HC Deb 15 February 1995 vol 254 cc964-71 1.30 pm
Mr. Michael Alison (Selby)

In 1988, Parliament strengthened the law on a daily act of worship in maintained schools by an overwhelming majority of 264 on a free vote. It followed widespread concern that worship was becoming a secular ceremony in too many schools. Broadly Christian worship was made the norm in the Education Reform Act 1988, but non-Christian faith communities were given extensive rights to worship according to their own faith. In the other place, the reforms were welcomed by the then Chief Rabbi Lord Jacobovits. At the time of the debates, the present Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, said that if Christianity suffers, so, in a curious way, does every other faith as well … Might not teaching children their own traditions"— that is, Christianity— do more for tolerance, and for faith than teaching them everyone else's?"—[Official Report, House of Lords, 3 May 1988; Vol. 496, c. 420.] Why is education in worship so important? The reason is that education is not really complete without consideration of the spiritual and moral dimension. That dimension is now statutorily enshrined as an essential feature of school life.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has given his strong support to the present law. He put the case very well in his letter to me of 13 December last in response to an approach from a Selby constituent. He said: Schools are required by law to provide a daily act of collective worship for all pupils. This should provide the opportunity for them to worship God and explore their own beliefs. It will also contribute to the development of community spirit, promote a common ethos and shared values, and reinforce positive attitudes. Collective worship in non-denominational schools is required to be wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian nature … Schools should make every effort to secure the support of parents and the wider community for the values which they espouse. A circular from the Department for Education matches the Prime Minister's admirable reflections and it rightly emphasises that Jesus Christ is to be given a special status in Christian worship.

We should remember that experience of worship can provide a life-long spiritual resource. My friend Baroness Cox recently said, rather pertinently: Anyone who has contact with the people who are in extremis, as I have as a nurse, knows how often they find comfort in the scriptures and in the prayers and hymns learnt in childhood. To deny our young people this experience and this knowledge is an ultimate betrayal. Christianity, like leaven in the lump in Christ's famous parable, has worked its way deeply into the British character and attitude to life. The publication British Social Attitudes—probably one of the most academically respected surveys of public opinion—found in its 1994–95 report that 87.6 per cent. of our population claim to have been brought up in the Christian faith, with more than 57 per cent. still seeing themselves as belonging to a specific Christian denomination. Just under 20 per cent. of the population say that they go to church at least once a month, but 27 per cent. of the population say that they pray every week. Only 3.7 per cent. claim to have been brought up in a non-Christian faith.

That last statistic should help us to keep a sense of proportion about schools. It is commonly accepted that fewer than 300 schools, out of a total of 25,000, have significant numbers of pupils from a non-Christian background of faith.

British Social Attitudes found that the overwhelming majority of the population—some 70 per cent.—want schools to offer a daily act of collective worship, with fewer than 10 per cent. strongly opposed. Against that background, it is certain that neither Parliament nor the nation's parents are seeking to abandon daily Christian worship in schools. However, the same cannot be said of some union leaders and teacher trainers.

The secular eduction system in France and the United States has recently been praised by a number of union leaders, including Nigel de Gruchy of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers. He has called for the scrapping of the present legislative arrangements. The leadership of the National Association of Head Teachers has also made clear its opposition to the 1988 reforms.

Last May, that union carried out a survey of all of its members. On 28 May, The Times reported that the survey showed that 87 per cent. of secondary and 65 per cent. of primary heads believed that they could not meet the law's requirements. I am convinced that that was a bogus survey and it is worth putting some facts about it on the record.

Of the 32,412 survey forms sent out by the NAHT, only 1,747 were returned from members in county schools—that represented fewer than 6 per cent. of all United Kingdom schools. That is a tiny, wholly unrepresentative sample. In its desire to yield a favourable outcome to the secularist cause, the NAHT appears to have sent questionnaires as far afield as Gibraltar, Hong Kong and Cyprus. Head teachers in those far-flung parts of the globe and in Scotland and Northern Ireland were asked their views about legislation that affects only England and Wales.

There are factual errors throughout the survey. For example, one question attempts to gauge whether the Education Act 1993 has had an impact on the number of teachers who are unwilling to lead worship, but that Act made no changes to the law on school worship. Professor Kevin Glazebrook of Newcastle university has said that it is not possible to draw any conclusions from the NAHT survey. I note that the Christian Institute, which has helped me in the preparation of my speech, will soon publish a shocking report citing serious arithmetical and other errors in the NAHT survey.

