HL Deb 28 October 1996 vol 575 cc103-6

The Earl of Longford asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to ensure that the provision of the Education Act 1988 that there should be a daily act of worship in secondary schools is enforced.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Lord Henley)

My Lords, the Education Act 1988 requires pupils attending a maintained school to take part in a daily act of collective worship. It is the head teacher's duty to secure this. Ofsted inspections identify those schools failing to provide daily worship. Where appropriate, schools should show in their action plans how they will rectify matters. Parents and others may use the local complaints procedure with ultimate recourse to the Secretary of State.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, this is the first time that I have had the privilege of putting a Question to the noble Lord. I only wish he could provide an Answer that was not quite so lamentable. I have two points. First, of those children over 14 attending secondary schools—I gave the Minister brief notice of this question this morning as I wanted some figures—what proportion are attending worship in accordance with the law? Secondly, if they are not attending worship, how can schools justify total failure to enforce the law of the land?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am sorry that this is the first opportunity that the noble Earl has had to ask me a Question. I have been around for a number of years and I am sure that there will be many more years during which the noble Earl will have the opportunity to ask me Questions. I hope that I can give him Answers that will satisfy him. I am grateful to the noble Earl for giving me notice of the supplementary question that he wished to put to me, but it is impossible to say precisely how many children over the age of 14 are not wholly or partly benefiting from collective worship as parents have a right to withdraw their children. However, it is clear that, whereas the majority of primary schools meet the requirement for a daily act of worship, only a minority of secondary schools do so. We are grateful that Ofsted inspections identify those that are not meeting those requirements. It will then be a matter for the schools in their action plans to identify what they are doing to remedy the situation.

The Lord Bishop of Carlisle

My Lords, will the Government assure the House that any programme or training they introduce for prospective head teachers will include a training element in collective worship and in the spiritual and moral development of pupils?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I cannot give the right reverend Prelate that absolute assurance, but he has put the point very well indeed. I am sure it is one that we ought to take on board as we develop training programmes for head teachers. I think it would he right for the Teacher Training Agency to take that on board as regards the initial training of all other teachers.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, in the light of the Government's new found reluctance to legislate about knives until they can produce a perfect definition of a combat knife, can the Minister explain to the House how the Education Reform Act 1988 can be properly applied when it does not give a definition of an act of collective worship?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am not sure that the noble Lord's first point has anything to do with the Question on the Order Paper. However, the noble Lord will remember that the 1988 Act followed on from the 1944 Act, although it made a number of changes. The noble Lord will be well aware that a change to the law was agreed only after the widest possible consultation. The noble Lord may also remember that there was considerable debate on that particular issue particularly in this House and in another place. I am sure that it would be quite sufficient for the courts, should it be necessary, to define exactly what an act of collective worship is. However, I think most of us would be able to recognise one quite clearly if it was put in front of us.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the provision to which the Question refers had the support of all parties and no doubt still has the support of all parties? Will the Government now take steps to draw the attention, especially of head teachers, to this provision in the hope that it may be more frequently observed?

Lord Henley

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right to draw the attention of the House to the wide debate and the wide support that that change of law had back in 1988. I was not on this Bench at the time, but I am sure all of those who were in the House at the time can certainly remember just how extensive the debate was in 1988 and—dare I say it?—back in 1944 when the original Education Act 1944 was passed. I can tell my noble friend that we have absolutely no plans to change the position and I think there is insufficient evidence to justify change. However, I think he is right to point out that the measure is not being observed in a large number of schools. I am grateful that the noble Earl, Lord Longford, has tabled this Question which will allow a degree of publicity to remind schools of their duty under the law. As I made clear in my earlier Answer, I hope that Ofsted inspections will also make that perfectly clear.

Baroness David

My Lords, is there not the problem that sometimes there is not a room big enough to take the whole school for an act of collective worship? Sometimes there is a problem in finding the teachers to take it, particularly in sixth form colleges.

Lord Henley

My Lords, on the first point, I do not believe that that is a valid objection. It is possible under law to split the act of collective worship into a number of different acts of worship spread around the school in terms of both place and time.

On the second point, I understand that on some occasions there can be difficulties in finding a suitable person to take the act of collective worship. My advice would be that the school should go to the Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education (SACRE) to seek its advice and help in meeting what is, as we have heard this afternoon, a statutory requirement.

Viscount Tonypandy

My Lords, is the Minister aware that it is easy for us to comment in this House about what goes on in schools but that head teachers are aware both of the challenge and the law? The best thing that this House can do is to encourage teachers because they are already under strain and pressure.

Lord Henley

My Lords, the noble Viscount makes a valid point. That is why I suggested to the noble Baroness, Lady David, that there were avenues which schools could pursue such as taking advice from the local SACRE and others to gain help on these matters.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, on the last occasion this matter was discussed in your Lordships' House it was agreed by noble Lords that a collective act of worship should be Christian because we are predominantly Christian, but that all other faiths should have entitlement to their own act of worship? Is the Minister aware that since that debate took place nothing has been done, and that there is no sense of dedication in schools as regards any attempt to inculcate a religious belief in our children? I do not speak only of the Christian morality, but of all religions. I believe that we should encourage teachers. To what extent is the trade union movement in the education profession involved in obstruction?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I do not think that this is a matter for the teaching unions. However, I agree with my noble friend up to a point. I believe that a great deal has been done since 1988. Most important is the fact that schools are now inspected by Ofsted. Ofsted can draw to the attention of the school the fact that it is failing to meet a statutory requirement.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, will my noble friend take on board the point that where a head teacher or his staff is disinclined from faith or conviction to conduct the service, local ministers or clergy can always be called in to help?

Lord Henley

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely correct. That is why I answered the noble Baroness, Lady David, in the way that I did.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that as regards children of parents who have no religious belief it is important not to seek to indoctrinate those children in a religious belief which their parents would find repugnant?

Lord Henley

My Lords, it is always open to all parents to withdraw their children should they so wish.

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