§ 7.25 p.m.
§ Baroness Cox rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have any evidence of the extent to which the provisions of the Education Reform Act 1988, relating to religious education in schools, are being fulfilled.
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to ask this Question, and warmly thank all noble Lords who have agreed to speak on a topic which I believe to be of fundamental importance. In opening the debate, it may be helpful 249 for me to put the Question in context by summarising the background to the legislation to which it refers and identifying some subsequent developments.
§ Your Lordships may recall that in February 1988 a debate in the House identified, a number of anxieties related to religious education—perhaps I may hereafter use the abbreviation "RE". I shall not repeat the detailed evidence. It is contained in Hansard of 26th February 1988. However, I shall highlight the main issues.
§ First, there was evidence of widespread ignorance among many children of basic knowledge of the Christian faith. Many surveys and media reports indicated just how ignorant many British school children were of the essentials of the Christian faith, which is our spiritual heritage. Secondly, there was evidence that many schools were flouting the provisions of the 1944 Education Act relating to the teaching of RE. The booklet, The Crisis in RE, by two teachers from Newcastle—John Burn and Colin Hart —gave statistical data on schools and LEAs which were failing to provide any RE at all.
§ Thirdly, there was evidence that in many schools, even where RE was being taught, it was being taught in ways which caused anxiety for a number of reasons. In some schools it was being used for partisan political indoctrination. In some it was being taught in a thematic multi-faith approach which adopted certain themes taking them out of context in ways which trivialised the complexities and coherence of major religions and did justice to none.
§ Finally, in a small but serious number of cases, RE was being used to introduce children to the occult, as indicated by a letter written by seven ILEA RE advisers to all head teachers in London schools warning them of the psychologically damaging effects of teaching about the occult.
§ Your Lordships may recall that it was later in 1988 that the Education Reform Bill came from another place with RE firmly established as a subject primus inter pares in the basic curriculum. However, there was no reference to the content of RE. In view of the anxieties previously identified, many noble Lords wished to ensure that young people learnt at least the essential elements of the Christian faith as part of our spiritual heritage and as a basis for understanding its contribution to our country's history, culture and social institutions.
§ Therefore in the early debates on this topic amendments which were essentially probing amendments were proposed which attempted to ensure the teaching of Christianity in RE while at the same time and for the first time specifying the rights of other faith communities to have provisions for RE which would respect the distinctiveness and coherence of their own faiths.
§ Support for the amendments was forthcoming from all sides of your Lordships' House and from those representing different faith communities. For example, not only was there strong support from many of your Lordships who were Christians, but also the then Chief Rabbi Lord Jacobovits spoke eloquently in support of those early amendments. Support was also 250 expressed outside your Lordships' House by members of the Moslem community. These supporters shared the same anxieties, especially over the developments in RE of that thematic, multi-faith approach, which they saw as trivialising their faiths in ways which might undermine all faith. For example, the Chief Rabbi criticised what he described as a "fruit cocktail" of world religions. The Imam of a major mosque led his people in prayer that the name of Christ should once again be revered in Britain's schools.
§ After these worries had been identified, the then Bishop of London, Dr. Leonard, undertook to propose amendments which would reflect the complexities of these issues. Now, nearly four years on, it is important to assess the extent to which the requirements of those amendments are being met; what has been achieved and what problems have been encountered.
§ Perhaps I may begin with developments which I believe are positive—that is to say, the effects of the Act on LEAs, curricular, resources, teachers and on test cases. First, it is good to note that a number of LEAs have produced new documents on teaching RE which actually specify teaching Christianity as well as other faiths. That may sound a rather strangely minimal achievement; but it is, in the state of things, a significant achievement. Examples include the Surrey handbook for RE and the Cornwall agreed syllabus.
Secondly, there have been developments in approaches to the curriculum which challenge the thematic, multi-faith or mish-mash approach. For example, the 1990 Newcastle agreed syllabus condemns this thematic approach as "educationally unsound" and because
such syncretism is offensive to most religious groups".
§ The Schools Examinations and Assessment Council draft criteria for GCSE religious studies have completely dropped the thematic approach.
§ It is important to emphasise that these criticisms of the thematic multi-faith approach do not imply an attempt to hinder teaching about different faiths, but they stress that it should be done in ways which maintain the integrity of each faith. One of the problems which was predictable was the serious shortage of qualified teachers and resources. However, since the Act there has been an explosion of new resource books for RE with teaching material reflecting the spirit of the Act. At a more informal level there has been a proliferation of local resource groups to help hard-pressed teachers and to provide input for schools. These include groups with catchy acronyms such as CATS (Christians and Tyneside Schools); CIDS (Christians in Derbyshire Schools); CIBS (Christians in Birmingham Schools) and, perhaps not very felicitiously, CADS (Christians and Devonshire Schools). In many places, church leaders are being asked to visit schools who had never before been invited to cross their thresholds. Within weeks of the passage of the Act, an Anglican vicar told me how, for the first time in the ministry in that parish, he had been invited into the local comprehensive school. And that story is being repeated up and down the country with leaders of different faith communities.251
§ Another beneficial result of the Act has been its influence on teachers. Previously, in many schools, RE had been an undervalued subject, sometimes explicitly denigrated. One LEA multi-cultural adviser described how heads of some schools imposed teaching RE as a punishment on their least-liked staff. He commented that some of these teachers went into classes using four-letter words and teaching in ways which did less than justice to the subject. That adviser was not a Christian, but belonged to another faith. Yet he found it offensive to hear the name of Christ profaned.
§ Now RE has a recognised place and many teachers describe a return of confidence. Also, whereas previously in some schools the teaching of Christianity was not allowed, its place in the curriculum is now more readily assured. The Act has challenged head teachers who had allowed RE to disappear completely from the timetable.
§ Finally, on the positive side, there have been test cases which have upheld the spirit of the Act. For example, in Newcastle, in 1990, parents and teachers were disturbed by the proposed RE syllabus as it contained very little Christian teaching. Only two modules out of 24 contained reference to the Christian faith. They were also worried by what they saw as unhelpful approaches blurring distinctions between faiths. They therefore mobilised pressure, with a petition to the mayor, and the syllabus was changed to bring it more in line with the Act.
§ Nearby, in Gateshead, the RE adviser proposed a syllabus which required pupils to design their own religion; to rewrite the Ten Commandments; to celebrate Buddhist festivals at the age of five and to study feminist interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount. Under the provisions of the Act, the syllabus conference rejected these proposals which have since been rewritten several times.
§ It is too early to identify the effects of changes in the law on pupils. Suffice it to say that there is still evidence of widespread ignorance about the essentials of the Christian faith among young adults who passed through the education system under the old dispensation. In 1991 a MORI survey found that for the 18–24 age group, 57 per cent. could not say what happened on Good Friday and 62 per cent. could not identify Pontius Pilate, although, according to another MORI poll in 1989, between 80 per cent. and 90 per cent. of the population regarded themselves as Christians; with only 3 per cent. adhering to other faiths and 4 per cent. identified as atheists.
§ I now wish briefly to identify four problem areas: resources and competition for scarce resources; experiences of other faith communities; attempts to undermine the spirit of the Act and the onus of responsibility laid on parents. First, the requirements to teach RE have increased competition for scarce resources; financially; in terms of teachers' time, energy and expertise; and in competition on the timetable for the demanding range of subjects to be covered in the national curriculum.
§ It may be some of these problems which lie behind some disturbing aspects of the Senior Chief Inspector for Schools report for 1991. For example, it was reported that RE was taught superficially in many 252 primary schools and in some not taught explicitly. For 14 to 16 year-old pupils in secondary schools the entitlement to RE was often not being met. Only one in three of the schools inspected timetabled RE under its own name at Key Stage 4.
§ Secondly, one of the objectives in the formulation of the amendments was the protection of the rights of non-Christian faith communities. That is why the earlier versions of the amendments specified their rights to RE in accordance with their own religious traditions. However, some faith communities have experienced difficulties. For example, representations on behalf of the Muslim Education Co-ordinating Council indicate problems in obtaining information and even in obtaining the annual SACRE reports. Mr. Mustafa, speaking on their behalf, also comments on the unhelpful response encountered from many secular-orientated LEAs and from some school governors. In view of these difficulties, Mr. Mustafa, speaking for the MECC, advocates a monitoring department within the DoE.
Another problem has been a number of systematic attempts by representatives of the RE establishment to interpret the Act in favour of the thematic multi-faith approach which the amendments were designed to discourage. For example, Professor John Hull of Birmingham University has written two booklets entitled The Act Unpacked and Mishmash, which run counter to the intentions and spirit of the debates underpinning the provisions, endorsing instead the previous multi-faith approaches. I quote from the British Journal of Religious Education, Autumn 1989:
A careful reading of Hansard makes clear that some of these people in the House of Lords did indeed think that they were changing RE practice rather than confirming it".