Far from 65 per cent. of all primary schools breaking the law on worship, as the NAHT would have us believe, the chief inspector of schools commented in his latest report to Parliament that "virtually all" the nation's 20,000 primary schools comply with the law. In a whole year of inspections, Ofsted could not find a single English primary school which broke the law.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Alison

I am afraid that I have very little speaking time left so I must ask my hon. Friend to forgive me. I will give way to her later if there is any time left.

The situation with the 5,000 schools in the secondary sector is very different. Ofsted has reported that there is basic compliance with the law in 60 per cent. of secondary schools but that even those schools are not perfect.

On that point, I wish to raise one particular issue with my hon. Friend the Minister. Inspection reports tend bluntly to state whether a school complies with the law. That information is far too limited. Some schools may be almost complying, others might be nowhere near it. One school might be holding assembly on four days a week, another on only one day.

Some schools are being criticised by inspectors for holding Christian assemblies. One school was told that its assemblies should be more multicultural. In another large urban secondary school, staff are determined to meet the law's requirements. Assemblies are held in the assembly hall for three days a week and in form classes for two days a week, yet the school was told that it had failed to comply with the law on a technicality. That inner-city school should be commended rather slated on a minor technicality.

Let us be clear about the issue. Do we want a secular education system? We should take careful note of what happened in the United States. The Supreme Court banned school prayers and religious teaching in 1963. Since then, teachers have been dismissed for allowing prayer in school and parents have had to resort to legal action so that bible clubs or Christian Union groups can meet on school premises.

There have been 25 bleak years of secular dominance, but in the past few years things have been changing. One recent Gallup poll found that the Supreme Court ruling banning prayer is being flagrantly broken in 75 per cent. of high school graduation ceremonies. Three states have passed laws guaranteeing the right to have religious teaching and worship in schools. In the recent congressional elections, the Republicans stood firmly on the school prayer ticket and everybody knows with what results. Even President Clinton has now declared his support.

The Christian Action Research and Education organisation, representing 100,000 church members, recently concluded that in the matter of school worship: We judge that the alternative to the present position, with all its imperfections and ambiguities, would lead inevitably to a thoroughly secularised system.". If we should ignore the secular voices, we should also ignore those teacher trainers who call for cultural anarchy. In his recent lecture at the Royal Society of Arts on 12 December 1994, Professor John Hull of Birmingham university called for the complete repeal of section 7 of the Education Reform Act and for the term "collective worship" to be abolished in favour of "collective spirituality". That new term is reminiscent of 1960s new-age hippy culture and has distinctly left-wing overtones. The suggestion that all religions are to be harmonised into "collective spirituality" is nothing less than a call for the restoration of the full-blown, multi-faith mish-mash that was so vigorously criticised when the 1988 Act was put on the statute book.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will resist the call for collectivisation, as he so ably resists all other calls of such character. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for making it clear that the Government stand firmly behind the present arrangements for school worship.

I am also grateful to the Archbishop of Canterbury for his public comments in support of daily Christian worship and to my distinguished constituent the Archbishop of York for the admirable letter to The Times on 9 January outlining some clear, realistic and perfectly attainable aims for school worship in non-church schools. Other bishops and officials in the Church of England should take heart from the lead given by the two archbishops and march confidently behind them.

In respect of teaching or leadership resources, my friend, Mr. Clive Calver, general secretary of the Evangelical Alliance, in a letter published in The Times on the same day as Archbishop John Hapgood's, referred to the resources lying potentially available from 5,000 evangelical churches and 700 member societies that are affiliated to the Evangelical Alliance.

Secondary schools need to be encouraged to establish closer links with local churches. In far too many cases, schools are refusing offers of help from the community.

Secondary schools would do well to learn from our primary schools, which have a superb track record in keeping the law on school worship and in securing the support of the local community. Undoubtedly, there should be more research on the issue. How is it that some secondary schools keep the law while others do not? It cannot be just a matter of accommodation, as some allege.

