Orders of the Day — Education Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 22nd June 1959.

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Photo of Mr Joseph Reeves Mr Joseph Reeves , Greenwich 12:00 am, 22nd June 1959

I did not say anything otherwise. I said they could take advantage of the conscience clause, but woe betide some of those in certain of our schools were they to take advantage of the clause.

In our modern life it is the duty of the State, acting on behalf of its people, from whom it derives all its power, to provide a complete system of education upon the basis of equality of opportunity for all. Indeed, as a humanist I would go further and say with the Master of Balliol in the Report of the Commission on Adult Education in 1919 that Education should be both universal and lifelong". This can come about only when the State confines itself and its activities to the provision of educational facilities for its people, leaving to the religious bodies and the non-religious bodies freedom to carry out their work in their own way and of making known their deeply held views on such subjects. Because the State is composed of non-religious as well as religious citizens, it is violating the principles upon which our political democracy is founded if it denies to what it may think to be a minority the rights it concedes to numerically more articulate groups in the country.

The Act of 1944 provided that if schools under denominational authority were to concede a considerable measure of public control they could become controlled schools, in which case the problem of building standards would become the responsibility of the community. On the other hand, those who stood out for complete denominational control were granted 50 per cent. of the cost of reconstructing schools so that they might be brought up to modern standards. They had the right to appoint their own staffs and teachers, and no teacher, unless of a particular denomination, could hope to find an appointment in these schools; the whole cost of the educational and religious activities as well as half of the cost of building improvements and the rebuilding of unsuitable or black-listed schools being provided out of public funds.

It would be intolerable if we were to go farther along this disputed path. The proposed increase of grant is unacceptable to a growing body of the public which resents religious domination. Anglicans accepted controlled status for many of their own schools and thus lost denominational management. The Roman Catholics stood out against such an agreement. None of their schools was allowed to become controlled. They thus accepted 50 per cent. financial responsibility for the reconstruction of unsuitable schools, but reserved their control.

This dual system of education is educationally inefficient, and unfair to those who cannot accept denominational Christian doctrines. If public money is to be forthcoming for the school building programmes, the public has the right to control the activities of the schools. The 1944 concession to denominational teaching was more than generous. It was dangerously partisan. If a Church wishes to control a school and appoint its teachers it should be prepared to pay at least in part for the privilege.

Humanists, and Free Churchmen, for that matter, have been most tolerant over the 1944 agreement, but if the dual system is to be extended—we have heard today how it is to be extended; it is going to be extended in the secondary schools from an uncertain pyramid to a column—as is envisaged in the Bill, a new attempt will have to be made to divorce the State and its education system entirely from religious controversies, controversies which are now brewing. In my view, this Bill is a legislative Measure to break the 1944 agreement in favour of a minority religious interest.

In the Government's White Paper a large scale development of our secondary school system of education is envisaged. May I ask the Minister whether the increased percentage grant is to be paid for new denominational secondary schools? If it is, then assuredly it is a further departure from the 1944 agreement. I should like to ask the Minister how many schools are likely to be involved in this programme.

This dual system is one of the greatest political errors of this century. It will increasingly divide our people into conflicting groups as the demands of the authoritarian elements in the State gain concessions. The Government should never have truckled to these elements. The Government's job is to provide a comprehensive and efficient system of education holding widely varying religious and non-religious views.

Those like myself who believe that the discoveries of modern science have made supernatural religion an anachronism demand the right to ensure that their children are not taught doctrines which cannot stand up to the challenge of modern criticism. But we wish to concede to religious bodies the absolute and uncallenged liberty to disseminate religious doctrines out of school according to their needs.

I was reading—[An HON. MEMBER: "The hon. Member still is."]—only the other day the debate on the Education Act, 1944, which dealt with this issue, in which my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Mr. Cove) said: I do not want to exaggerate, but this Bill can be pretty fairly described as a Bill for compulsory religious teaching throughout the whole State system of education. Not only does it do that, but it preserves and extends religious denominational teaching through the schools. This is a revolution in British educational history … I am not so sure that State compulsion will lead in the direction which hon. Members opposite desire. It is possible to make religious teaching very unpopular."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th March, 1944: Vol. 397, c. 2402–3.] I would say that the way to do that is to start to teach the children when they are of an immature age.

How do the Government, how do the political parties and the religious bodies, feel about the results of religious teaching in the schools? Are our people more religious as a result of this sustained effort? Every hon. Member knows the answer to that question. The trouble facing all of us is that we have ignored the trends of our times. We have failed to deal with the vacuum caused by the lack of belief in supernatural religion. We have proceeded blindly to enunciate notions which today are not accepted even by well-known churchmen. Prior to 1944, the Cowper-Temple Clause was at least a way of reconciling public control with religious susceptibilities. Cannot we find a new formula more in keeping with our age, agog with new scientific discoveries, but needing the teaching of the best which moral and ethical principles can provide?

Religious people, and the growing army of unbelievers as well as the many millions who are completely apathetic upon such matters, need the inspiration of the good life and the unselfish cause. Communal co-operation in such a cause would do untold good in an era of scepticism. It serves little purpose to be told by a well-known bishop that we are a nation of pagans. Are we not concerned about the precipitate fall in attendances at churches and in Sunday schools? I will refrain from mentioning the Gallup poll figures on church attendances, because I should only hurt the susceptibilities of my friends and colleagues.

Religion speaks to the people of this country through all the media available, through the Press, through television, through the radio, and yet much of it falls on deaf ears. We pay a high price for our bigotry. History may have hard things to say of our blindness to perceive the impact which science has made upon current philosophical thinking. Those like myself who believe that the great gifts of science have enabled man to throw off many devotedly-held superstitions want to see the joining together of all the progressive forces of the land to conquer disease and the remnants of poverty. We want to see the abolition of overcrowding and of slums, and indeed of all social injustices and inequalities. Above all, we want to banish the incalculable possibilities of war from the face of the earth. If this could be our mission in this nuclear age, surely we could accord to one another the right to equality of treatment for all children in our schools.

Our parties are demanding our loyalty to this new political and partly religious agreement. I am permitted to invoke the conscience clause and refrain from voting. To walk through the "No" Lobby would be a mere convention. I raise my voice instead against the Bill. I am sure that this way is far more effective.