§ If that were the case, many of the hours spent by your Lordships in proposing the amendments were wasted. But, happily, there have been real changes, as outlined in my earlier words. However, a battle is now being waged in the educational world and those who initiated the kinds of developments which originally caused anxieties to your Lordships are still proposing their viewpoint. Hence there is a need for evaluation of these developments.
§ Finally, there is the problem as regards the onus placed on parents. My noble friend Lord Elton (who regrets that he is unable to be here tonight) wrote to my right honourable friend the then Secretary of State in February of this year to draw his attention to the agreed syllabus for RE for Oldham. In doing so, he referred to a letter from the DES to all chief education officers, setting out criteria for compliance of agreed syllabuses with Section 8(3) of the Act. It required the syllabuses to give sufficient guidance to readers and thus to teachers as to what Christian traditions, learning, teachings and festivals would be taught and as to what elements of the other faiths that are represented in Great Britain would be taught. Far from specifying these, the Oldham syllabus makes a virtue of specifying none, as can be seen from pages 12 and 34.
§ As your Lordships who were present on 13th February may recollect, my noble friend Lord Elton was told by my noble friend Lady Denton that his 253 complaint was insufficient for the syllabus to be reviewed. She said that it was up to the parents in Oldham to complain. However, that puts an intolerable burden on parents. It is often difficult for them to ascertain what has happened. Even if they are unhappy, it is often invidious for them to have to complain as their children may suffer repercussions if they do so. I know because I did complain—and my children suffered. There are not many parents who are either in the same position as or who are as brave and determined as Mrs. Bell of Ealing who ran the whole gamut of the complaints procedures at great personal cost. And why should parents have to pay such a high price for the law to be fulfilled? Surely, there should be some onus on LEAs to fulfil the requirements of the law, and on the Government to ensure that they do so.
§ In conclusion, I know that there are many people of different faiths and convictions up and down the country who are deeply worried about these issues. Many were heartened by the commitment of my right honourable friend the new Secretary of State for Education to the need to ensure that education must be based on spiritual and moral values. A sound understanding of our spiritual heritage is a prerequisite for such an education. Unless we give our young people this, we are betraying our most fundamental responsibility to them. I fear that we have already betrayed many of them. However, I also believe that much has been accomplished since the passage of the 1988 Act towards remedying this deplorable situation. There is, however, still much to be done and many anxieties remain. It is in the light of those anxieties and the lack of readily available information that I put this Question to the Government and eagerly await the reply of my noble friend Lady Blatch.
§ 7.42 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Ripon
My Lords, I should first like to express my gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for tabling this Unstarred Question on this highly important matter. I congratulate her also on introducing it in such a sensitive and clear fashion. I should also like to offer an apology on behalf of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford, who is the chairman of the General Synod Board of Education and successor in that post to the former Bishop of London, Dr. Graham Leonard. The right reverend Prelate has to be present at a residential meeting of the House of Bishops this week. Although he cannot take responsibility for my words, I have consulted him and his advisers in preparation for this debate.
The Education Reform Act 1988 required the teaching of religious education in all schools as part of the basic curriculum although not as part of the national curriculum. The curriculum content is determined locally. Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education—SACREs—became mandatory in each authority, having the responsibility for advising the authorities on matters relating to religious education. A substantial number of the places on the SACREs were given to the Church of 254 England, which is one of the four groups represented on them. The Church of England therefore has a responsibility for the performance of the SACREs. The provisions of the Act laid obligations on local authorities and schools, as well as providing opportunities. As I understand it, the purpose of this Question is to discover the extent to which those obligations are being met.
I should like to make three general points first before coming to my more specific points. My first general point is that there is no division of understanding on this matter between Christians and those of other faiths. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for making that point so clearly. There is much evidence that those of other faiths wish for educational institutions that are aware of the religious dimension to life and which are prepared to provide religious teaching. Members of other faiths sometimes deliberately choose such schools because they seek those features.
There is no intention in the Education Reform Act to promote division between those of different faiths. Indeed, the debates in your Lordships' House have made particular reference to the tolerance, understanding and respect that is due from members of one faith to members of another. The responsibilities of the churches, perhaps of the Church of England especially because it is the national church, include not only ensuring that RE is a subject on the timetable which is given adequate time and resources and proper treatment, but also expressing a concern for the integrity of the faith of those who are not Christians and for the teaching of their traditions with accuracy and sensitivity.
Secondly, educational method in my view—and I speak with some experience of teaching at university level—requires that religious studies as a subject pays attention to the coherence of each faith. Again, the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, has also made this point. She referred to a member of what I call broadly the "Birmingham group". I should like to refer to another member of that group, Professor John Hick, who is an influential name in this field. His thesis that all religions circle around the one reality of God seems to some of us inadequate to an understanding of the religions of the world, not least because it is now generally agreed that there is no common core to all religious teaching and practice. Each religious tradition stands on its own as a way of interpreting human life and human behaviour in the light of a reality that is beyond the observable world.
However, the language, concepts and teachings of the religious traditions differ profoundly. This is clearly an academic discussion but it has repercussions upon our debate tonight. I am glad that that understanding was the one that prevailed in your Lordships' discussions on the legislation. It is clear once again that for a variety of religious traditions there is a need to stand together in this understanding. I accept that it is easier to teach abstract and conceptual thought at the university or secondary level than at the primary level. I have no experience of primary teaching, but it seems to me that we must now accept that as a general principle.
255 Thirdly, religious education is not to be confused with religious instruction and nurture. The task of the school is not the same as the task of church, synagogue, mosque, temple or gurudwara. In my view, the school's task is to make youngsters aware of the religious dimension to life and to give them a knowledge of the basic teachings of their own traditions and of a limited number of others. Perhaps I may suggest that two traditions are as much as most youngsters can cope with. I look with some dismay at the Bradford syllabus which seems to require the teaching of six traditions, all to be given equal time. I cannot believe that youngsters can absorb that amount.
I believe that schools have the task of presenting religion as a living option. I remember going to my professor when I was teaching at Manchester University and saying that I intended returning to parochial work in the Church of England. He was astonished that anyone could take seriously religious commitment as formative of belief and behaviour today. It is the task of particular religious traditions to nurture people, young and old, in faith. It is the task of schools to present religion as a way of life in today's world, consonant with the other subjects and activities that are part of a school's existence. The tasks of schools and religious institutions should not be confused.
The Education Reform Act has given opportunities to schools, local authorities, churches and other religious bodies. I know that in some cases those opportunities have been taken, but in other cases they have not. In my own diocese three appointments in religious education have been made at diocesan level as a response to the Act. That has happened at a time of recession when posts are under great scrutiny. The first task of those who hold the appointments is to assist church-aided schools, but they are also available as a resource for governors and staff at county schools. They provide a small, experienced group for membership of SACREs. Again, in my own diocese, the authority in Leeds has produced a new syllabus. For that purpose it seconded an experienced woman teacher who happened also to be the chairman of my readers hoard. Some regions have had similar experiences, but the experience of yet other regions is quite different.
The question that remains is: how far are the syllabuses in accord with the spirit of the Act? As we are discovering, some syllabuses are apparently not in accord with it. Another question is: how far are schools accepting the responsibilities that have been laid on them by the Act? The answer to that question is clearly mixed.
The 1992 report of the National Curriculum Council analysed the submissions from 93 of the SACREs. It makes one ask what was happening in the 27 SACREs that did not submit reports. Of the 93 which submitted a report 40 have produced or are producing new agreed syllabi. But the report indicates that some schools were not meeting the statutory requirement to provide RE for all pupils. That is particularly true in the primary schools and is borne out by anecdotal evidence. One of my clergy was 256 telling me yesterday that he is frequently at his local county primary school, asking the head what proportion of time and what amount of resources is allocated to RE. He does not receive satisfactory answers. Directors of education are recommending that 5 per cent. of teaching time should now be given to the subject. That contrasts with some 2.5 per cent. in 1988 in secondary schools and 3 per cent. in 1984.
I should like to draw attention to a number of specific concerns. The first is the shortage of RE teachers. Perhaps of particular concern in this area is the large number of teachers—nearly 7,000—who have post A-level RE qualifications but who are no longer teaching the subject. Those of us who are in and out of schools know of the shortage of teachers in this field. Why are so many teachers who are qualified no longer teaching the subject? Have they been moved to the teaching of other subjects? It will be difficult to recover their experience for RE teaching, and yet it is equally difficult to encourage fresh teachers to enter this field.