Dr. Carey recently said: There is a danger in giving the impression that secularism is all dominant in our society. Most people still have some links to the Church, however tenuous those may be. The Archbishop pointed out that one quarter of the population went to church last Christmas. He went on to say that the

establishment does not equate with privilege but with responsibility. Churches need to be mobilised to offer support to schools. A major effort is needed here, particularly by the Church of England. Strenuous efforts should be made to make the law work in secondary schools as it already does in primary schools. Let us see the Church once again, in the words of the Anglican prayer book, as the Church militant rather than the Church hesitant. I have 30 seconds to give way to my hon. Friend.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

I wish simply to confirm that the standard of religious education in my local primary schools is excellent. It is also very good in my local secondary schools. Not long ago, I visited a school in my constituency where the headmistress gave the best exposition of the trinity I have ever heard from anyone, even from a church minister. Fortunately, we are not lacking in either of those sectors.

Mr. Alison

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reinforcing the evident scope and capacity for building on what is already good and solid ground.

1.46 pm
The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr. Eric Forth)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) on obtaining this Adjournment debate and very much welcome his choice of subject. It is a matter in which the House knows he has sustained a great interest over a long period. We know that he plays a very distinguished part in Church matters and the important relationship between the Church and the House.

I immediately welcome my right hon. Friend's support for collective worship in schools. As he reminded the House, the Education Reform Act 1988 requires the curriculum to address the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils and, as such, in the Government's view collective worship has a vital role to play.

Her Majesty's chief inspector's report for 1993–94 confirms that collective worship and religious education make a powerful contribution to a pupil's spiritual development and the sharing of moral values. Surely all that must be central to a school's efforts to establish its own distinctive ethos that will underpin all its activities and, most important, will be seen in the relationships and expectations within the school community.

The wording of the 1988 Act and the words of HMCI reflect closely the basis and thrust of my right hon. Friend's argument in this short debate. I should also confirm that the Government have no plans to change the legal requirements for collective worship, which give schools considerable flexibility in their arrangements for worship, not least because I agree with my right hon. Friend in his estimation of parental expectations in that regard. It would be a foolish person indeed who, given the strength of evidence that my right hon. Friend has brought before the House today, would seek to make some case for a radical change in the legal requirements and arrangements that are in place. In my view, we can continue to build on them.

As my right hon. Friend pointed out, the legislation rightly has Christianity at its heart, but it recognises that worship in schools will necessarily be different from worship in a community with beliefs in common. It does that by referring to collective rather than corporate worship.

The overall aim of the legislation is to offer pupils from a variety of backgrounds the opportunity to worship together wherever possible. It then gives flexibility—rightly, in my view—in the organisation of worship. Acts of worship need not be first thing in the morning but can be organised at any time during the day. Nor is there a requirement that the school should worship as a single group. It is open to a school to provide worship in separate age or class groups. The content of the worship in county schools and the equivalent grant-maintained schools can reflect faiths other than Christianity as long as the majority of the acts of worship over a term are wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character. That gives the right balance and sufficient flexibility to those in different communities.

My right hon. Friend mentioned 300 schools of an overwhelmingly non-Christian nature. I will not argue with that figure, but flexibility in the arrangements is necessary to give cognisance of such schools and allow them to arrange their collective worship in the most appropriate way, bearing in mind the fundamental requirements of the legislation.

The detailed requirements for collective worship are spelt out in the Department's circular 1/94, which was—logically—published in January 1994. It does not contain proposals for change, as some have suggested, but offers guidance on the existing requirements of the Education Reform Act and the Education Act 1993 for religious education and collective worship. It contains no new requirements beyond those of the Acts. The basic requirement for daily collective worship flows from the Education Act 1944, as does so much of our education system.

I am gratified that my right hon. Friend chose to quote from the evidence in Her Majesty's chief inspector's report. That showed that the picture on compliance with legal requirements is not as bleak as is sometimes suggested. The evidence is worth repeating. As my right hon. Friend said, nearly all primary schools were found to provide a daily assembly and about 80 per cent. were judged to be complying with the detail of the law.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) confirmed that in her constituency—to no one's surprise—her excellent schools are doing even better. Her view is that her primary schools and secondary schools are complying with the requirements. Regrettably, that is not necessarily so everywhere, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby said. The chief inspector's report stated that the majority of secondary schools did not provide daily collective worship for all pupils, but it said that worship, where it took place, was frequently of good quality and made a good contribution to pupils' spiritual and moral development.

