HL Deb 04 February 1988 vol 492 cc1187-90

3.13 p.m.

Lord Orr-Ewing

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 what percentage of schools are contravening the law requiring an act of corporate worship to take place at the start of each school day, as provided in the Education Act 1944; and what action has been taken to enforce the law.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Education and Science (Baroness Hooper)

My Lords, the Government look to the schools themselves and their local authorities to observe the requirements which the 1944 Act lays on them. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has power to intervene under Sections 68 and 99 of the Act where complaints are made that particular schools are not providing collective worship in accordance with the 1944 provisions. All such complaints are fully and carefully investigated. Very few such complaints are made each year.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. However, I do not think that she has dealt with the question of whether any official judicial action has been taken. Is it not a sad reflection on the present state of affairs that the 1944 Act now appears to be totally disregarded by over 90 per cent. of schools? As the new Education Bill will soon be coming to this House, will HMG consult with the leaders of the Christian Churches to see whether the schools' obligation to organise Christian worship and teaching could not be included in the new Act? If that were agreed, I should also like to suggest that in the Act there might be a written obligation to allow parents who do not wish their children to attend such worship to opt out of it and to make arrangements for their own, different religion to be taught instead. Will my noble friend look seriously at that suggestion before we get down to the nitty-gritty of this important new Act?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, my noble friend refers to a figure of some 90 per cent. in relation to non-observance of this requirement. The Government are not aware of such evidence and indeed I should be surprised if that figure were correct. If the noble Lord has such evidence, I should be grateful if he could supply it to me.

So far as concerns the place of the Christian tradition in collective worship, the law does not explicitly require the act of worship to be Christian although the authors of the 1944 Act clearly envisaged that it would be. The law requires of county schools that worship should be nondenominational. Over the years, as the ethnic and religious backgrounds of pupils have become much more varied, there has been a growing move to multi-faith collective worship, particularly in schools with a high proportion of pupils from non-Christian backgrounds. The Government recognise the reasons for that trend, as I believe do the Churches. At the same time, in many areas and in many schools where Christianity remains the dominant religion, it is right that worship should continue to be mainly Christian in flavour. It is also important that schools should be sensitive to the balance of religions among their pupils and that they should devise forms of collective worship in which as many pupils as possible can participate. The Churches have an important role to play in that whole area.

Lord St. John of Fawsley

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that at a time of declining Church attendance, it is all the more important for children to experience a public act of worship corporately together? Does she further agree that trying to teach RE and leaving out the act of worship is like trying to teach astronomy and leaving out the stars? What action is her ministry taking to ensure that these acts of worship are indeed acts of worship and not seminars on current affairs?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, the Government are fully committed to maintaining the requirement for a daily act of worship to take place in all maintained schools for all pupils, and the proposals for change contained in the Education Reform Bill do not affect that general requirement in any way. The whole area of the teaching of religious education is of course separate.

Lord Parry

My Lords, will the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, also accept that part of the difficulty of organising an act of corporate worship, where the whole school wishes it, lies in the fact that some schools are now so large that it is impossible to gather the whole community together in a single act of worship? Furthermore, is she aware that there has been very real concern among people in schools that the act of worship had failed and had become merely an assembly at which some prayers were read?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, yes. The existing law on collective worship was first criticised officially in 1986 by the Education, Science and Arts Committee report on primary education. Subsequently a consultation exercise was carried out by the Department of Education and Science in 1987 which revealed overwhelming support from educational and Church bodies for greater flexibility in the timing and organisation of daily collective worship. Certainly the design and size of secondary school premises make it more difficult than the authors of the 1944 Act envisaged.

Viscount Eccles

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that that part of the 1944 Act was never capable of being carried out? From 1954, off and on for eight years, I had to try to apply it but it proved quite impossible. A teacher who is not a practising Christian can teach religion, but it is not reasonable to ask someone who is not a practising Christian to hold an act of Christian worship.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for the benefit of his considerable experience in this matter.

Lord Peston

My Lords, I welcome the reply that the noble Baroness gave—I think it was two questions back—in which she outlined the Government's general view of the position and the circumstances that are now emerging in our society. Will she confirm that the religious provisions in the new Education Bill will allow for much greater flexibility under the heading of corporate worship with regard to the timing of the act of corporate worship? Will she also confirm that this greater flexibility has been broadly welcomed by all the relevant Churches?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, yes, indeed. The response to the consultation process from the Churches and educational establishments is what has led to the provision in the Bill. Clause 79 of that Bill provides that such arrangements may in respect of each school day provide for a single act of worship for pupils or for separate acts of worship for pupils in different age groups or in different school groups.

Lord Elton

My Lords, notwithstanding the Answer that my noble friend gave to the substantive Question, and the contribution of my noble friend Lord Eccles, is the Minister aware that there is some concern in this country about the way in which the place of religion, and in particular the Christian religion, seems to be slipping in the educational arrangements? Will she ask her right honourable friend to bear this in mind when he is looking at the curriculum as well as at morning worship?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, yes. I shall happily draw this point to the attention of my right honourable friend. However, I should like to repeat that the Government are fully committed to maintaining the requirement for a daily act of worship to take place in schools because they feel that this is an important part of the school programme.

Lord Renton

My Lords, would not some of the problems that have been mentioned be solved without difficulty by calling upon the clergy and the religious leaders of non-Christian bodies to help the headmasters of schools by inviting these religious leaders to conduct the acts of worship instead of the headmaster?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, the provisions for greater flexibility by allowing acts of collective worship under the proposals in the Bill to take place at different times and in different groups will enable representatives of outside interests to participate in these acts of worship. It is something that we would welcome.

Lord Ritchie of Dundee

My Lords, with reference to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, about opting out, can the Minister confirm that parents already have the right to remove their children from any act of worship in which they do not wish them to take part? I cannot say whether this provision is in the 1944 or the 1968 Act, but perhaps she can confirm that this is so.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for reminding me that I omitted to add this point in answering the original supplementary question of my noble friend. The 1944 Act provides that a pupil may be excused from attending collective worship at the request of his or her parents.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, will the noble Baroness confirm that the voluntary schools have never deviated from this? They have always provided the act of worship throughout the whole period, whichever government were in office.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I am not sure that I can confirm it, but we certainly hope and expect that that is the case.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the act of worship would include hymns? Hymns are a very important part of our British heritage and give great comfort and encouragement to many people at all times in their lives. An example is: All people that on earth do dwell, Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice, Him serve with mirth, his praise forthtell, Come ye before Him and rejoice".

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I am inclined to agree with my noble friend that the singing of hymns can uplift the spirit, and the memorising of the words of hymns even more so. The arrangements that are proposed will be met by the individual schools, and it is proposed that head teachers, in consultation with the governors, will make the necessary arrangements.