Education (Assemblies) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:01 pm on 10th September 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 12:01 pm, 10th September 2021

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, and to offer the Green group’s support for the Bill put before us today by the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, who gave us such a powerful and clear introduction to it. I have four reasons to express why I support the Bill.

The first is time. We know from many other debates on education in your Lordships’ House how much pressure our schools are under and of the many ways in which they are forced to deal with the issues of today to prepare our young people for a difficult, fast-changing world. We need our schools to be preparing pupils for life, not just for exams, and while assemblies might not be focused on exams, this is a time in which we can do more of that education for life. Picking up the suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, about taking away the current forced provision for assemblies, I point out to her that part of the Bill says that schools will be required to provide an inclusive assembly focused on

“spiritual, moral, social and cultural” development. That element is not being taken away by the Bill.

I note the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, that when people expressed their first choice of what they would like to see in these assemblies, it was a focus on the environment and nature. We might think about how a local ecologist or nature group might be invited to come in and speak to the school, engaging with it and making contact with the community. That might also include a spiritual reflection on nature, with practical education about nature and our contact with it. Think about how wonderful an assembly like that could be for a school community.

As the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, just commented, there is also a need for more culture in schools. Let us imagine a local theatre group being invited into a school, perhaps to present a short play with a moral conundrum that could provide later discussion in class. That is the kind of thing that could be done with a whole-school or part-school assembly. Here is one of my pet favourite things: let us have some education in first aid, combined with a discussion on how everyone has an obligation to help others. Those are the kind of things we could be doing, without this straitjacket of the current law.

My second argument is an issue of rights and freedom. Others have already noted how the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has pointed out that the imposition of worship undermines children’s rights under Article 9 of the human rights convention and Article 14 of the UNCRC. It is really worth focusing on how important it is that we as a nation stand up for children’s rights. When we fail to comply with our own obligations on the international stage, that weakens our position as an advocate of children’s rights around the world.

My third point is on inclusion. Parents or children who choose to step away from the current forced worship are separated out and divided. As the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, said, that splits children apart when we want to bring them together.

Finally, on a point of practicality, in the best survey we seem to have on the law—an imperfect survey—the Times Educational Supplement found that 53% of primary schools are not doing what they are apparently legally forced to do, and Ofsted is not enforcing that. We have an anachronism here which means that the law and practice do not coincide. As a sovereign state in the world, we have many curious anachronisms left in our constitutional and legal framework. This is one that we can tidy up while bringing in something better, with the kind of possibilities I outlined at the start of my speech.