, whether large schools, such as those with which I have been associated, or small schools.

One must start with children where life is for them today and take them from there to some special teaching point. One might start with a football match or the fact that everyone has a birthday. But there must be a point with which every child and adult present can identify if one is to take people forward into a teaching experience. One cannot teach anyone in a vacuum from a position at which they are not. It is vital to start where they are.

My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) wants to speak, so I shall curtail my remarks. Assemblies need to be rethought, and become acts of worship again, as they should be. The curriculum must be nationally organised and not left to local whim. The matter has not been resolved satisfactorily at local level, even though the syllabuses were well intended and aimed to take account of local social and religious differences.

Mr. Enright

Diocesan syllabuses are not drawn up at national level. Does the hon. Gentleman suggest that the Catholic church should change its practice and draw up its syllabus nationally?

Mr. Greenway

I am talking about maintained schools. Denominational schools have their own arrangements for religious education, and rightly so.

It would help if there were national guidelines. My hon. Friend the Minister might address that. Such guidelines would overcome the excesses that we faced in Ealing and other local authorities where the subject was allowed to go too far from the experience of the people of Britain. After all, our culture and that of our children is based on Christianity and nothing else.

12.17 pm
Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)

The facts are absolutely plain. We are a Christian society and we should teach the Christian faith. We should teach an awareness and understanding of other major religions but only in an academic manner. We should be basically Christian. We should re-establish in all schools regular acts of communal worship with real hymns such as those which the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright) and I remember singing when we went to school.

I do not know whether hon. Members are aware—perhaps not, because the attendance is not good—that even in the Palace of Westminster on a Wednesday morning at 12.45 pm there is an act of worship in the Crypt Chapel. I should be delighted to see more of my hon. Friends there with me.

Even in my constituency of Castle Point some schools are reluctant to engage in simple things such as acts of communal worship, singing real hymns and teaching the Christian faith. Such schools deny our children a sound moral basis and the opportunity to understand and love Jesus Christ. I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) introduced this important debate.

12.19 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Eric Forth)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) for bringing this undoubtedly important matter before the House and for giving hon. Members an opportunity to express their strongly held convictions on the subject, which they hold dear to their hearts.

Four years after the Education Reform Act 1988 and following much work on the national curriculum, it is appropriate that we should turn our attention to religious education, not least because widespread concern is developing about it at local and national level. I emphasise that the Government share that concern and I hope that my hon. Friends and hon. Members are aware of the personal interest and commitment of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—who made a point of ensuring that among the first people he met when he took on his new responsibilities were the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Hume and the Chief Rabbi. The Minister of State, Baroness Blatch, takes a close interest in such matters and gives them her personal attention.

In the context of what has been said, it is worth emphasising that, as many have pointed out, the Education Reform Act 1988 left responsibility for religious education at local level. The Act required the new agreed syllabuses adopted by local education authorities after 1988 to reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian, whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain". The Act also introduced a requirement that daily acts of collective worship in county schools should be wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character". In addition to these changes, local authorities were required to establish standing advisory councils on religious education known as SACREs and referred to by my hon. Friend to advise on religious education and collective worship. In addition to the curriculum and including religious education, the Act requires local authorities to set up local complaints procedures so that parents and others may complain if they feel that the curriculum is not being dealt with adequately in a school.

Notwithstanding what my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam has said and the many graphic accounts that she gave of the system's shortcomings, some progress has been achieved since 1988. One third of local education authorities have reviewed, or are reviewing, their agreed syllabuses. The National Curriculum Council's recent analysis of SACRE reports noted that that represents, believe it or not, a level of curriculum development in RE unparalleled since 1944. Even that relatively modest progress is something that we have not necessarily seen before.

Local SACREs have been active in encouraging schools and local authorities to give more attention to religious education. That is a positive sign. We should also acknowledge the part played by representatives of the Churches and of other faiths in contributing to that work. However, that does not mean that we should he satisfied, because the corollary of what I have pointed out—the burden of what my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam said—was that two thirds of agreed syllabuses have not been reviewed since 1988. I must admit that in some schools religious education is notable only by its absence from the curriculum.

I assure my hon. Friend and other hon. Members that in the Department for Education we are actively considering what more we can do by encouraging local bodies to develop religious education or to bring their syllabuses more in line with what is required.

Under the present framework, decisions on the content of RE are a local responsibility. I agree with David Pascall, the chairman of the NCC, who said only last Friday that local responsibility is proper since RE must take into account the views and beliefs of the local community in order to meet the needs of pupils effectively. He correctly identified the root of the problem when he said that, if religious educaiton is being marginalised, this reflects a failure by individual schools and local bodies to meet their responsibilities. We must address those issues at that level.