The department suggests that there is no shortage of such teachers. It does so on the grounds that advertised posts are being filled. But the question remains: what about those schools which are not advertising posts and which are not teaching the subject properly? Does not shortage of teachers remain one of the great obstacles to the fulfilment of the aims of the Act?
I believe that the changes in the funding of schools and the redeployment of advisory teams bode ill for the future of RE. The support for teachers at all levels will tend to disappear and it will be left to individual schools to seek help where they can. There is a fragmentation of support at a time when coherence is needed. That is especially so for RE as in many schools it is regarded as a subject of less importance than other subjects. The Church has a major input here through the work of the education advisers, but clearly they cannot take the place of local authority advisers and undertake the work which was formerly undertaken by local authority employees.
I believe that the weakening of local education authorities will not help the work of SACREs because SACREs are advisory to these bodies and rely on them for funding. It is through the LEA that in practice SACREs have the ability to reach all schools systematically. They do not approach schools individually but through the LEA. The fragmentation of the schools inspectorate will make it more difficult to have an in-depth understanding of the state of RE, although it is true that, because of the existence of SACREs, RE may be less badly affected than some other subjects. It might be appropriate to require schools which are not satisfactorily assessed on RE at their three-yearly inspections to submit a timetabled plan for improvement.
Finally, among these specific matters, I believe I am right in saying that the National Curriculum Council now has a professional officer dealing with RE. We may hope that it will offer more direct guidelines on RE and especially on the part that RE can play in integrated courses. The National Curriculum Council could helpfully add to its existing publications a 257 document which lays out clearly the significance of RE in the basic curriculum and the importance of the spiritual, moral and cultural attitudes within the schools as a whole. I have already referred to the importance of that.
The uneven response to the requirements of the Act for the teaching of RE is a cause for concern. I believe there to have been an improvement since the Act became law, but clearly there is room for further improvement. Any information that the Government have on this matter will clearly be a stimulus to further work, and I hope that the noble Baroness the Minister will be able to give us some sense of satisfaction for work achieved but also encouragement for work still to be done.
§ 7.55 p.m.
The Earl of Halsbury
My Lords, in common with all those who have spoken or who are going to speak I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for giving us the opportunity to assess the consequences of the legislation we passed four years ago with such high hopes. I have nostalgic memories of that passage of arms. I note that one of my speeches was timed at seven minutes past six o'clock in the morning, a rare occasion of an all night sitting. I remember beginning,comes the dawn … and with it the dawn chorus [of amendments]".—[Official Report, 28/6/88; col. 1533.]We had high hopes. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, said:What has been achieved is historic. There is now explicit recognition on the face of the Bill of the expectations that religious education and worship should, in the main, be Christian".—[Official Report, 7/7/88; col. 434.]The noble Lord, Lord Elton, said that:an effort which started as a Christian denominational effort has finished up as an inter-faith effort to secure the individuality and respect of all religions".—[Official Report, 7/7/88; col. 436.]The noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk, said that the Bill would be the best thing this government had done and one of the best things any government had ever done in this century. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London called it a truly historic new Bill.
There was a note of warning from the noble Lord, Lord Glenamara. Describing his past experiences as Secretary of State, he said:I was shocked—indeed, horrified—to discover that the majority of teachers were opposed to the teaching of religion in schools. I found whole schools where not a single teacher was prepared to teach religion".—[Official Report, 7/7/88; col. 439.]He then said—I paraphrase slightly—that we cannot work out a formula that will have any effect on the life of our children unless we have teachers who are willing, able and prepared to teach this subject.
Where can we find them other than through the Church—the Church militant; militant to perpetuate the faith and morals that the Christian religion has established in past ages and so secure their transmission to the future. This matter is, from the administrative point of view, in the hands of local government, with central government interfering only minimally.
Local government is a device for exercising delegated authority on local matters where local 258 knowledge is critical. The alternative would be some kind of command structure where orders came from the top in total ignorance of what was going on at the bottom. In so far as local government discharges its remit well, it is to be praised. However, in the national party political sense, it is largely bogus. What power in any kind of national controversy has local government over national matters such as foreign policy? One cannot have a local government foreign policy. One cannot have local government running defence, the management of the economy, and so on. It has absolutely no power over any of these matters which are so frequently debated on party political lines. But its political and ideological ambience is a wonderful substrate in which maggots can burrow holes to increase their sense of self importance—outdated petty Fabian secularists, and the like. Religious education is one of its prime targets. I shall not pursue the subject in detail, because I am sure that other speakers know much more about it than I do. If noble Lords need convincing, they need only listen to other speakers. The point I wish to emphasise is the need for the established Churches—I say that in the plural meaning Anglican, Roman Catholic, Non-Conformist, Baptists, and so on—to undo the work of the maggots, to conceive a plan for doing so and then summon the will to go in and fight the good fight.
People's religion is, for the most part, learnt at their mother's or grandmother's knee. They very rarely change their basic faith. If parents are secularists, or indifferent to any religion whatever, their children are unlikely to acquire any deep feelings on the subject. But it is deep feeling that we need for the sake of ourselves, our children and society. We must live in the decent sort of ambience which only religion can provide. That is why I turn to my own faith, personified tonight by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon, to take command and to organise the battle in which I and others like myself can serve as foot soldiers. Debates in Parliament will never be transferred into action without external leadership, and only the Church can provide that in this case.
§ 8.1 p.m.
§ Lord Orr-Ewing
My Lords, I should like to add my congratulations to those already expressed to my noble friend Lady Cox on the way in which she introduced the debate. With the immense amount of work that she has undertaken in the Far East and south of the Soviet empire, it is amazing that she finds time to come back to talk to us. I should also like to congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon on the very constructive way that he dealt with the subject. He made suggestions to which I hope my noble friend will respond seriously.
I should like to concentrate on the need to speed up the implementation of religious teaching in our schools. When I first came into Parliament I recall that Rab Butler was still very proud of the coalition government Education Act of 1944 which he led through and which provided for the teaching of education in our schools. He always described it as his finest hour. Indeed, I remember him speaking in this House right at the end of his life and saying that it was 259 the most memorable thing that he had done. Quite rightly, that Act was refreshed, brought forward and modernised in the Education Reform Act of 1988.
It is appropriate that four years later we should begin to see what is happening as a result of what we did at that time. Sadly, the Government's faith in LEAs (of which there are 117) does not seem to me and to many others to have been fulfilled as they had hoped. Our grandchildren (of which we have 13) are bright, active—sometimes too active—healthy, intelligent and often very lovable but their religious education seems to me to be fragmented, sometimes muddled and all too often neglected. I read a recent survey which I found to be alarming. It showed that over half the people in the 18 to 24 age bracket had no idea why we celebrate Good Friday. Moreover, it also revealed that nearly two-thirds in the same age group had no idea who Pontius Pilate was.
Four years is a long time. I believe that we should from time to time, and from now on, refresh our knowledge of what is happening. I gain my information from the director of the Christian Institute, Colin Hart. He succeeded, with valiant dedication to the subject, in finding only 15 LEAs out of the 117 that have actually brought forward a new syllabus which incorporates religious teaching. Why are some of them so abjectly slow in bringing it forward? I am afraid that I have to say that the majority of LEAs give the highest priority to politics. That is certainly so when elections are coming about. Some of their political affiliations are very Left of centre. There are many others which give absolutely negative priority to religious teaching. That is no way to attract the best teachers to a subject.
An extreme example was the work of ILEA during its existence, of which the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone—if I may have her attention for a moment —was the deputy education officer. Therefore she was very much involved in what it was doing. Many people are still abiding by the syllabuses which were worked out under that very Left-wing organisation. For example, there are 12 inner-London boroughs. Of those, only Wandsworth, Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea have brought forward a revised syllabus which includes the recommendations in the 1988 Act. All the rest are still clinging to a now very old system devised by the very Left of centre. In fact, from the information that I have read, the National Union of Teachers was so far to the Left that even the communists did not have the chance of being elected. It was the Trotskyists and people even further to the Left who were dominating all the offices in that body.
§ Baroness Blackstone
My Lords, as a former officer of the ILEA I object to that suggestion; I am not a Trotskyist and I am not a communist. It is patent nonsense to suggest that the officers of the Inner London Education Authority had any of those political persuasions.
§ Lord Orr-Ewing
My Lords, if the noble Baroness reads in Hansard what I said, she will see that not for a moment did I suggest that she was. The information came out at the time when the National Union of 260 Teachers was led by the far Left. I hope that it has put matters right since. It is a very powerful body. Clearly ILEA was much in sympathy with a great deal of that. The noble Baroness happened to be the appointed education officer of ILEA. I found the information in Dod; I am not inventing it. I can give her pamphlets and other information which she may care to read. However, I am sorry that I cannot accept her correction. I am sure that she had some responsibility in the area.
