Education (Assemblies) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:41 am on 10th September 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Burt of Solihull Baroness Burt of Solihull Liberal Democrat 11:41 am, 10th September 2021

My Lords, I am honoured to be in a position to introduce this Bill to your Lordships’ House. I am indebted to all noble Lords who have taken the time to attend and speak today, and to Humanists UK for its help in drafting and briefing.

When I was 13—over half a century ago; time flies—it was mainly Catholic children who were excluded from religious worship at my secondary school. They were made to sit in the domestic science classroom with nothing to do apart from catch up on homework and gossip, while the rest of us traipsed into the main hall to be updated with all the news and events as well as doing the religious worship bit. At the time, I thought they were the lucky ones. I said to my dad that I did not really think I was a Christian. His response was, “Don’t be silly, Lorely, of course you are.” I had no say; like many children then and today, I just had to suck it up and endure it. To me it was an irritation among lots of other things in school that I disagreed with. Others had—and still have today—more traumatic experiences, which I am sure we will hear more of as noble Lords make their contributions. Negative experiences affecting pupils and parents are also reported on the National Secular Society website.

The world 50 or even 20 years ago looks very different from the one we inhabit today. We have become a diverse, multicultural society and we put more store on children and their rights—except in the UK, and in this matter of compulsory religious worship. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recently recommended the repeal of all collective worship in UK schools as a contravention of children’s human rights, but the UK remains the only sovereign state in the world to impose Christian worship as standard and, unfortunately, there is no sign that the UK Government are contemplating a change. On the contrary, only this March, Sir John Hayes MP asked what steps the Government were taking to ensure that daily acts of worship were conducted each school day. Education Minister Nick Gibb responded that any school reported not to be fulfilling its obligation to provide daily religious worship

“will be investigated. Where needed, the Department will remind schools of their duty on this matter and advise on how this can be met.”

On whose behalf was this Minister speaking? Certainly not that of the parents or even the schools themselves. Currently, parental choice on this matter is severely limited, with parents forced to choose between letting their children attend collective worship or withdrawing them and, in doing so, isolating them from their peers and taking a risk on whether they receive a meaningful educational alternative to worship, which almost never happens.

In April, a Times Education Supplement informal survey found that less than half of non-religiously affiliated primary schools were providing acts of religious worship. It seems the schools that are not complying with the current law have pretty much taken it upon themselves to respond in a more appropriate way to modern times and the diversity of their audience. Are they all going to be investigated? Will these head teachers be made to stand outside Nick Gibb’s office door? I am afraid that he and his Government are swimming against the tide. Every generation since the Education Act 1944 has been less religious than the one before. All this compulsory school worship seems to have borne little fruit. The British Social Attitudes survey shows that, in 2019, just 1% of 18 to 24 year-olds were affiliated to the Church of England. The same survey reveals that 62% of British adults are non-Christian and, more importantly, 72% of those in the age bracket most likely to have school-aged children are non-Christian.

At this point, it is worth emphasising that a third of our state-funded schools are Christian, and this Bill does not propose to remove the requirement for Christian worship at those schools—although, regardless of whether they are from Christian or non-Christian families, are not all children entitled to assemblies that include them and do not make them feel like outsiders?

In 2019, YouGov asked parents what activities they thought should take place in school assemblies. The environment and nature came top, followed by equality and non-discrimination, and physical and mental health came third. Collective worship came 13th out of 13 options. Why do the Government persist in insisting on a practice that the vast majority of the people they purport to serve do not want? I hope that the Minister will explain this to us in her remarks.

Meanwhile, let me tell your Lordships about the Bill. It covers schools without a religious character that are state-funded in England and Wales. Faith schools are not affected by the Bill except that, for any children withdrawn from collective worship, they will be required to provide an equally meaningful school assembly in line with those available to other children. It repeals the requirement for schools of no religious character to carry out a daily act of collective worship.

Pupils and teachers at these schools may organise voluntary acts of collective worship for children who want to attend, as long as their parents permit them to do so, but the school may not insist that children attend and neither may parents—so children who do not want to attend an act of worship cannot be forced to do so, even if their parents want them to. This would have been great for 13 year-old me. What is the point of forcing any child to pray? We have already seen how well that has worked with the census on 18 to 24 year-olds.

However, the Bill would take away the right of pupils not to participate in school assemblies—no more being withdrawn, isolated or ostracised. It would be inclusive, bringing all children together in a community to reflect on matters that affect them and us all. It would address the spiritual, moral, social and cultural education of all children. When you have children coming together from many religious backgrounds and none, this spiritual dimension must take a different form for it to be meaningful to all.

It would be thoughtful, encouraging children to reflect on our world, the moral choices that we face, our responsibilities to each other and to the planet, and so on. Indeed, from the YouGov survey we know that these are all things that their parents want them to learn about in assembly and to consider. At best, it would teach them to think for themselves.

I have no bone to pick with the Church of England, and I know that many people of faith agree with my position. Some 60% of parents, many of whom are Christian themselves, think the law on collective worship should not be enforced. In fact, only half of Anglicans agree that worship should be enforced, showing that there is a diversity of views among Christians.

With this Bill we have an opportunity to help all children, regardless of their background, to feel included and welcomed in the community of their school. It could mark an important turning point for inclusive education. I beg to move.