It is right that Ofsted should monitor the provision of collective worship at school level. The new inspection regime ensures that arrangements in every school are inspected. Ofsted then comments on whether the statutory requirements are being met. That information is made available to parents and the public, as is the action plan, which schools are required to publish, showing how they intend to remedy any shortcomings. The schools are primarily answerable to parents on that matter and many parents, rightly and understandably, attach considerable importance to that sphere of school life.

My right hon. Friend has quoted some highly relevant statistics from the British social attitude survey to bear that out. A poll conducted by The Independent in 1993 found that about 70 per cent. of parents wanted their children to say prayers at school. As in so many other sectors of education today, if parents are not satisfied with the arrangements made by the school their children attend, they have access to the local curriculum complaints machinery established by the 1988 Act or they can take up the matter through the school governors. Parents with pupils at county schools can take up the issue with county councillors. If parents cannot satisfy themselves in those ways, the matter can ultimately be referred to the Secretary of State. However, it should be possible to resolve problems well before that. I urge all parents who are not satisfied with that important part of the provision in their child's school to take up the matter vigorously with the head teacher, parent-governors or other governors to ensure that the opinions quoted by my right hon. Friend and borne out by The Independent survey are properly reflected in the arrangements made by primary and secondary schools.

I note my right hon. Friend's remarks about the need for Ofsted reports to go beyond a simple statement of whether a school is complying with the law. Ofsted is aware of the importance of commenting, too, on the positive contribution that a school's collective worship provision makes to pupils' spiritual and moral development, even if it is not meeting the letter of the law. Her Majesty's chief inspector's latest annual report does just that.

Many schools are doing valuable work in that sector and we should recognise and acknowledge their achievements. Ofsted's draft revised framework for inspection, published yesterday for consultation, proposes that, where inspectors find that a school is not meeting the law on collective worship, the report should give the head teacher's stated reasons for failing to do so.

I support what my right hon. Friend said about the importance of establishing links with churches and other places of worship in the local community—an important element of the argument. Although teachers, including head teachers, have the right to elect not to participate in collective worship for reasons of conscience, it remains the responsibility of the head to ensure that the statutory requirements are met. It is open to head teachers to invite members of the community, including religious leaders, to help to conduct collective worship, if they are able and willing to do so. Many schools have built up worthwhile relationships of that sort—with local clergy regularly making stimulating contributions to the schools' programme of collective worship.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster said that that was the case in her constituency. If it can be demonstrated that it is possible in Lancaster, one is forced to ask why it cannot be done more readily and systematically in other parts of the country. We must urge not only the schools but local churches to see what can be done—in co-operation with each other—to try to ensure that, where heads and teachers have a genuine difficulty in meeting the requirements of the law, they can call on the support of local religious communities and leaders to help schools to comply with the law.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

My hon. Friend the Minister has made a point that is worth emphasising. It should not be just up to the school and those responsible for religious education and worship to take the initiative and contact churches. Churches must take the initiative and contact schools to offer them help and show interest in what they are doing. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as we have just passed education Sunday, February might be a good time for each church and parish to contact all their schools—secular as well as denominational—to ask what more they can do to help them in their important work?

Mr. Forth

That was a typically positive and helpful suggestion from my hon. Friend. There must be more scope in local communities for that sort of co-operation between schools and local churches. I hope that we shall see much more of that so that assistance can be given to those heads and teachers who, for a variety of reasons, have difficulty in meeting the requirements of the law. I am sure that that would be widely welcomed. Schools that experience difficulty in meeting the legal requirements can turn to their local standing advisory council on religious education for advice. That is a local permanent body with responsibility for supporting the provision of both religious education and collective worship in the area.

There is no doubt that the subject is of the greatest importance. My right hon. Friend has expressed consistent views in the House over many years and has highlighted the importance of the subject. He has allowed us briefly today to demonstrate not only the importance of the subject but the ways in which schools can be helped to comply with the law, which is not going to be changed. We want greater compliance—happier compliance—with the law so that we can ensure that the great religious tradition of this country can benefit pupils up and down the land, regardless of their personal, parental or family religion. Pupils must benefit from the core beliefs of the Christian religion, which is, and continues to be, so important to our society and our education system. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and hope that the few words that I have been able to say today have given him the reassurance that he sought in bringing the subject before the House.