HL Deb 26 October 1998 vol 593 cc1689-91

3.7 p.m.

Lord Beloff asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps are being taken to enforce the implementation of Section 407 of the Education Act 1996 (Duty to secure balanced treatment of political issues).

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone)

My Lords, we expect local education authorities, school governing bodies and head teachers to be aware of their duties under the Education Acts, including Section 407 of the 1996 Act, with the help of circulars and other guidance issued regularly by the Department for Education and Employment. Anyone who believes that a school or local education authority is not complying with that duty can make a formal complaint to the school's governing body, or to the authority, as the case may be, and, ultimately, if not satisfied with the outcome, to the Secretary of State.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the document, the European Pack, and the report on the British presidency of the European Union, which were circulated to all schools, give a wholly biased opinion in favour of the alleged merits of the European Union and leave it to the teachers, no doubt, to balance that by giving the other aspects which are less favourable? Would it not be fairer to the teachers to provide them also with documentation which would enable them to present the full case? If it is difficult for that to be done within the department, cannot the Minister ask her noble friends Lord Shore of Stepney and Lord Bruce of Donington to produce a pack which can be circulated to schools?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, it is open to any school to invite my noble friends Lord Shore or Lord Bruce to talk about their views on the European Union. I suspect that one or two may follow up the noble Lord's suggestion. The presidency pack, which was distributed to schools, was done entirely at the request of head teachers. It is a factual pack and was produced in order to bring up to date material which was circulated to schools in the early 1990s under the previous government. Of course, it is for teachers to provide a properly unbiased approach to any controversial subject. But Members of your Lordships' House will agree that it is right and proper that pupils in our schools should have proper information about the European Union so that they can discuss it and do that, if necessary, critically.

Lord Peston

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on taking this Question seriously. I ask her to think back to when she was at school or being educated subsequently. Does she agree that the very best teachers whom one had—namely, those who made one want to study a subject and go further—were those with very strong views? I was taught economics by people with very Right-wing views and it did me no harm whatever. But is not the point that all that harping on about so-called balance is enormously damaging to education?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I have to cast my mind back rather a long way, but I agree with my noble friend that it is desirable that young people should learn to debate controversial matters and hear views from the Left, Right or centre. They should learn to look at the evidence and, having considered it, then make up their minds. The pack that was sent out to schools was put together with that in mind so that young people could have the facts and then debate and discuss them.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford

My Lords, do the Government recognise the value of the Crick Report on education for citizenship for securing a balanced treatment of political issues? What plans do they have to consider and, it is hoped, implement the recommendations of that report?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the Government set up the Crick Committee to look at the whole issue of teaching citizenship in schools. The committee reported towards the end of September and the Government are very grateful for the advice that they have received. I am sure that your Lordships will agree that it is desirable to teach our pupils to take part as active citizens in the society around them. That means they must have knowledge about our democracy, how government works nationally and locally and a whole range of other issues. The Government are asking the QCA to look at the way in which teaching about citizenship can be introduced into the national curriculum.

Lord Tope

My Lords, is the Minister aware that on these Benches we recognise that a healthy democracy needs active citizenship and that we have everything to gain and nothing to lose by an active debate on issues including the facts rather than myths about the European Union? Is she also aware that we too warmly welcome the report of Professor Crick's advisory group on education for citizenship and the teaching of democracy? Does she agree that the teaching of democracy must include teaching about more democratic electoral systems?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I have no doubt that teaching about different forms of PR is something about which pupils in schools will wish to hear more from their teachers in the forthcoming months.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that there is an extremely thin line between information and what can be deemed to be propaganda? The European issue is so controversial that it needs some vigilance on the part of the department as regards what is going to schools.

Secondly, will the noble Baroness tell me how many circulars have been sent out by the department advising on the implementation of Section 407 since 1st May 1997?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I understand that the circular was sent out during 1997. I am not sure whether it went out before or after 1st May. But I can certainly write to the noble Baroness about that. However, in a sense, whether it went out before or after 1st May is not important. If the schools have received the circular fairly recently, that should be good enough. We should not worry about whether it came out under the noble Baroness's government or the present Government. We must leave it to the good sense of teachers to interpret material sensibly and to allow a debate to take place among their pupils about that material.