Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:42 pm on 10th September 2021.
My Lords, I warmly support my noble friend in her Bill and congratulate her on her birthday today—I think I have got that right. I am very sorry that circumstances have conspired to prevent my noble friend Lord Taverne joining the debate, as we would have liked to have heard from him.
This is not an attack on Christianity or the assembly of a school community. On the contrary, the school community getting together is valuable as an opportunity not just for day-to-day practical matters but as a chance to reflect on things outside the formal curriculum—ethics, morality, values; matters which are the subject of proposed new Section 70A, referred to by other noble Lords, and which are not the monopoly of any one religion, or indeed of religion at all.
Schools should bring students together, whether they are in reception or sixth form, not cause some to feel excluded because it is not their religion or because they do not really understand what is going on, think they will be in trouble if they do not conform or feel a conflict between home and school. The current position simply does not reflect the equality and diversity which we so often talk about. I can well see that religion delivered through assembly and education delivered by the same teachers can be very confusing.
The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, referred to the very big question of the relationship between the Church and the state, but the Bill does not deal with religious education. In my view, this is important to ensure as wide an education as possible. The speech of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, was worth attending today for. Not everyone will share this view, but I regard my religious identity as being part of my cultural identity—not culture in the sense used by the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, although I agree with him—and young children reach an understanding of this at different ages. Sorting out one’s beliefs may coincide with adolescence and is all very complicated and unsettling. It is very hard for parents who find that their child’s school is setting up an educational context which does not accord with home.
The right to withdraw is not something introduced by the Bill—indeed, the converse, as my noble friend has explained—but until the Bill is enacted, Section 71 really should be complied with, and with respect, ensuring that the right is known and understood. It seems that the option to withdraw is no such thing in practice. The Bill introduces the alternative of an assembly of equal educational worth, with the same educational objectives as an assembly—noble Lords have talked about this.
I went to school a long time ago and in a very different world, and I will not say it scarred me, but this has stayed with me. My own school’s traditions were pretty conventionally middle-of-the-road C of E and there were a lot of Jewish girls. We were separated off for assemblies, or large parts of them, and when I was deputy head girl, I was expected to take Jewish prayers. I was singularly ill-equipped for it and had no support. It did not do me any harm but I do not think it was very helpful to those who attended. I have no doubt that the school thought that this was very advanced. I hated it and resented it, and not only on the occasion when the meat ran out at lunchtime and I was called up to explain why the Jewish girls had been eating the ham.
From the perspective of decades later, I realise that the staff then were not all well-equipped to feel comfortable to cope with the difference. There is no excuse for that in 2021. Indeed, from the perspective of 2021, some of what some people have experienced does not seem to me to be Article 9-compliant, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, referred to. This Bill is long overdue and very significant.