Education (Assemblies) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:38 pm on 10th September 2021.

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Photo of Lord Singh of Wimbledon Lord Singh of Wimbledon Crossbench 12:38 pm, 10th September 2021

My Lords, business in the House is always preceded by Christian Prayers. We are reminded that, at all times, we should lay aside

“private interests, prejudices, and partial affections”.

Unfortunately, this laudable advice is soon forgotten as we begin to debate controversial issues, but at least the thought is right. As a Sikh, I can understand reference to God in Christian worship, but I have never been able to understand who or what is the Holy Ghost. My attitude to Prayers in the Lords is to go along with sentiments close to Sikh teachings and respect the right of Christians to their beliefs.

Assemblies in schools, however, are different, because of the age and vulnerability of children. In the past, when most children were of the Christian faith, assemblies provided a sense of oneness and unity of thought and purpose. Today, children are often from different religious backgrounds. Assemblies couched in the teachings of one faith as gospel truth can cause confusion and hurt, particularly if stress is laid on literal texts. For example, in the Gospel according to John, chapter 14, verse 6, Jesus Christ is reported as saying:

“I am the way … No one comes to the Father except through me.”

This can be quite upsetting to young children of other faiths. It can cause a lack of confidence in a child’s own belief and work to brainwash sensitive minds, sometimes with damaging family upset.

Although I believe that the Bill is right in suggesting that school assemblies should be changed in line with changing times, the proposal to replace them with vague spiritual and moral teachings is unhelpful and does nothing to enhance understanding of different faiths, when this is needed now more than ever before. Today, we live in a world in which we are reminded daily that most conflicts have their origin in religious bigotry. We need to recognise that what passes for religion is often a complex mix of ethical teachings overlaid with the culture of thousands of years ago—culture that frequently demeans women and people of other faiths.

Never has the need to understand the beliefs of other people and what motivates them been greater. Never before has there been such ignorance and reluctance to talk openly about religion and its good and not so good practices. This ignorance extends to all levels of society—to civil servants and politicians and to educators, particularly in our school lessons, where emphasis is often laid on the size and shape of places of worship and artefacts of different religions, but much less on ethical teachings. If we want a better and more cohesive society, the best place to begin is in the school assembly, with a multifaith assembly showing respect for common ethical imperatives in all our different faiths.