In that context, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam referred to the fact that only a small proportion of the population are represented in ethnic or religious minorities. That is the case. Census results which will be published soon will verify the latest figures. My hon. Friend must take into account the fact that that proportion is much higher in many communities. It would be wrong for us not to acknowledge that the proportion of ethnic and religious minorities—those with religions other than Christianity—is very high in some schools, communities and local education authorities. That factor must he taken into account in our considerations during this debate and beyond.

I have emphasised that local authorities have the main responsibility for RE, but we must ensure that local education authorities and schools are discharging those responsibilities and statutory duties under the Act properly. The first and most important step, as my hon. Friend said, is inspection. In the Department for Education we ensure that we follow up cases where Her Majesty's inspectorate reports that the provision of RE at a school is inadequate, but one must accept that the number of schools inspected under the present regime is pitifully few. The new inspection regime that we shall introduce from next year will make a dramatic difference to the extent to which schools are inspected and to which the inspectorate will be charged to consider religious education and spiritual and moral values along with everything else in the curriculum, which will give us important new information to work on.

Together with inspection, there is a system of complaints. While I note what my hon. Friend said about the difficulties faced by parents in making complaints, nevertheless the procedure is there and I encourage as many people as possible to use it. The complaints system can be demonstrated to have been effective when it has been used by parents, and that is the key factor. Complaints are relatively few and far between. One might conclude from that that my hon. Friend's concern might not he shared as widely as she would expect, but I suspect that, as in so many other things, people who feel aggrieved are not aware of the complaints procedure or are not taking full advantage of it. I hope that the debate will help to bring the attention of parents to the fact that the complaints procedure exists. Parents who feel aggrieved and unhappy should take the opportunities available to them.

In addition to my hon. Friend, influential bodies are beginning to take up the debate on religious education. The Archbishop of York recently suggested that the Church of England and other faith groups should come together to develop model syllabuses that local authorities could consider adopting. Mr. David Pascall has offered the NCC's help in such a venture. That could be part of a wider range of work planned by the NCC, including a review of how the curriculum contributes to pupils' spiritual and moral development, an examination of agreed syllabuses produced since the 1988 Act to share best practice, work on the planning and delivery of religious education in schools, and work in consultation with the new office of Her Majesty's chief inspector in monitoring the curriculum. In those important respects, the NCC commitment to religious education is clear.

I note the concerns expressed so eloquently by my hon. Friend about the proportion of time devoted to Christianity. The Department has legal advice that in most cases the mainly Christian requirement referred to in the statute will be reflected by most attention being devoted to Christianity. That advice was sent to all local education authorities in March 1991. That might go some way towards meeting my hon. Friend's reasonable request.

The view has been expressed that there may be some limit on the number of religions studied in schools. Although I am aware of the need to ensure that pupils are not confused by teaching that does not give them an understanding of the distinct nature of individual religions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) pointed out, it would be difficult to set limits on the number of religions to be studied. That is an area that should be considered carefully.

The Government and the Department are aware of the widespread concerns about this important matter.

Dr. Spink

My hon. Friend has just mentioned the Government. May I draw the attention of the House to the empty Opposition Front Bench for this important debate?

Mr. Forth

Indeed, but I want to emphasise——

Mr. Enright

May I point out that a spokesman in our education team asked me to speak on behalf of the Opposition?

Mr. Forth

The important conclusion to be drawn from the debate is the concern that is widely and deeply felt about this matter. It has been reflected by my hon. Friends who have attended and contributed to the debate. I want to leave them in no doubt that my colleagues in the Department and I are seized of the level of anxiety. The matter has been actively studied by the Department and will continue to be so. I can assure my hon. Friends that the Secretary of State and the Minister of State will continue to pursue these matters until they are satisfied, as I hope my hon. Friends will be, that this vital matter of religious education in schools in being dealt with properly and responsibly, and reflects the nature of society as we understand it.

Mr. Rowe

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I know that you are jealous, as is Madam Speaker, of the privileges of this place. I should like to seek your advice on what seems to be prima facie a case of contempt of the House. The facts are briefly stated.

A senior executive of a nationalised industry, British Rail, came to see me in my office three weeks ago. I sought assurances from him about a part of my constituency. I got no satisfaction from him, but I made it clear that this was a major political interest of mine. I now discover that yesterday he had a meeting in my constituency with the leaders of the three political groups locally and has forbidden them to tell me about it, although it was about this very subject. I should be glad of your ruling Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Private meetings between individuals and chairmen of nationalised industries are not a matter for the Chair. I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman's comments will he noted.