HL Deb 02 July 1997 vol 581 cc201-3

3.10 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington

asked Her Majesty's Government: Whether they will consult the National Association of Head Teachers following the decision of their national conference in favour of the abolition of the legal requirement for schools to hold a daily act of collective worship.

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

My Lords, the Government are aware of head teachers' concerns. The National Association of Head Teachers is currently involved in an extensive independent consultative exercise called Collective Worship Reviewed, established by the Religious Education Council, the National Association of Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education and the Inter-Faith Network for the United Kingdom. That includes representatives of teachers' associations, governors' associations, religious bodies and a wide range of other interests. A report will be published in due course and the Government will look carefully at any recommendations that it contains.

Lord Ashbourne

My Lords, does the Minister agree—

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, I think it is the moment for my supplementary question.

I thank my noble friend for what I think is a promising reply. Is she aware that there are a number of reasons why the law should be changed? Two of them are very widely held and not only by head teachers. First, it is hypocritical to ask teachers to force religion on children who do not hold religious beliefs. Secondly, there is the more practical point that many schools, including three-quarters of the secondary schools, are physically unable to have such an assembly because the room or hall is not big enough. As this reform has been talked about by both religious and non-religious groups for many years, is it now time to do something very quickly?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am aware of my noble friend's concern about these matters. He is right to say that some schools find it physically difficult to provide daily worship. We understand those problems. But the law permits several acts of worship for separate groups of pupils rather than one big event for the whole school. Moreover, we are aware that there can be a problem, especially for head teachers, when teachers refuse to take daily acts of worship. But there are other solutions. Suitably qualified people from the local community can also lead worship. So far as concerns parents, my noble friend will be aware that any parent has a statutory right to withdraw his or her child from the daily act of worship, if he or she wishes to do so.

The Lord Bishop of Lichfield

My Lords, with regard to the review that is being undertaken, do Her Majesty's Government recognise the value and the importance of the Government themselves consulting the Churches and other faith communities if any change is to be made in this matter?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for raising that question. Yes, of course the Government will want to consult very widely if any change is to be made as a result of the review, and we want to include the Churches in any consultation that takes place.

Lord Ashbourne

My Lords, I apologise to the House and to the noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, for my undue enthusiasm in joining in his question.

Does the Minister agree that the act of school worship is a vital ingredient in the spiritual and moral life of a school?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority is developing guidance on spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, all of which the Government regard as important. That will extend beyond the curriculum and will embrace the contribution that daily collective worship can make.

Lord Henley

My Lords, bearing in mind that this is a legal requirement and, I understand, has been a legal requirement since the 1944 Act, a measure which has been supported by governments of all political persuasions, will the noble Baroness inform the House just what the Government will do before the results of the review? I believe that it is the 28th review that the Government have announced since the election. Before that review is completed, what action will the Government be taking to ensure that that legal requirement is enforced?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, perhaps I may explain to the noble Lord—I am a little surprised that he is not aware of it, as he was a Minister of State in the Department for Education and Employment—that this review was set up under his own Government and not during the office of the new Government. We want to see the results of collective worship reviewed before deciding whether to take any further action. With regard to the question of non-compliance, which I believe is the question that the noble Lord is raising, we must keep the matter in perspective. Inspection evidence shows that the vast majority of primary schools comply with the law. It is the case that only about a quarter of secondary schools do so. However, they generally hold regular worship but simply fall short on the act of daily worship.

Lord Sefton of Garston

My Lords, does the Minister agree, as pressure builds up in society for an extension of the privileges now enjoyed by the Christian religion to be extended to other religions which are just as credible, that we should even now give consideration to the question of installing a secular system of education as applied in the USA?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, to respond to that question at this stage would pre-empt the results of the review. We must wait to see what it says. Perhaps I could add that it is perfectly possible for schools to have secular assemblies as well as a daily act of worship that involves religion.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, irrespective of what other organisations advise the Government, the Government themselves believe that education without a spiritual and moral dimension is nothing more than a clinical and arid experience?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I have already made clear, in answering an earlier question of one of the noble Baroness's noble friends, that the Government regard education with a social and moral dimension as extremely important.

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