Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:57 am on 10th September 2021.
My Lords, I very much support the Bill, mainly because of what I believe education is fundamentally for. We can also talk about whether assemblies are a good thing and what their function should be and, perhaps, point to two particular factors: the desirability of collective worship in schools and its feasibility.
There has been no Ofsted inspection of this provision for 17 years. The reality is that collective worship, certainly in non-religious schools, is on the wane and, more broadly and importantly, as the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, pointed out, so is the desire for it. That is exemplified by the exemption schools have sought from the provision.
This is a good thing. I say that because a major part of the purpose of education should be to encourage the child to think for themselves as they discover the world around them. It has always seemed to me wrong and rather arrogant that we as a society should presuppose those beliefs for children who, through education, are in the very early process of finding out what they feel about the world and developing their own moral code and beliefs. It is education itself, in all its breadth and depth, that should play a significant part in that. For me, in part, it was the arts that helped me discover those things. I myself do not believe in
“reverence or veneration paid to a divine being or power”,
as the guidance defines worship. That is something that every child ought to think out for themselves, rather than having it imposed on them from the outset. Those are my views, but of course it would be immensely helpful if those of faith were also to be in support of the Bill.
I am not saying that religion should not be taught in schools. It is hugely important within the world, as are other beliefs, but it is time that we removed every aspect of religious instruction from schools, so that religion is understood as simply another topic of study, to sit within history or geography or alongside philosophy, including political philosophy—a subject that perhaps ought to be taught more in schools.
There are of course wider implications. There are too many faith schools in the country. In England in 2017, they were 37% of primary schools and 19% of secondary schools, percentages which have been creeping up. A new study by the National Secular Society has found that three out of 10 families in England have little choice but a faith school, meaning that children are pushed into these schools against their parents’ wishes, which is certainly unacceptable. It is right of course that students should be able to opt out of religious observance, but one cannot help the feeling that excluding a child from a part of the school’s corporate activity is not satisfactory either, in the long run. No child really wants to be exceptional in this way; better, surely, to have an assembly that every child can participate in fully throughout.
Assemblies are a good thing, which do not need collective worship to be meaningful. It is very healthy in itself that students and teachers who would not necessarily see one another during the week can meet up in a whole-school setting, if that is logistically possible. Apart from anything else, there can be very good practical reasons for doing so. A school I know well, which happens to be a private school not affected by the legislation, holds its assemblies—which contain no religious content—twice a week, under normal non-Covid conditions. It seems to me that there is no necessity for assemblies to be held daily, which the collective worship provision theoretically holds them to. Assemblies would be more special, and I am sure more enjoyable for students and teachers, if, as a matter of course, they could be held less frequently. Hopefully, in some state schools that is already the case.