HL Deb 20 October 1986 vol 481 cc8-10

2.57 p.m.

Baroness Cox

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government how many schools are failing to fulfil the requirements of the Education Act 1944 with regard to religious education and religious worship.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, the Government do not collect such information, nor would it be appropriate to do so. However, we believe that religious education and collective worship make a special contribution to the education of all pupils; and we look to the schools themselves and their local education authorities to observe the requirements which the Act lays on them.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for her reply. Is she aware that in Brent the recently agreed syllabus for religious education defines faith in such a way that it includes non-theistic religions and life stances? Does my noble friend agree that that not only seems to be a contradiction in terms but also opens the floodgates for teaching topics such as militant atheism or Marxism? Does my noble friend think that is acceptable?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I have been made aware of the situation in Brent. The syllabus was drawn up and agreed by a properly constituted conference in which members of the Church of England, other Christian denominations and other world religions were represented. I understand that the agreed syllabus defines faith as any consistent, coherent and ethical life stance, whether theistic or non-theistic, and that it seeks to encourage knowledge and understanding and respect for, the beliefs of others as well as an awareness of the importance of the commitment to personal faith.

Lord Soper

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a fundamental problem nestling in this Question? Does she not agree that there is a world of difference between religious education and religious worship? As I see it, those who are technically committed or uncommitted can undertake a very great deal of religious education. Only those who are committed to the faith of which that worship is an expression are competent to conduct Christian worship. In that regard would it not be a great advantage if more of those who are already committed to the various religions (which are now multi-faith in most schools) were used in the Christian worship aspect of education?

If the cynicism, which is so abundant now in religious education in schools, were divided between that part of it which is the information about Christianity and other faiths, and that religious activity which is the committal in worship, would this not undo the kind of problem or create the situation which is necessary to the tenets of that faith?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I fear that this Question raises certain theological points as well as legal points. In terms of the agreed syllabus, specifically in relation to the Brent situation, the normal procedures were complied with, and in addition to the seven members of the Church of England Committee, the conference included eight representatives of other Christian denominations; 14 representatives of other world religions; and one Humanist. Since the responsibility lies with the local authority it is in that area that we must look to repair any damage that might be done.

Viscount Tonypandy

My Lords, is it not still a requirement that the terms of the 1944 Education Act should be fulfilled by local education authorities? Is the Minister aware that, however many Church people were on this committee, it is not a fact that the majority of schools are multi-faith? It is not a fact that in the greater part of this country there are many faiths. In some of our big cities there are schools predominant with another faith. Is she also aware that many of us are deeply anxious that at this particular time our children should have a good grounding in the Christian faith in our schools.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I am aware of the concern and anxiety and within the statutory framework an introduction to the Christian tradition remains central to the religious education provided in our schools. The law does not require that the act of worship should be Christian in content, although the authors of the 1944 Education Act presumably envisaged that it should be so at the time.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, can the noble Baroness clarify one point in her first Answer? As I understood, she said that it would not be proper to keep account of schools' performances in this matter. Is that really what she said, and what she meant? If so, is that not a rather strange? If the law has been broken, it has been broken, and we should know.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, yes; but under the statute, the responsibility lies with the school and with the local authority to conduct the religious education in a school, and the remedies are there. It is only if people remain dissatisfied that they should complain to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. However, over the past few years very few such complaints have been received.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, would the noble Baroness care to remind the House that the 1944 Education Act provides for religious instruction and collective worship? Would she not agree that what has happened in the past 40 years has been enormously to the benefit of religious education in that the range of religious faiths among the parents and children in our schools has increased very greatly? Is that not a benefit for religious education rather than a disadvantage?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, yes indeed. The Government believe that the statutory framework for religious education and collective worship has stood the test of time. I think I said in my first response that religious education and collective worship make a special contribution to the education of pupils and for educational as well as legal reasons have a significant place within the school curriculum.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the thought behind the 1944 Education Act, was that all that is best and great in the life of our country has come from the Christian tradition and Christian teaching? Therefore, all children should be given at least a rudimentary knowledge of that in the schools. Is that not the very best tradition that we should try to maintain today?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, yes; and that is the Government's policy.

Baroness Seear

My Lords—

Lord Denham

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Baroness will excuse me for half a minute, and then I will give way to her. We have spent 28 minutes on three questions. Already we have been eight minutes on this particular question. Therefore, after the noble Baroness has asked her question, and my noble friend has replied, I think the House may feel we should move on to the next Question.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that many of us believe that these matters are better settled by a responsible committee at local level, representing local views which are bound to vary in different parts of this now multi-cultural country? Many of us would be deeply alarmed if the Government as such were to dictate what we put into syllabuses of this kind. After all, we do not know what kind of Government we are going to have in the future.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, as I have said, the ultimate recourse only is to the Secretary of State. In view of the very small number of complaints which have followed that channel, clearly that is the general view.