Education (Assemblies) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:52 am on 10th September 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Morris of Yardley Baroness Morris of Yardley Labour 11:52 am, 10th September 2021

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on introducing the Bill. This is an important topic and one that tends to get discussed outside the Chamber in conversations over a cup of coffee rather than by us thinking about what we need to do legislatively. I find it a really difficult issue. If there were an abstention Lobby for us to vote in, that is probably where I would end up going. I will not support the Bill, but I want to contribute to it and listen to others as part of rehearsing the arguments, because there are too few opportunities to do that.

On the face of it, the Bill seems very sensible. It is reasonable and not aggressive, and it seems to make sense in modern 21st-century society. However, it is part of a far more complicated relationship between church and state, in a nation that has an established church, and between the state and the role that churches have always played in schools. They are a major provider of schools. They educated the poor children of this country way before the state educated them, and I have always found and continue to find the churches valuable and constructive partners in our joint endeavour to educate children for future generations.

So I am in favour of religious education. It is imperative that at some point during a child’s learning they understand about all faiths and have the skills to decide what role they want faith to play in their lives. The Bill does not touch on that, but I know, given the noble Baroness’s beliefs, that she may wish to make alterations there as well.

This is not about our personal faith. It is about what we together decide should be the knowledge, skills and values that we pass on to the next generation. That to me is important. I must admit that, of all the knotty relationships between church and state over education, I find collective worship the most bizarre and the most difficult to justify, and the one whose roots are the most difficult to find out. I tend to think of it as something we have not been bothered with for so long that we have learned to live with it. There are advantages and disadvantages to it, but I think we would lose something if we abolished it, and that is why I do not support the Bill.

I want to rehearse some of the arguments. We all know that it is good to assemble children together and I am not sure that, without the need for collective worship, schools would do that on a regular basis. I think it has been a peg on which to assemble children together, and that is a good thing.

Cultural heritage and the ceremonies that pepper our lives are important. Although many of us do not have a faith, most of us choose to go through a ceremony at key points. I do not know the figures but, in terms of baptism, marriage, funerals or whatever, we turn to faith institutions. If we never had any experience of worship, service and ceremony based on faith, I do not know how we would cope with turning to those institutions at key points in our life and in the decisions that we make.

We have cultural experiences and occasions in common. Most children would not know about Christmas carols if they did not sing them at school. As harvest approaches, one of the reasons why we probably all know the hymns of harvest is that we sang them in school. I would not want a society where children did not know about Christmas carols because, although Christmas is often not celebrated as a faith occasion in many homes, that is its origin and that is what it means. That is what it stands for, and children need to learn and understand that so that they can make their own decisions. Faith gives the solid knowledge that underpins some of the ceremonies that are very important to us, and quite honestly it gives a framework for talking about values. Some teachers find that difficult, but I think faith helps them to do it.

In terms of disadvantage, the noble Baroness put her finger on it: it is the only time in our state system when we are legally allowed to separate children according to their faith. If we put children of one faith in one room and children of another faith in another room, we would get hauled over the coals and taken to court, and rightly so, yet that is what we do when we allow children not to attend assemblies. It can also become a focal point of disagreement in some schools between the leadership of the school and parents in the community of a different faith.

So there are advantages and disadvantages. The current situation is one of those things that, for me, sort of works. I am not saying it does not damage anybody, but it is certainly not a priority for me in changing law; I can think of other things in school that do greater damage to individuals. For that reason, I will not support the Bill for the moment, but I could very well change my mind by the end of the debate.