As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon said, LEAs are responsible for many of the appointments. The SACREs have to report through the LEAs. They make the appointment of religious advisers. Some of those religious advisers are good. Indeed, I know of one in the Birmingham area who is quite exceptional. He has been backed up by the LEA in the area. It has supplied him with resources worth £50,000 to help him carry out the obligations under the Act. That is a good sign. However, some of the religious advisers do not suffer from an excess of enthusiasm for the teaching of Christianity. I rather wish they did, because that is their task.
Lack of qualified teachers is one of the excuses that has been given. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon made that point. But what has happened to the nearly 7,000 fully qualified teachers? The answer is that there is no enthusiasm and not much chance of promotion up the religious ladder. Therefore, they have moved on to other areas. I am afraid that that again reflects the lack of enthusiasm for the teaching of religion. However, I still think—and I am sure my noble friend will agree—that there are many people, especially among parents, who are very well qualified to teach young children. I hope that the Church, local authorities and head teachers will make use of them and not feel that this is in competition. The aim is to carry out what is the law now. Assistance can come from all sorts of people and particularly of course from local vicars.
I have been talking to a friend who works in Kensington and Chelsea as a councillor and also as a school governor. He says that it was a sad occasion a year or two ago when he visited one of the primary schools during instruction on prayer to find that little children were being told to put their hands together and think of nice things. That was all the instruction they were given. I am glad to say that since that time a padre has come in from the local church and the children are now indoctrinated in the beliefs of Christ and the singing of "Onward Christian Soldiers", which I am sure they will sing with vigour and enthusiasm. So this can be put right. I believe that too many excuses are made and perhaps accepted for not putting it right.
On 13th February I raised the matter with the department and many others joined in. The department's response was, "This is the job of parents". I cannot believe that that advice could come from any parent who has tried to send a child to a local school. To blow the whistle when one's children are doing exams which are being marked—and so much now is determined by the opinion of the school and not by independent examiners—raises the danger 261 of repercussions against the children, who may also have younger brothers and sisters following on in the same school. Why should parents risk the future of their children? It is not the task of parents, gutsy as they may be. My noble friend mentioned the school parent governor, Mrs. Bell. In that case she stuck to her guns, and goodness knows what it cost her in time and money to go on. But it still took two years for the local education authority to take any notice of what she was saying; and within that two years the DES actually delayed matters by a further year. Gutsy she was; but we cannot always rely on gutsy parent governors of that sort.
We must ask the Minister—who has reserve powers, and has always had reserve powers—to use those reserve powers when clearly procrastination is becoming almost a profession in too many areas. The department should ask the new inspectorate to provide regular progress reports on what is happening in the production of new syllabuses. It is unsatisfactory that after four years only 15 LEAs out of 117 have brought forward a new syllabus, although we were told by the right reverend Prelate that a further 40 were being considered. I am glad that they are being considered, but I hope that that action can be speeded up.
There must be an education Bill coming along. There always is. So I ask my noble friend seriously to consider writing into the Bill that there should be positive progress in the introduction of new curricula to match the national curriculum and that progress reports should be provided to Parliament so that we know that some progress is being made. I say most earnestly that we are failing to do what Parliament intended should be done. People are purposefully breaking the law. We must ask for progress reports, and I think we should build into some future Act a timetable which would show what progress ought to be made. Then we can try to get the moral and spiritual teaching back into our schools which we all so earnestly want.
§ 8.13 p.m.
§ Viscount Brentford
My Lords, I too should like to say how grateful I am to my noble friend Lady Cox for introducing this debate. I should certainly like to echo what my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing has just said to the effect that regular reports should be submitted to my noble friend the Minister from the inspectors about how the provisions of the 1988 Act are being implemented.
I firmly believe that religious education should be determined and a syllabus prepared at LEA level. The LEA can then take account of local situations. On the other hand, this gives the LEA a great responsibility. I particularly want to talk about its responsibility in fulfilling Section 8(3) of the Education Reform Act 1988. Under that provision the RE syllabus should,reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain".A MORI poll in 1991 stated that 84.5 per cent. of the nation had a form of allegiance to the Christian 262 faith. That is a very high proportion. I believe that all polls and surveys over the past five years have shown that between 80 per cent. and 90 per cent. of the population would lay claim to some form of Christian faith. I am not saying—unfortunately, for the right reverend Prelate—that that proportion of the nation goes to the Church of England or even all the other Christian churches put together, but they would claim to be Christian in a sense. We need to compare the figure of 84.5 per cent. with the representatives of other faiths. The MORI poll found that the aggregate of Moslem, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist was less than 3 per cent. That is the discrepancy about which we are talking.
For the sake of argument, if I was living in, say, Saudi Arabia, a Moslem country, and my children were being educated in that country, I would expect them to be taught the facts of the Moslem faith at school. I would think it a very good thing for them to learn that. The right reverend Prelate brought out the fact that the teaching of the Christian faith by representatives of the other faiths is welcome, and I would welcome the converse in the other situation. I would not welcome it if the Moslems were proselytizing my Christian children. Again, the right reverend Prelate brought out the fact that religious education in no sense does that and never should. It is teaching the facts about the Christian faith.
Section 8(3) of the Act states that the religious education should,reflect the fact that the religious traditions are in the main Christian".It does not say simply that the syllabus should provide teaching that is in the main Christian. That is an important difference. If it was the latter, then it would simply mean that the teaching should be, say, over 50 per cent. Christian. Law cases have held that the words "mainly", "in the main" or whatever mean more than 50 per cent. But that is not what the Act states. The Act states that it should "reflect" the fact that in the main the tradition in England is Christian. As I see it, that means that the amount of teaching should reflect the proportion of the population, so that, say, 80 per cent. to 90 per cent. of the teaching should be Christian. That is the view of the Department of Education and Science in its guidance letter of 1991 which has already been referred to. It states:The fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian would in most cases be properly reflected by devoting most attention to Christianity".The Cornwall syllabus states:Christianity is the religion to be studied in the greater detail … Christianity will occupy the largest amount of time".It is equally important that the remaining 10 per cent. or 20 per cent. of the time spent on religious education should cover other religions. Again, I should like to endorse what has already been said by some noble Lords who quoted the advice of the Church of England General Synod Board of Education. It stated:Experience has shown that two, or at the very most three, religious systems can be studied at any worthwhile depth within the constraints of the normal time provision for RE, even at its most generous".263 I believe that that is good advice. To try to study six separate religions would be self-defeating.
The local LEA seems to be admirably placed to decide which other religions are most appropriate in the local situation in the light of who are the residents. Some LEAs would no doubt emphasise the Moslem faith, others much more the Jewish faith, and so on, as may he most appropriate. I hope that the LEAs are doing that effectively.
It is up to the general public to ensure that the syllabus is within the law. Several of your Lordships commented upon the difficulties that parents face. The Ealing case was quoted. It took two years for the chain of events to be completed and for the Department of Education properly to answer the complaint. It is up to the parents to go through the complaints procedure: to the school, the LEA and finally the DoE. I suggest for the consideration of the right reverend Prelate that Church education advisers could help, bearing in mind the large role in education played by the Church of England.
Those people who are interested in ensuring that the law is being properly fulfilled by the LEA could play a role. That does not detract in any way from what I said at the outset —that I hope that my noble friend the Minister will obtain regular reports from HMI on how Section 8(3) is being fulfilled.
I should like to apologise to my noble friend Lady Cox for missing her opening remarks. It was due to the speed at which the earlier debates went through. I look forward to hearing what my noble friend the Minister has to say about the extent to which she is satisfied that the LEA syllabuses and practice devote most of their attention to Christianity.
§ 8.22 p.m.
My Lords, I join with noble Lords and the right reverend Prelate in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. Not for the first time, she has put the House in her debt. Her service to our country is notable, and her service to the House, as I have found during the nine years that I have been here, is exceptional. I consider it a great privilege to join in the debate.
The noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, said that four years is a long time. There are two periods in one's life when four years is exceptionally long. It is long when one reaches my age, when one looks forward with trepidation; and when one is very young, four years is very long. But four years has elapsed in the life of a generation, and it is right and proper that the High Court of Parliament should pause and, in the calm and quiet of your Lordships' House ask itself, "Have our wishes, as expressed four years ago in both Houses, been fulfilled"?
A welcome interest in education literature has been shown by publishers so that head teachers today (four years on) have a far greater variety of literature to help them with scripture lessons. In many parts of the country religious education teachers have assumed a higher profile during the past four years. Even local standing advisory councils on religious education have given evidence that in some parts of the country religious education is taking on a new life.
