Education (Assemblies) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:18 pm on 10th September 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench 12:18 pm, 10th September 2021

My Lords, I wholeheartedly support the Bill. I am sad no longer to be following the noble Lord, Lord Taverne—this is for procedural reasons, as I understand it. I applaud the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, for his profoundly wise speech.

We live in a predominantly secular society: 62% of people do not identify as Christian, according to the most recent British Social Attitudes survey. Of course, some of these people belong to other religions, but many do not belong to any religion at all. I emphasise that this is a really important Bill; this is by no means trivial. It is of the utmost importance that children are encouraged to respect good values: kindness, generosity, tolerance of difference and more. They need very regular opportunities to explore these vital moral and ethical issues. You could say that the single most important part of our education as a whole is learning, as children, about the important values of our society.

Assembly seems to be the main context for the consideration of these incredibly important values. If these important values are conveyed within a religious narrative with which the children simply do not identify at all, there is an extremely high risk, in my view, that children will therefore somehow disregard the values themselves that are being conveyed within that religious narrative. It is not a small matter. If we are to have a good society in future, we have to ensure that good moral values dominate across our population, and that depends on this Bill finding its way on to the statute book.

The extent to which religious narrative is regarded as unhelpful is quite strange to me—it is quite extraordinary and phenomenal. As the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, mentioned, in a 2019 YouGov poll, religious worship was ranked last in a list of 13 possible activities that might take place in a school assembly. I am quite surprised by that; it is staggering, actually. Other noble Lords have referred to the percentages of people who support discussion of environmental and other issues. For me, it is values, values, values that need to dominate in those assemblies.

I was not aware that the UK is the only sovereign state where Christian worship is compulsory in state schools, including those without a religious character. I confess that I was also unaware that, under the Human Rights Act 1998 and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, younger children have the right to freedom of religion or belief, which is not being respected here. Some argue that parents can remove their children from assemblies, but that is not an answer; as others have said, parents do not want to single out their children. Some argue that these determinations are the answer, whereby a school can gain an exemption from the broadly Christian requirement. Those determinations are so bureaucratic that only 42 schools have actually gone through that process. These things are not the answer; this is far too important for that sort of get-out.

The Bill seeks to implement the UN children’s rights committee recommendation. I very much respect the Minister who will respond to this debate. Can she please either agree that this Bill should be incorporated into statute by government or, perhaps, explain to us why it should not? I look forward to her answer.