HL Deb 15 February 1994 vol 552 cc91-4

Lord Northbourne asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they propose to take in the light of the report by the Chief Inspector of Schools published on 7th December that in primary schools "standards were generally unsatisfactory in Religious Education (RE)" (Pt. II para.4.).

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

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government take every opportunity to promote good quality religious education in schools. In particular, local authorities in England and Wales are required to review their agreed syllabuses for religious education. The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority has been asked to develop model RE syllabuses. A new circular has been issued to give guidance to schools on their duty to provide religious education. The Ofsted inspection system will monitor and identify any school failing to do so.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, I am grateful for that helpful and encouraging reply. Does the noble Baroness agree that many teachers who are not specially trained in the subject do not feel comfortable delivering the RE syllabus? What action is being taken to ensure an adequate supply of suitably trained teachers to deliver that important and sensitive subject?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the point made by the noble Lord is important. It is vital that teachers should feel comfortable with the subject and to that end the grant for education support and training is making money available. Religious education has been added to the number of subjects for which it can be made available to help with improving specialisms in schools and improving co-ordination for religious education in schools.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in 1993 a survey by the Religious Education Council found that more than half those teaching religious education in secondary schools had no formal qualifications in the subject? Will she accept that the figure, which is lower than for any other national curriculum subject, is bound to affect the quality of RE teaching? Can she give an assurance that the matter will be addressed urgently?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, there is no overall shortage of religious education specialists, either in terms of those recruited to initial teacher training or of those employed in the schools. In the January survey there were only 15 vacancies in the subject in the country overall. It is true, however, that of 13,100 religious education specialists in the country, only half were teaching their own subject. It is not therefore a shortage of specialists; it is a shortage in terms of the importance which both LEAs and schools give to the subject and of the necessity to make sure that specialisms are used in the right place.

Baroness David

My Lords, following up that answer, can the Minister say how many teachers of religious education in primary schools are not qualified in the subject at the moment?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the number will be a great many. Primary school teachers are generalists, not specialists. A primary school teacher with only religious education as a specialism would be quite seriously disadvantaged in having to cope with teaching maths, English, science, history, geography, art, music and so on. It is essential that we do more to provide good quality support with teaching materials and advice and to ensure that the grant which I mentioned is made full use of so that specialisms and co-ordination can be much improved in primary schools.

Lord Renton

My Lords, to what extent is the teaching of religion in primary schools confined to the religion to which the child has been accustomed and in which it has been brought up? Would it not be better if the teaching were confined in that way and if the teaching of other religions were postponed until the child was older and in the secondary school?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I can give my noble friend the assurance that Christianity, as the main religious tradition of the country, will be taught at every key stage, at Key Stages 1, 2, 3 and 4, and that knowledge of other religions is also a requirement. Also, model syllabuses have just been released for consultation. There is a real anxiety, which I share with my noble friend, that young children aged between five and 11 are required to cover too many religions. That question will be covered during the consultation period.

Lord Glenamara

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that this subject is different from all the others? It is not only a matter of training and qualifications but also one of religious commitment. Most teachers nowadays take the view that to try to teach the subject without religious commitment is sheer hypocrisy. That is the problem.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it is important to make the distinction between learning about religion and teaching for belief. Learning about religion is an educational process which has an importance. What is important is learning about religion as a cultural, historical tradition of the country. It must be for the Churches and families to go further and to instruct to promote belief, if that is what the noble Lord is hinting at.

Lord Elton

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that subjects are nevertheless best taught by those who have a sympathy for them? In the light of the fact that 80 per cent. of school pupils in the primary sector are taught all subjects by the same teacher, will she encourage, so far as the remaining 20 per cent. are concerned, where specialists are employed to teach particular subjects, giving priority in respect of religious education where the teacher has no such sympathy?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, a number of very good reports encourage primary schools to look at and exploit the specialisms of the teachers on their staff. That would cover people who have a specialism in teaching this subject. Sadly, it is also true that some schools will not allow people who are specialists in the subject and who can speak about it with authority— for example, local vicars, priests and faith healers— to help in a school. Where schools exploit the expertise in the community the school is enriched by it.

Lord Judd

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this area of education is absolutely central to our future as a stable multicultural society? Does she further agree that teachers must have in-depth knowledge of the traditions and faiths with which they deal? Does that not emphasise the absolute importance of the relationship between higher education and teacher training?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it is a matter of Professor Joad and not Professor Judd on this occasion. It really does depend on what one means by multiculturalism. So long as the integrity of each religion is preserved, then education is very sound in prospect. Sadly, however, it has become a melting pot and, as my noble friends like to refer to it, a mish-mash. I do not believe that it does any more than serve to confuse children if it is done badly. What is absolutely essential is that the integrity of each of the religions is properly preserved when taught.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the view expressed in the questions put by the noble Lord, Lord Glenamara, and by my noble friend Lord Elton represent the outlook of most parents who are concerned about having religious education from the start of a school career?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it is important that whatever is taught to a child between the ages of five and 11 the child is able to benefit from it educationally. If the child is overloaded by being presented with a curriculum that he or she simply cannot manage, then that will create confusion. But it is also important to say that one of the objectives of this whole exercise is to underpin all education both morally and spiritually. I believe that we are doing a great deal to get that right.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, can my noble friend explain the arrangements in the teacher training colleges? How will the teachers who want to teach religion be taught?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, there are two points. If it is a question of an RE specialist, it will be the family subject. If it is a school teacher who will teach a range of subjects in primary school, one measure that will help is the introduction of the six-subject Bachelor of Education degree. Maths, English and science will be the core three subjects; the other three subjects will be of choice. There is therefore an opportunity for one of those subjects to be religious education, and it will be taught in greater depth to those teachers.

Noble Lords

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