264 Those advisory bodies are of great significance. They are not unimportant. They advise the LEA on school worship and on the implementation of the agreed religious education syllabus. A weakness that has become apparent is that those advisory councils depend upon the LEA for their appointment and funding. The Church of England and teachers are represented, but it is possible for the local authority to have a majority of members and end up advising itself. That majority can smother the voices of the independent members.
There is much to be said for the DoE reconsidering giving greater independence to the standing advisory councils to ensure that the local authorities cannot smother them by having an overwhelming majority of members on them. The decision becomes a political not a religious one. I understand that religious education advisers often have their eyes on the attitude of their employers (the local authority) rather than Section 8(3) of the Education Reform Act, a point already referred to by noble Lords. HMIs need to be more active to ensure that religious education syllabuses conform to the wishes of Parliament as expressed in the 1988 Act.
Religious education is not less important than the teaching of maths, geography, French or any other subject. To people who support the idea that our children have the right to know about their heritage, religious education is of the utmost significance. I was greatly encouraged by the speech made by the Prime Minister yesterday when he said that where local authorities fail in their duties the Government will intervene. He was talking about the inner cities. The Opposition asked where the money was to come from. The Government also have a responsibility to ensure that local authorities fulfil their duties with regard to the teaching of religious education in our schools.
In 1991, as has been said, the Chief Inspector of Schools expressed his anxiety about the inadequacy of religious education in our primary schools. As several noble Lords have said, he referred to the fact that only one secondary school in three had religious education in the timetable. Are there any statistics indicating that there has been a change in those figures since the passing of the Act? Will the Minister also tell us what action her department has taken in connection with teacher training colleges since the passing of the Act? Has a circular been issued to teacher training colleges reminding them of the need to pay special attention to preparing teachers to teach religious education adequately?
If the department has not sent out a circular, will it consider doing so? Teacher training establishments are of the first importance in this regard. Secularists who do not want religious instruction given have not been slow in using the multi-faith argument to undermine all religious faiths. But Christian education is a solemn obligation. I respect the diligence with which both the Moslems and the Jewish people recognise the importance of training their young in the tenets of their faith. If we go to a Moslem country, we do not find the people apologising for putting their own faith forward in the schools.
265 We are a Christian land; it is our heritage. I believe that we have a responsibility to see that tomorrow's world in these islands enjoys the same heritage that we ourselves received. We owe it to our children and I believe that we owe it to our Lord.
I hope that your Lordships will forgive me saying a personal word. It was because of my Christian faith that I joined the Labour Party. I grew up a Christian Socialist and I have never made any bones about it to anyone. It has helped to shape the community where I grew up and I hope and pray that the Labour Benches will encourage the teaching of religion, of the Christian faith, of Christian knowledge in our schools. It is an essential part which has shaped the movement and the view of those on the Labour Benches. Morgan Phillips was right when he said that the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than to Marxism. That is why I could not bear it when I saw solid blocks of teachers who were unsympathetic—to put it kindly —to the teaching of any faith. I was a teacher; it is part of my life. I taught for nearly 14 years before I came to Parliament—to the other place. I know that I am in debt to my Christian teachers. I was a scripture teacher and I have tried to pass that teaching on to the generation that I was allowed to influence.
I have one further question for the Minister. Will the Department of Education and Science ensure that the same public access is given to meetings of standing advisory councils on religious education as is given to committees of local authorities? Many of these advisory councils work in complete secrecy. Their members are sworn to secrecy. Her Majesty's Government are the ultimate guardians of our Christian heritage. My noble friend Lord Halsbury indicated to me during the debate that he thought it was a good idea that when parents wished to object, they should speak to their priests who would speak to the bishop who would speak to the Minister. I advise them also to speak to their MP and councillor and to make sure that when elections take place people are elected who are sympathetic to the rights of parents who wish their children to have Christian instruction.
I am sorry that my voice does not improve, although I go on hoping. I conclude by saying that I thank the noble Baroness for introducing the subject to which I hope we shall return time and again. I know the Secretary of State for Education and Science, John Patten, and I believe that he will keep a careful eye on the subject. I am satisfied that religious education has a friend in high places and I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, will ensure that her colleague, the Minister, will receive the message that we trust that he will ensure that the inspectors of schools who report to him will treat the matter with urgency.
§ 8.35 p.m.
§ Baroness Strange
My Lords, I, too, should like to thank my noble friend Lady Cox for raising this important, indeed vital, subject. I use the word "vital" advisedly because the whole future spiritual dimensions of our children's lives are being considered. What is taught now to our children is what they will carry forward throughout their lives. Ultimately it will 266 carry on to their children. We are discussing the spiritual future of our nation. It is not something to be thrown away wantonly, ill-advisedly or without due consideration of all that it has meant for Great Britain.
My noble friend Lord Brentford is more up to date than I am with his 1991 MORI poll. However, according to a MORI poll held in February/March 1989, 80 per cent. to 90 per cent. of the population regard themselves as Christians, even if they are not regular church attenders. Four per cent. are atheists and fewer than 3 per cent. are of non-Christian faiths. Even allowing for our current disbelief in poll findings, they are never more than about 10 per cent. out in their swing. While that could diminish the figure for atheists and non-Christian faiths to an even smaller percentage, it could never raise them to anything other than a small overall minority. We remain, as we have been since the days of Saint Augustine, angels, or at least a Christian country.
This Christian tradition and majority must therefore be represented by a lion's share of any religious education taught in our schools. There are mice and rats gnawing away at the poor lion's share; some of them and their machinations have been exposed by my noble friend Lady Cox. There is the Ealing syllabus, bravely and successfully challenged by the gallant Mrs. Denise Bell, an elected parent-governor. In it there was no requirement to teach any specific aspects of Christianity. The Oldham, Bolton and Newham syllabi, published subsequently, ran it close. There is the Newcastle syllabus, written by the council's religious education adviser, in which parents discovered to their horror that only one-twelfth of the religious education made any specific reference to the Christian faith. As a result, 1,300 residents petitioned the Lord Mayor for changes to be made.
There is the Gateshead syllabus, encouraging pupils to design their own religion and to rewrite the Ten Commandments. Later it had to be rewritten and modified several times. Having passed the. Education Reform Act 1988, with its provisions for religious education in schools, we must see that the Act is not abused.
Yesterday I took a party of Indian ladies round our House. We toured the Peers' Lobby, the Chamber, the Prince's Chamber and went into the Royal Gallery and the Robing Room. There they were much impressed with the large paintings representing the virtues of the knights of King Arthur's Round Table: generosity, hospitality and mercy, never to be against ladies (that is one I like almost the best), courtesy and, dominating them all, religion, with Sir Galahad and his company beholding a vision of the Holy Grail. Let us all keep that vision in our hearts and try to pass it on to those who will be the future, and one day the past, of our country.
§ 8.40 p.m.
§ Baroness Brigstocke
My Lords, last week your Lordships were determined to protect the position of the arts in our schools. Your Lordships also raised questions about aspects of the national curriculum 267 orders for science which touch on teaching about the HIV/AIDS virus to children aged 11 to 14. In both those important debates your Lordships were concerned with spiritual and moral values. It is therefore not only logical but also of the greatest importance that the subject of religious education should be raised today.
Like everyone else who is speaking in this debate today, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lady Cox for initiating the debate this evening, for it strikes at the very heart of education in our schools. When one reads the 1988 Education Reform Act it all seems so cut and dried and so clear. Religious education is required in the basic curriculum and every pupil shall attend an act of collective worship every day.
There are naturally exceptions. I have never known a school rule to which there is not an exception. However, those exceptions and special requirements are clearly listed and supplementary and consequential provisions are set out. If only it were in practice as simple as it seems on the printed page. Religious education lessons are likely to be scheduled once or at most twice a week. I have just been working out—I only hope my mathematics is up to it—that 5 per cent. of 35 teaching periods per week equals 1.75 lessons per week.
It is written into the Education Reform Act that the provision shall be broadly Christian in character. However, in such a limited time allowance one can only hope to teach factual Bible stories, both Old and New Testament, and present the historical background of the Judaeo-Christian tradition and heritage of this country. That is at least something. I remember well a father of one of my pupils at St. Paul's once said to me very firmly that as a committed atheist he insisted that I teach and read the Bible—in the Authorised Version, of course—to his daughter.
But even in the case of factual lessons one needs an able, well-trained, committed teacher who can catch the interest of the class if the pupils are to learn what is being taught. The question of daily collective worship is much more difficult. The purpose of the assembly, whether in a large or a small group, is surely to provide a forum for listening to the opinions of others in the hope that the children and teenagers in that assembly will start thinking for themselves about questions of right and wrong, the question of whether there is a God and even why it is wrong to steal or to tell lies. From that there could eventually grow a desire to know more about faith and religion.
