Education (Assemblies) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:48 pm on 10th September 2021.

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Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 12:48 pm, 10th September 2021

My Lords, first, I also offer a welcome to the Minister; while she is no novice at the Dispatch Box, I think I am right in saying that this is her first education debate.

I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, on her success in bringing this Bill forward. She introduced it with conviction and highlighted the many issues that surround the requirement for collective worship in schools in England. For that reason, I have to say that it is somewhat incongruous that the schedule makes several references to Wales, although collective worship in the Principality, as I understand it, is the legislative responsibility of the Senedd. I do not know whether the noble Baroness can explain that anomaly. I am unclear as to why Clause 1(5)(a) refers to “the governing body”. Does that refer to multi-academy trust boards? Academies that are part of a MAT may not have their own governing body.

I should say at this stage that, notwithstanding the outstanding and in many ways compelling contribution from the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, the Official Opposition are not going to express an opinion for or against the Bill. We see it as a useful exercise in opening a debate about the future of collective worship in schools, and the Government should be put under the spotlight because they have many questions to answer as to their apparent ambivalent position with regard to current legislation. Perhaps the most fundamental is the question posed by the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, and many other noble Lords, as to why the UK is the only sovereign state in the world to require Christian worship in state schools, including those without a religious character. That was highlighted, as was referred to by many noble Lords, by the United Nations recently, as it did in 2016 in calling for the repeal of legislation concerning collective worship in schools. Can the Minister explain why this should be the case, given that the 2019 British Social Attitudes survey showed that 62% did not identify as Christian? Have the DfE and Ministers given any consideration to the implications of that statistic?

As we know, the law as it stands is widely ignored. There was a time when Ofsted was required to note non-compliance, but it ceased inspecting collective worship in 2004 after 76% of schools were found to be non-compliant. The law certainly needs updating, but, as the basis of that, we believe that there should be a proper public consultation to test opinion and gauge the appetite for continuing with collective worship in school assemblies and, were it to emerge that the majority view was that it should not, whether they should be replaced with assemblies focusing on spiritual, moral, social and cultural education, as set out in the first line of Clause 1 of the Bill.

This is not necessarily a binary choice. The view of the public may be that school assemblies as an event have had their day and that the current system should be brought to an end and not replaced. A public consultation is a step that the Government should undertake because, as the excellent briefing from the Library makes clear, there are no official figures for the proportion of schools without a designated religious character that meet the requirement to provide compulsory daily acts of collective worship. The current guidance on collective worship dates from 1994, in spite of several changes since then to primary legislation. So, even if the Minister tells us—as I suspect she will—that the Government have no plans to undertake a consultation on the current requirement, which they wish to retain, the guidance relating to the legislation is surely due an update after more than a quarter of a century.

As other noble Lords have mentioned, we have one recent indication of the extent to which the legislation is complied with—or not, as it appears. That may have been merely an informal poll involving primary school teachers, but, nevertheless, in the absence of any other indication of the current state of play, it was given sufficient credence to be reported by the widely respected Times Educational Supplement. That appears to have taken the Schools Minister, Mr Gibb, by surprise. When he was asked by one of his MPs what steps the DfE was taking to ensure that there is a daily act of worship at every maintained school, the Minister replied rather ominously that schools in breach of the requirement would be investigated.

Noble Lords may not be surprised to learn that this was not the first time a Minister had been asked that question. My research uncovered this gem from a Written Question submitted by a Conservative in your Lordships’ House: to ask Her Majesty’s Government

“what action they intend to take in respect of the 70 per cent of secondary schools that do not comply fully with the requirement to have a specific daily act of worship.”

The reply that he received from the Minister said:

“The department relies on the OFSTED inspection cycle to identify where failure to fully meet statutory requirements is a key issue, and arrangements are in place within that inspection cycle to revisit those key issues on post inspection plans.”—[Official Report, 11/10/1999; col. WA 70.]

That Question was asked in your Lordships’ House in October 1999 by the former Secretary of State for Education, the noble Lord, Lord Patten. It was answered by the then Education Minister, my noble friend Lady Blackstone.

I have other questions for the Minister, which I fully understand she is unlikely to be able to answer today, but I ask that she writes to me in due course. Can she say whether the Government are satisfied that schools are aware of their rights to seek a determination allowing them to hold multifaith assemblies, assemblies of a different faith or no faith assemblies at all under the current legislation? Does the DfE know how many schools have applied for determinations? Schools Week reported that of the 48 schools that applied to their local Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education board to opt out of the daily act of worship between 2015 and 2018, 42 were successful. Do those unsuccessful have the right to appeal that decision and, if so, where is that appeal heard? What steps are schools taking to ensure that parents are aware that they may also withdraw their children from collective worship and that sixth-form students may withdraw themselves? If not Ofsted, who is now responsible for investigating and determining breaches of the legal requirement on collective worship? Can the Minister set out the process for investigations, which the Schools Minister has said he is now prepared to reintroduce?

The DfE has said that collective worship

“encourages pupils to reflect on the concept of belief”.

I entirely accept that premise, but surely that is the purpose of religious education being part of the curriculum—an issue referred to by my noble friend Lady Morris and the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty. Studying the various religions and belief systems, which should include humanism, helps to expand and shape young people’s understanding of other systems. Yet the figures show that the proportion of schools providing RE at GCSE level has decreased, while parents are increasingly opting their children out of RE to study other subjects. Is that a matter of concern for the Government?

The Bill offers the Government the opportunity to state clearly where they stand on a number of issues around the role of religion and religious education in schools. I suspect that the Bill is unlikely to travel far, but it provides the opportunity to open up a debate on these important issues. It is surely the Government’s duty to use this to ensure that the legislation is brought up to date and that it aligns with the views and concerns of the broad population, whether or not they identify with a particular faith.