HL Deb 26 March 1975 vol 358 cc1171-5

2.36 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they approve of the decision of Birmingham Education Committee that the teaching of Communism should be included in their new religious education syllabus.


My Lords, the Act does not provide for my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science to express an opinion on a syllabus of religious instruction. These are prepared by local conferences for adoption or otherwise by the local education authority concerned. My right honourable friend understands that the Birmingham Authority has agreed to adopt the syllabus unanimously recommended by the statutory conference in accordance with the provisions of the Act.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his Answer. Would he agree that Communism has nothing to do with religion, or, if it has, then so has the teaching of the philosophies of Conservatism, Fascism and Socialism? Would the noble Lord agree, also, that the teachers' handbook, while containing 150 favourable references, does not mention Labour camps, the KGB and the like? Can the noble Lord particularly say whether this teachers' handbook will be made available to all the other education authorities in England and Wales?


My Lords, it is not for my right honourable friend the Secretary of State or myself to express a view on what appears in an agreed syllabus. The position is that religious instruction in county and controlled schools must be given in accordance with an agreed syllabus approved by the local education authority. The Act provides for these to be prepared by a statutory conference convened by the authority concerned, and that statutory conference must include representatives of the authority, the teachers, the Church of England and other religious denominations which in the view of the authority ought to be represented. A syllabus must be agreed unanimously by the conference before it can be recommended to the authority for approval. An authority cannot amend what is put before it; it may only accept or reject it. The syllabus concerned has in fact gone through that process.


My Lords, would not the noble Lord agree that we might perhaps follow the customs adopted in some democracies, where I understand State teachers have to take a vow, to uphold the Constitution and not to spread sedition among their pupils?


My Lords, upholding the Constitution raises a slightly different question. The experience of other countries in that respect has not, in my view, been particularly satisfactory.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that for many years, when I was the chairman of an Education Committee in a big town, the syllabus had to be agreed with all the religious organisations in the area before it was put into the schools as a religious syllabus? Can the Minister tell me, in relation to Birmingham, how you can relate Communism with a religious syllabus, when one is the antithesis of the other?


My Lords, I have tried to stress that it really is not for my right honourable friend the Secretary of State or for myself to express a view on the content of an agreed syllabus. I have emphasised that this agreed syllabus was produced in the Birmingham area in accordance with the statutory arrangements for the production of such a syllabus. The conference which produced it included representatives of the different religions concerned, and they themselves have to produce a unanimous recommendation that the agreed syllabus be adopted. Therefore the representatives of the Churches were part of the process which unanimously agreed that this syllabus should be adopted.

The Lord Bishop of BIRMINGHAM

My Lords, does the noble Lord recognise that after four years of hard work, any body of people might well come to an agreement out of despair if they are ever to achieve the end results of the task that is assigned to them? Docs he think it appropriate that the material issued with the syllabus should seem to be more dogmatic about the supposed benefits of Marxism than it is prepared to allow teachers to be about the credibility of religious beliefs?


My Lords, I am trying to avoid expressing an opinion on this particular syllabus which has not been submitted to the Department—it is not required to be submitted to the Department. It has been produced in the constitutionally statutory and proper manner.


My Lords, is the noble Lord really saying that the state of the law of this country is such that given certain circumstances in an LEA, there is nothing to stop any political doctrine or manifesto—or indeed the Kama Sutra—being included? The noble Lord de- scribes the composition of the statutory conference as containing representatives of the local education authority, the teachers, the Church of England and other religions. Do we therefore deduce that since Communism is part of the syllabus accepted, Communism shall also have its representatives on these committees? Does that not require the Minister to have a view on the subject?


My Lords, it does not infer that Communism, or the representatives of Communists, should be represented on these committees. What are required to be represented on the Committees are the religious faiths— particularly the Church of England— which are concerned with this matter. There is clearly a built-in veto in this situation, because the local religious representatives can either agree, or not agree, as the case may be. The recommendation, before it is dealt with by the authority, has to be unanimous.


My Lords, do I understand from what my noble friend said, that the Secretary of State cannot intervene in the curricula decided upon by an education authority even if that curricula is contrary to the constitutional and democratic principles which are acceptable to society? How is it possible to explain away a religion with dialectic materialism and the theory of value?


My Lords, I am sorry to be reiterating the same point. The fact is that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science does not exercise powers over what is taught in the schools. Over the years this has been thought to be a perfectly proper matter for local decisions, and there are all the religious safeguards in this instance: the position of religion being safeguarded and that of the Church of England being safeguarded. This has worked very well over the years. Surely we do not want to reach a position in which the Secretary of State, in any Government, can actually dictate what is taught in the schools.

The Earl of ONSLOW

My Lords, Karl Marx said, "Religion is the opia to the people." As he was the founder of Communism, surely, therefore, this means that the instruction of Communism is against the spirit of the 1944 Education Act?

Baroness BACON

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that these powers are given in the 1944 Education Act and that, previous to 1970, the then Administration, of which I was a member, decided that it was time to change the 1944 Education Act, and, further, that we had had preliminary discussions with the religious bodies; but that when Mrs. Thatcher became Minister of Education she decided that it was not necessary to change the 1944 Act?


My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that statement, with which I concur. I might add, in response to my noble friend and his supplementary question on the powers of the Secretary of State, that my right honourable friend may give directions to an authority where he is satisfied it has acted, or proposes to act, unreasonably with respect to the exercise of any power or duty conferred on it by the 1944 Education Act; but so far, at any rate, there is no suggestion that anything that the Birmingham local authority has done is outside the powers or scope reasonably conferred on it by that Act.


My Lords, I think that this is rapidly turning into a debate. We have spent eight minutes on one Question and we have three more to deal with. On the whole, I think that the House will feel that honour has been satisfied on both sides.