The best school assemblies are a corporate experience, a shared activity, or even passivity involving the pupils just sitting quietly. I know how much even singing a hymn can help to create a positive atmosphere. That is a lesson the Salvation Army taught us long ago. Sometimes, something that is said or something that is read will spark a flicker of interest which just could lead to a basic form of ethical inquiry and then to that religious dimension of which the right reverend Prelate spoke so eloquently.
However, it seems to me that it is simply not possible for government to legislate or prescribe for effective religious education or collective worship. I do not believe that it is for schools to proselytize. I believe 268 that is the role of families and churches. However, schools can inform and can make children aware of that religious dimension. It is the quality and commitment of the teachers—how I wish more of them were like the noble Viscount, Lord Tonypandy—and of the people around them at school that will bring the children and the teenagers to an understanding of that religious dimension, whether it is Christian, Jewish or Moslem.
It is not what teachers say that counts; it is how they behave to each other and to their pupils. In my view, truly valuable and effective religious education is implicit rather than explicit. In fact, it need not be limited to RE lessons and assemblies at all. I quote one short sentence from a book entitled The Vision of Glory, by John Stewart Collis, in which he states:Physics is not supposed to be a religious or a poetic study. I cannot share this view, and I confess that ever since I looked into the subject hardly a day has passed that I have not increasingly marvelled at the masonry of creation and the mystery of design".I conclude by making three suggestions. The Education Reform Act places a duty on every local education authority to constitute a standing advisory council on education. Could this be given extra support from Her Majesty's Government and from our Christian Churches working with representatives from other religions and faiths? Faith is the operative word. Let us encourage faith, but I have to say it is not necessarily going to be in a Christian God.
Recently I heard of an interesting experiment—a theologian in residence. Every year the former Dean of Liverpool cathedral, Edward Patey, spends a week at St. Swithun's School, Winchester—whose headmistress, I believe was brought up as a Methodist. Of course, careful preparation is made in advance. He attends various lessons taken by teachers who volunteer to have him in their class. From that stems some fascinating discussions about nuclear fusion, the big bang in physics, genetic engineering, embryo research in biology, environmental issues in chemistry, capital markets in economics, as well as the more obvious subjects in English, history and geography. Clearly, those discussions are given a real Christian dimension. I suggest that Christian Churches and religious communities might offer a theologian-in residence programme to schools in their local areas. It would be interesting and it could be productive.
I come now to my third and final suggestion. The delivery of religious education rests ultimately and inevitably with the head teacher. Could we please have more INSET (in-service training for teachers) courses and seminars and support services for those key people so that they may ensure in their schools not only the basic bones of the national curriculum but also the religious dimension which we surely all want for our children?
§ 8.52 p.m.
§ Baroness Blackstone
My Lords, as several speakers have already said, the Education Reform Act 1988 made it clear that any new agreed syllabus of religious education should reflect the fact that religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian while taking account of the teaching and practices of 269 the other principal religions represented in this country. It also restates that religious education should be part of the basic curriculum, reinforcing the 1944 Act in that respect.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, indicated anxiety that the law is not being adhered to. Other speakers have also questioned whether the Act is being implemented fast enough. Clearly it is important that educational legislation should not be ignored. Moreover, high quality teaching is as important in the area of religious education as in any other subject on the curriculum.
However, what is certainly not clear to me is just what evidence there is as to whether or not the provisions are being fulfilled. Earlier this year the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, asked a question about Section 8(3) of the Education Reform Act and what progress had been made in implementing it. At that time the noble Baroness, Lady Denton, stated that only two formal complaints had been made. It would be interesting and helpful to know from the Minister whether there have been any further formal complaints since then. If not, I do not believe that it would be unduly complacent to interpret that to mean that on the whole the Act is being applied, as the right reverend Prelate indicated, and that the system is working at least adequately. It is certainly an area in which there would be many complaints if that were not the case.
Moreover, the National Curriculum Council has a responsibility for overseeing the development of religious education. In a recent report published in April this year its chairman stated:I have been impressed by the extent of curriculum development in RE since 1988 and recognise the hard work that LEAs, officers, teachers and the Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (SACRE) members have contributed to this".Most LEAs have been anxious to implement the Act. There is certainly no reluctance on their part to do so, despite what the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, implied earlier, although I have to say that in some cases they have been hampered by resource problems, which I shall return to later.
Yet at the same time Her Majesty's Inspectorate has indicated some anxiety about the teaching of religious education in Her Majesty's Chief Inspector's report on the year 1990–91. He suggested that in primary schools religious education was being taught superficially in many schools, and that in some others it was not taught explicitly. He suggested that at the secondary stage the entitlement of some pupils to religious education was not being met and that that was particularly true in Key Stage 4 where it was often included as part of a combined course with elements of personal and social education rather than timetabled under its own name. It would be helpful if the Minister could say whether or not the Government have responded to that report. It would also he helpful to know how any formal complaints about the agreed syllabus have been dealt with.
Although the National Curriculum Council has produced a framework for the teaching of RE, which was published in 1991, Her Majesty's Inspectorate has 270 not published a booklet on RE in the curriculum matters series. It is rumoured that a draft was prepared soon after the introduction of the 1988 Act but that has not appeared. Undoubtedly, a document of that kind would be helpful and I wonder whether the Minister can say why it was not published and whether it could now be made available.
There is, it seems, a rather mixed picture in relation to the evidence. What does seem to be clear, however, is that there is a shortage of qualified teachers for RE as well as insufficient advisers in the local education authorities. The standing advisory councils on religious education themselves have apparently been somewhat short of funds. Few have received a budget to help them plan ahead. That is a reflection of the problems many local authorities now face in providing sufficient funds for many of the activities for which they are responsible.
It is not just the LEAs and the schools which are complaining about teacher shortages. The Church of England has pointed out that while there are more than enough qualified teachers in Church of England schools, many county schools are unable to fill their vacancies for religious education teachers. I was interested to hear what the right reverend Prelate said earlier on the matter. The Church has also complained about the lack of funding for in-service training and education—a point which was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Brigstocke. Can the Minister say whether she accepts the Church's view that there is inadequate funding for in-service education and training? If so, could she consider an increase in funds in the GEST programme in order to support curriculum development in this area and to improve teachers' knowledge and skills?
In relation to the monitoring of religious education, the Minister herself told the House on a previous occasion that that is a task for the inspectorate. Several noble Lords endorsed that view this evening. It is not clear whether Her Majesty's Inspectorate will have a role in directly inspecting school religious education under the Education (Schools) Act 1992. But what is clear is that the privatisation of the local authority inspectorate services will not assist with the development of religious education because of the loss of the RE inspectorate and advisory staff as a resource for the whole local education authority.
Well planned religious education can play an important part in the moral and religious development of young people. It is also the case, as the chairman of the National Curriculum Council put it recently, that spiritual development,is not confined to children from religious backgrounds but is something fundamental to the human condition, with relationships, the universal search for individual identity, for a meaning in life, and values by which to live".As the right reverend Prelate has already said, it is also important that religious education should provide both knowledge and understanding of the other major faiths in Britain as well as giving a significant place to Christianity.
However, there are approximately 3 million people of other faiths and it is important that we encourage tolerance in all our young people. That tolerance should also be extended to people who are humanists 271 and who do not have any particular religious faith. I regret the rather unpleasant gibe about Fabian secularists made by the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury. I thought that it was a little unworthy of him, if I may say so. However, I thought that it was not as unworthy as the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, about the Inner London Education Authority. I have to remind him that while he may not have liked the agreed syllabus of the ILEA—and he is entitled to his views about that and I respect them —that syllabus was produced by the ILEA's Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education whose members included many representatives of the Church as well as teachers of religious education. The syllabus was not produced by officers of the ILEA nor by the National Union of Teachers. I therefore hope that he will reconsider the remarks that he made earlier.
Good religious education in schools should neither undermine pupils' faiths nor, as a number of speakers have said, proselytize. It should make it possible for those of no faith to reach a mature understanding of religious ideas. The National Curriculum Council has found that most agreed syllabuses define two broad areas of attainment in religious education: first, that pupils should understand the teaching and practices of Christianity and other world religions; and that they should be encouraged to develop their own beliefs and values.
I very much agree with the right reverend Prelate that religious education should not be confused with religious instruction and nurture. I thought that the noble Viscount, Lord Tonypandy, confused those aspects once or twice. It is the task of schools to provide religious education. It is the task of the Churches and other religious institutions to provide religious instruction.
