Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:14 pm on 10th September 2021.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble and right reverend Lord, the former Bishop of Oxford. This is a short but very important Bill, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, for introducing it so comprehensively. The arguments have been well set out, not only by her but also by others, and I will not repeat the detail.
I support the Bill. I am a humanist and a member of the National Secular Society. I do not have a faith. I have beliefs, and I think—I hope—I have spiritual and moral perspectives. I have been a senior teacher in schools, and I am a parent. I have been present at many school assemblies and have conducted several. The issue of school assemblies has been troubling for many years. Issues could easily be resolved, amicably and in a sensible manner, by the Government’s acceptance of the Bill.
The Bill is not anti-religious or anti-belief. It supports parental wishes and opens up opportunities for greater involvement for children on the issues that concern them, such as mental health, relationships, the environment and so on. I see from a survey that religious worship in assemblies was ranked last by parents in a list of possible topics. In addition, 62% of people in Britain do not identify as Christian, yet assemblies are supposed—indeed, obliged—to have a Christian character.
I will talk about school assemblies that could make a real contribution to children’s lives. The time for collective gathering in schools and other organisations can be productive. The best and most relevant assemblies that I have ever been involved in were ones that actually involved children who were presenting interesting work that they were doing or things like volunteering, fundraising, being involved in a youth centre or Girl Guides and Scouts or working for a charity, such as reading to elderly people in homes. Visits by inspiring individuals, who came in to talk about their work—with adults or children—or their philosophy about life, were also popular in assemblies. The success stories of former pupils were also well received. I remember hearing in assemblies from pupils who had overcome hardship or disability and who were leading productive lives. This is relevant to children. This approach does not have its basis in any one faith or, indeed, any faith at all—although learning about different faiths can be interesting and inspiring. Anyone can enjoy singing Christmas carols.
If a survey of children were to be carried out on the useful nature of assemblies, I think that this kind of thing would come to the fore. I must say that, as a teacher, I found that smaller gatherings, such as year assemblies, were more intimate and allowed for some interaction with children—but there is certainly a place for larger gatherings.
Children’s rights are important. The UNCRC specifies that children and young people are free to be of any or no religion. Without invoking charters, the Bill makes sense in relation to what education is about. Good education ensures a broad exposure to ideas and experiences, and assemblies should be a part of that. Children are more open to experiences and ideas when they are able to discuss and express opinions. A good assembly will present thoughts that can be taken up by teachers, as appropriate, during lessons of the day. I remember having a discussion, many years ago, with pupils of around 14 about the rights of women, after an assembly on the suffragette movement and the relevance of their struggles.
Head teachers and teachers are committed to the learning and development of pupils, and assemblies that free them up to be so should be encouraged. This is what parents and children want and deserve.