HL Deb 14 February 1994 vol 552 cc4-6

2.45 p.m.

Baroness Nicol asked Her Majesty's Government:

What discussions they have had with leaders of ethnic minority communities in England and Wales about the future of religious education.

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have had a number of discussions with leaders and representatives of religious groups on subjects including the future of religious education. The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority is responsible for advising Ministers on all aspects of RE in England and is also in contact with religious groups. No representations for such discussions have been received in Wales. Should representations be received, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales would give them very careful consideration.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Does she agree with me that the main purpose of religious education is to achieve the spiritual and cultural development of all pupils and that it is important that in no case should pupils be made to feel that their religion is in any way second class? Does the noble Baroness agree therefore that great sensitivity is needed to ensure that we uphold respect for common ethics in all religious groups?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I agree absolutely with the noble Baroness. That is one of the purposes of religious education. It is also the purpose of education that all children, from whatever background, should understand the Christian tradition, both historical and cultural, of this country.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that morality may be taught in schools without necessarily being attached to any religion?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it is true that spirituality and morality are distinct subjects in education and are equally important.

Lord Judd

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a fundamental difference between teaching religion and teaching about religion? Should not teaching about religion and humanism be the priority in our whole approach to religious education in schools? Does the Minister also agree that in many communities in our country the majority of families have a cultural tradition which is certainly not Christianity? We must therefore never put any other faith in a second-class position.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, humanism is neither a religion nor a faith. We are talking about religious education.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that all 43 dioceses of the Church of England have an inter-faith committee or working group among whose members there is a desire to relate to other historic faiths? Is she aware too of the desire within the Board of Education that where the majority in a certain place are of other faiths, those faiths should not be disregarded or overridden?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate makes an important point. First, we are enormously appreciative of what is being done by the Christian Churches in this country and those of other faiths who have been working constructively together on the operation of the syllabuses now out for consultation. It is right and proper not only that Christianity should be safeguarded within the syllabus for religious education but also that there should be a recognition that other faiths exist and that the integrity of those faiths should be sustained.

Viscount Brentford

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, while no other faiths should be treated as in any way second class, it is confusing for some young people when they are taught about too many different religions at the same time?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. The syllabuses which are out for consultation at the moment pose one or two important questions. One is the way in which educationally a child can properly do justice to learning about more than one faith at a time. That is a proper question to pose. At the moment, I believe that for Key Stage 1 the syllabus provides for Christianity plus two other religions; at Key Stage 2, if one takes the maximum, it is Christianity plus four. I believe that there is a serious question mark over the ability of young people to benefit educationally from that range of subjects.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that while grant-maintained status is made available for Roman Catholic and Anglican schools it is entirely reasonable that such opportunities should be made available for Moslem schools?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right. It is entirely proper, and should an application come before us that meets all the criteria it will be properly considered. At the moment there have been only two applications from Moslem schools. One fell and was withdrawn at the later stages. The other was rejected on the grounds that there were 1,500 spare places within a two-mile radius and 3,500 spare places within the authority as a whole.

Baroness David

My Lords, can the Minister say what happens when those following the Christian religion in a school are in a very big minority?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, that is one of the reasons why religious education is not a national curriculum subject. It is a compulsory subject within the curriculum, which allows parents, if they wish, to withdraw their children. It also allows for proper recognition of both national and local factors. The situation described by the noble Baroness could be taken into account as a local factor. The syllabuses are out for consultation at the moment. We are encouraging local authorities not simply to adopt a religious education syllabus that applies rigidly to the whole authority but one that allows flexibility and properly reflects local community factors.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, does the Minister consider it right that where a majority of children come from families of other faiths, they should nevertheless be taught Christianity as the primary religion? Does she not agree that that is one of the main reasons 'why Moslems are asking for separate education?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I agree absolutely with that point. I said in response to another question that whatever background children come from it is essential that they learn about the cultural, historical and religious traditions of this country.