I refer again to the attainment targets that have been indicated by the National Curriculum Council. They seem to me to be eminently sensible and feasible. As the noble Lord, Lord Ashbourne, said, it also seems sensible that the agreed syllabus should be able to reflect local differences. That is what the individual SACREs are able to do.
As a non-expert in the teaching of the subject, I do not presume to prescribe what the syllabus should cover or how it should be taught. Moreover, I believe that it would be dangerous for lay members of your Lordships' House to attempt to do so. It is a matter for the SACREs and for the specialist inspectorate then to monitor. The main cause for worry is not that the Act is being ignored or that the letter of the law is not being fulfilled but that the quality of religious education may not be as high as it should be, notably because of the lack of trained teachers in that subject and because of insufficient in-service training.
§ 9.5 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Department of Education (Baroness Blatch)
My Lords, the measures introduced by the Education Reform Act 1988 provide a clear indication of the importance that the Government attach to religious education in schools. I freely acknowledge the contribution of my noble friend Lady Cox, who, with myself, my noble friend Lord 272 Tonypandy and others who have spoken in the debate, burnt much midnight oil in fighting for the Education Act that we have on the statute book today. Other noble Lords were also part of that gathering of people who made it a better Act.
The Act describes religious education as part of the basic curriculum for all pupils. In the basic curriculum it stands alongside the subjects of the national curriculum and we have made it clear that religious education has equal status with those subjects. This reflects the importance that we attach to the role of schools in children's spiritual and moral development.
Unlike the subjects of the national curriculum, religious education is not subject to nationally prescribed attainment targets, programmes of study and assessment arrangements. Responsibility for the detailed structure, content and teaching of religious education remains, as it always has been, with local bodies. This recognises the fact that if religious education is to meet the needs of pupils effectively it must take into account the views and beliefs of the local community in both its content and delivery.
The Education Reform Act says nothing new about religious education in aided schools—that is, denominational schools—which is generally provided in accordance with a trust deed. In county schools, however, religious education is provided in accordance with a locally agreed syllabus.
Before 1988 there was very little in the law about the nature and content of such syllabuses, save the requirement that they should not be distinctive of any denomination. The Education Reform Act, however, makes an important stipulation about the content of new agreed syllabuses—that is, those adopted after September 1988. That stipulation is that such syllabuses must:reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian, whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain".It is worth noting that there is no requirement for local authorities to review their agreed syllabuses. I suspect that that is giving rise to some of the anxieties that have been voiced during the debate today.
I am aware that some noble Lords have reservations about the latitude which that form of words may allow local education authorities in determining the content of syllabuses. There will always be room for interpretation within the law. There may also be room for interpretation within an agreed syllabus. Teachers, head teachers and school governors have a central role in ensuring that the religious education which is provided is appropriate to the requirements to fulfil the moral and spiritual dimension of a child's education.
Christianity should lie at the heart of religious education. As was pointed out by the noble Viscount, Lord Tonypandy, it is central to our cultural heritage. It is vital that children growing up in this country develop a knowledge of the Christian heritage which has had and continues to have such an impact on our society and values.
That is not to undermine the importance of children developing an understanding of other faiths and the beliefs of others in the community. That is 273 why the law requires that, in addition to learning about Christianity, the curriculum should also take account of the needs and aspirations of the many people within this country who hold different religious beliefs. Without that requirement parents from other faiths would have little option but to withdraw their children from religious education entirely. That could only weaken the school community and would not help to promote tolerance and mutual understanding. Nor does the law advocate the "fruit cocktail" approach to religion. My noble friend Lady Cox talked of the purity of each religion within the teaching of religious education.
The needs of other faith groups are, I believe, adequately met in the existing arrangements. My noble friend Lady Cox referred to difficulties encountered by the MECC in obtaining information on SACREs' activities. Each SACRE is required to provide and publish an annual report on its activities. They are asked to send a copy of that report to the NCC. It publishes an analysis of the reports which is freely available and can be readily obtained from the NCC. If any group or individual has further difficulty in obtaining a SACRE's annual report from the SACRE or LEA I should be interested to know and I shall do all that I can to ensure that that blockage is unblocked.
While we are aware that many local education authorities have revised their agreed syllabuses to take account of the new requirements of the Education Reform Act, the law does not require authorities to review their existing syllabuses and I cannot insist that they should. The law does not allow for that. The impetus must come locally. I should mention here that local Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education, or SACREs, are a key element in this process.
The Education Reform Act requires local authorities to set up such councils, and in turn the Act provides that the councils should have the right to require a review of the agreed syllabus. Their membership includes representatives from the established Church, other churches and faith groups, the local education authority and teacher trade unions. The National Curriculum Council's 1992 analysis of SACRE reports reveals that during 1991 standing advisory councils' agendas have been dominated by the revision and implementation of agreed syllabuses. That signals a concentration of curriculum development in religious education unparalleled since 1944. Despite all that, we know from the NCC's analysis that only just over one third of local education authorities have already or are in the course of producing new agreed syllabuses.
Perhaps I may appeal to the right reverend Prelate and say that I hope that the established Church and others will continue to press for further positive change in religious education and will listen to worries expressed by parents and governors about agreed syllabuses. SACREs have a major role in ensuring that religious education is appropriate and lawful and that it enhances the spiritual well-being of our young people.
274 I understand, however, the anxiety about those local authorities which have chosen not to review their agreed syllabuses in the light of the new requirements of the Act. I can assure noble Lords that the Government will continue to monitor the extent to which syllabuses have been revised and, if necessary, will take further action to encourage all LEAs to review their syllabuses.
These new syllabuses must of course comply with the new requirements introduced by the Education Reform Act. If they do not the responsible local education authorities lay themselves open to the possibility of a formal complaint under the new complaints procedures also introduced by the 1988 Act.
Those complaints procedures are designed to allow parents, and others, to raise objections about the curriculum in schools, including religious education. Complaints must first be heard at the local level. That is right, given that responsibility lies at that level. Such local action has already proved successful, as my noble friend Lady Cox has indicated. Beyond the local level, there is a further possibility for action. If those complaining are not satisfied by the school or local authority's response, the complaint may be referred to the Secretary of State.
At this point I should say to my noble friend and to other noble Lords who have spoken that I take very seriously the points they have made about the sense of intimidation and the strength of character required by a parent to challenge the system. I shall think further about the points made on that issue.
Since the Act we have received only two formal complaints about religious education syllabuses, and that number has not increased. Because of what I have heard about the difficulty of making complaints, I understand that that does not mean that there is not more dissatisfaction in the community about religious education. The two complaints concerned the local agreed syllabuses for Ealing and Newham local education authorities. In both cases, the authorities are making arrangements to revise their agreed syllabuses in the light of our advice. That is evidence of the positive value of the complaints procedures.
In the course of considering these complaints, the Government took legal advice as to the interpretation which a court would be likely to take about the nature of an agreed syllabus which would comply with the law. That advice has been made available to all local education authorities. It is proof that we will take action to encourage and assist local authorities in fulfilling their responsibilities.
I take the point made by my noble friend Lady Cox about the difficulties which parents may face in pursuing complaints and the single-mindedness which parents must show in pressing for action. I should remind noble Lords that others may make complaints, and pursue them, on behalf of parents, or simply from their own interest. I am aware that some bodies—for example, Christians and Tyneside Schools and the Parental Alliance for Choice in Education—have been active in supporting parents in making complaints. I encourage any person who is unsure or anxious about the religious education provided in a school to seek 275 assurances from the school and local authority, and to pursue a formal complaint if they are dissatisfied with the response. Perhaps I may add to what the noble Viscount, Lord Tonypandy, said. I am sure that the established Church would assist any parent who felt intimidated by the process of making a formal complaint.
Aside from formal complaints, the Government also monitor the situation directly. When HMI reports on schools, it considers all aspects of the curriculum including religious education, and if it is not satisfied, it draws that to the attention of the governors and local authority. In most cases that is sufficient to put the matter right; but, if necessary, the department takes up the case formally. Noble Lords will be aware that as a result of amendments laid in this House, the new arrangements for school inspection contained in the Education (Schools) Act 1992 will ensure that those inspections pay attention to moral and spiritual aspects of the curriculum. I believe that that requirement, the fact that many more inspections will be carried out under the new arrangements and that the reports will be published locally, will increase pressure on schools and authorities to take their responsibilities for religious education seriously. Parents will also have better information to judge whether they are satisfied with the religious education provided for their child.
I should also like to mention the work undertaken by the National Curriculum Council. The council is the Government's main source of advice on the curriculum, and is active in supporting religious education. We expect the council to continue to monitor religious education in the curriculum, and to issue guidance as necessary. Apart from the annual analysis of SACRE reports, the National Curriculum Council has, for example, published advice for those local education authorities and agreed syllabus conferences wishing to draw up a curriculum framework along national curriculum lines. The NCC also proposes to undertake an analysis of agreed syllabuses locally to see whether there is further guidance which it can offer.
The NCC's chairman, David Pascall, in a brilliant speech recently to the Religious Education Council for England and Wales, encapsulated the Government's view, referring to the invaluable contribution religious education makes to pupils' education. I agree wholeheartedly with what he said. Mr. Pascall went on to emphasise the local responsibility for ensuring that religious education is taught, and taught well. However, the NCC intends to review the extent to which spiritual and moral values can be developed through the national curriculum, religious education, and otherwise, in schools. That is a most helpful development.
My noble friend Lady Cox mentioned competition for resources with other subjects. The NCC has a general duty to consider the manageability and possible overload of the curriculum. As part of its work, it will take into account the need for schools to balance the requirements of all subjects in the curriculum to ensure that none are overlooked. In particular, the NCC is planning guidance on planning 276 the whole curriculum including religious education at upper primary levels. The House will also be aware of the steps which the Government have taken to increase flexibility in the curriculum for 14 to 16 year-olds which will help to ensure that adequate time is available for the study of religious education for this age group.
I am sure that noble Lords will recognise that the allocation of financial resources is a matter for local decision and will welcome the Government's efforts to ensure that such decisions are taken at the school level. The combined effect of more frequent inspection and local resourcing will enable schools to react quickly where they need to improve their religious education. The Government provide specific grant support to schools and authorities for the in-service training of teachers. Again, the way in which these resources are used is a matter for local decision, but where religious education needs to be improved, schools should consider it just as seriously as they consider any other national curriculum subject.
I am also aware that many organisations are providing materials for use in teaching religious education, and that such resources increasingly take account of the requirements of the Education Reform Act. That is a further positive sign. I hope that bodies developing those resources will ensure that their existence is widely known to SACREs and teachers.
The new provisions in the Education Reform Act relating to religious education are already capturing the imagination of the local bodies. I believe that we can look forward to a period of vigorous activity in the religious education field. Through the Education Reform Act we have defined new requirements for the content of religious education in schools; clearly defined responsibility for these matters at the local level, and I have referred to various ways in which the review of agreed syllabuses is being encouraged. We are also ready to take action where necessary through guidance to local bodies to assist them in their vital task of developing religious education for children in our schools. In particular, we plan to issue a revised circular on religious education and collective worship in due course once complaints cases at present under consideration have been determined, and to take account of recent legislation.
Perhaps I can touch briefly on a number of points made in the debate. Reference was made by my noble friend Lady Cox to the Oldham complaint raised by my noble friend Lord Elton. The question is not one concerning the sufficiency of the complaint. The Secretary of State is actually barred by law from considering a complaint before it has gone through the local complaints procedures. However, I will look into what my noble friend said with regard to helping parents who are worried and daunted by the process to enable them to make their complaints.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon referred to the Bradford syllabus. If the Bradford syllabus is as he described then it does not reflect that Christianity should be given greater prominence and I shall certainly look into it. However, perhaps I can appeal to the right reverend Prelate, his colleague the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford and the 277 established members of the SACRE for Bradford to put pressure on the local authorities to get the syllabus right.
Reference was made to the shortage of RE teachers. The right reverend Prelate and other noble Lords mentioned the point and it is important. I know that there are various reasons for it, not least of which is the depressing number of teachers who feel themselves unable to teach this subject to their pupils.
The right reverend Prelate made an important point concerning the vigorous follow-up to the local authorities not responding to the National Curriculum Council's questionnaire, and he cited certain local authorities. Where there is no advertising for religious education teachers the schools fall short of what should be being taught. I believe that that situation is serious and again it must be looked into.
I was asked about a timetable plan to follow up an adverse inspection. I can say that that is absolutely in hand as a result of the 1992 Inspection Act. If a school receives an adverse report it will be required by law to produce an action plan and that will he shared with the parents and governors of the school.
With regard to the effect of intended legislation on the organisation of schools on local bodies for religious education and collective worship, I can assure the House that we are giving careful consideration to those changes which may be needed to be made in the arrangements for the standing advisory councils. That was a point made by a number of people including my noble friend Lady Brigstocke.
I was asked about the inspection arrangements and the marginalising of religious education. The governing body of the school will be required to produce an action plan setting out what action it intends to take in the light of any inspection. The noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, referred, as I have just done, to teachers not willing to teach RE. Since the 1944 Act teachers have had the right not to teach RE on the ground of conscience. I share the anxiety of noble Lords in this matter. It is a depressing fact that so many teachers are not prepared to teach the subject.
My noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing was worried about the role for ministers and parents. I am also grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, for his support concerning the role of those outside the schools. That is a helpful source of advice for the schools. I believe that he also referred to the reserve powers which the Secretary of State has to expedite complaints. The Secretary of State has general powers to investigate whether a local authority is acting unreasonably, but at the same time authorities have a duty to investigate in full all complaints made to them. There is absolutely no excuse for procrastination in any case where an authority was beyond doubt delaying a complaint unnecessarily. The Government would take that very seriously; but we must allow time for the complaint to be dealt with at the local level.
My noble friend Lord Brentford was anxious about the proportion of time to be spent on Christianity and other religions. The general guidance given by the department is necessarily susceptible to a variety of 278 interpretations including the needs of the local community. Therefore, it is not possible to lay down nationally a precise proportion of teaching time which should be devoted except that it should mainly reflect Christianity. The fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian would in most cases be properly reflected by devoting most attention to Christian traditions. According to our legal advice, that is the criteria against which an agreed syllabus would be judged.
The noble Viscount, Lord Tonypandy, referred to teacher training. The current circular referring to the initial training of teachers requires all primary teacher training courses to include training in the teaching of religious education. I believe that the point he was proffering to me was whether we could re-emphasise that point. I shall take back his message that he would like a further circular to be sent out on this matter.
I have dealt with the points raised by the noble Baroness concerning reports from the HMI. I believe that I was pressed, again by the noble Viscount, Lord Tonypandy, about public access to SACRE meetings. I shall take that point back to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. Its reports are published annually. I believe that more people should avail themselves of them. My noble friend Lady Brigstocke asked whether the SACREs could have more support. I am not sure that it is a question of more support. We need to be very much more vigilant about the people we put on these bodies. The local authorities and the established Church need to be more vigilant as to whom they put on those bodies. The trade unions which represent teachers also need to care about that matter. It is for those bodies to take their work seriously. I do not believe it is a question of support but of the people there being cognizant of the Act and making sure that what work they produce is consistent with it.
The idea of a theologian in residence is a message for the right reverend Prelate. It is a very good idea. A question was raised about in-service training. I shall take all these ideas back to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, asked why we did not publish an HMI report on religious education. There are no plans at the present time for a separate publication on religious education in the HMI series Aspects of Primary Education.
Religious education is covered in the HMI's first report on the implementation of curricula requirements of the Education Reform Act. I have referred the' House to the work which is going on in the National Curriculum Council which I believe will more than compensate for that. The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, asked: where is the evidence that things are going wrong? She has heard a number of noble Lords tonight expressing anxiety. I have no doubt that if we pressed my noble friend Lady Cox she could keep us here a very long time evidencing her case. Perhaps I may also say that my noble friend Lady Cox was also extremely positive about the good things that were going on in the field of religious education. I suspect that she spent more than a good half of her speech making that point. However, she 279 went on to say that more needs to be done. Again, it is worth noting that about two thirds of local education authorities have not updated their agreed syllabuses. I believe that it is incumbent upon us all to put pressure on them to do just that.
Like other noble Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, was anxious about resources. In addition to the Government providing specific support for training for the basic curriculum, which includes religious education—this is aside from national curriculum subjects—through the grants for educational support and training, which includes support for the new and continuing appointment of advisory teachers and for non-teaching staff, in the current year the expenditure support from GEST is in the order of £54 million on those categories.
The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, also mentioned the organisation of the teaching of RE. It is for individual schools to decide whether RE is 280 taught as a free-standing subject, as part of the humanities or as personal or social education. That is not a matter for the Government; it is a matter for the local education authority and the school. However, religious education sometimes becomes rather lost when taught in that way. It is not recognisable as a subject in itself. That causes some anxiety, especially for the parent who may wish to withdraw a child from such teaching. If RE is unrecognisable as a subject, it is difficult to know what would be lost by withdrawing a child from that education.
In conclusion, I assure the House that the Government are committed to the place of Christianity in religious education. We shall continue to emphasise that commitment wherever appropriate, while recognising the needs of others.
§ House adjourned at twenty-nine minutes before ten o'clock.