Education (Assemblies) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:55 pm on 10th September 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 12:55 pm, 10th September 2021

My Lords, this is my first time back at the Dispatch Box for quite some time, so I feel a complete novice, I can tell you. I offer my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, on securing a Second Reading for her Bill—and, of course, many happy returns for her birthday today; what a place to be on your birthday. I thank all noble Peers who have taken part in what has been a fascinating debate.

The Bill’s aims are well intentioned and attempt to address provision of collective worship in a number of different settings, a topic that has long been considered contentious. While I understand the intention of the Bill, I must express strong reservations on its contents and would like to clarify to noble Lords how the current legislation relating to collective worship already affords us the sufficient flexibility that the Bill tries to achieve.

We believe that collective worship is an important part of school life. It encourages pupils to reflect on the concept of belief and the role that it plays in the tradition and values of this country. Importantly, the legislation around collective worship is inclusive and allows all schools to tailor their provision to suit their pupils’ spiritual needs, as well as providing an opportunity for schools and academies to develop and celebrate their ethos and values.

There can be no doubt that there has been a shift in belief in Britain over recent decades. The 2018 British Social Attitudes survey showed that there are many citizens who hold non-Christian religious beliefs, with 9% belonging to a non-Christian religion, including 6% who belong to Islam. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and other critics may say that the law requiring a daily act of worship that is wholly Christian needs to change in line with this evolving demographic. I refute this claim, as legislation already allows for schools to seek an exemption from wholly Christian worship in cases where the principal religion of the pupils or community is not Christianity. They can provide collective worship that is predominantly of another faith, such as Islam or Judaism. It does not permit replacement of collective worship with a non-religious option, and the Government stand by that policy.

In a small school-scale survey conducted in 2019, two-thirds of head teachers at non-faith schools said that they used collective worship to focus on personal, social and ethical matters rather than religious ones, with under one-third stating that collective worship reflected the main features of the school. The law is flexible and inclusive, allowing all schools to tailor their provision to suit pupils’ needs.

Let me be clear: children are not forced to take part in daily acts of collective worship against their wishes or their parents’ will. They do not have to suck it up and endure it, as the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, said. The law affords them a right to withdrawal. This can be exercised by pupils over the age of 16 and by parents of pupils under the age of 16. We will investigate a school only when a complaint is made directly to the department.

Having demonstrated the flexibility of the current legislation, I now turn to the Bill itself. It seeks to replace the daily act of collective worship with an assembly aimed at

“furthering the spiritual, moral, social and cultural education of the pupils” in schools without a religious character. However, the Government do not think this is necessary given that, under the Education Act 2002, schools are already required to ensure the SMSC development of all their pupils. The noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett and Lady Meacher, and the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, talked about this. There are many opportunities, both within the basic and national curriculums, for schools to promote SMSC education without amending the legislation surrounding collective worship; in fact, collective worship is one of the many ways that SMSC education can be promoted. Other areas of the curriculum in which schools can meet this requirement include religious education, history and citizenship to name but a few.

All these subjects help to give children and young people a sense of enjoyment and fascination in learning about themselves, others and the world around them. This includes being reflective about their own beliefs, religious or otherwise, and perspective on life. Furthermore, schools can provide assemblies that promote the SMSC development of their pupils in addition to daily acts of collective worship, rather than in place of it, should they wish to.

The noble Lord, Lord Singh, talked about worship being Christian rather than that of other faiths. State-funded schools are subject to the public sector equality duty and asked to follow that path. They are also required to actively promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. This is broader, perhaps, than what is typically covered by daily collective worship in schools and, along with SMSC provision, effectively provides much of what has been suggested in this Bill.

Over my left shoulder appeared a bit of paper that may answer some of the questions of the noble Lord, Lord Watson, but probably not all. Indeed, it does not, because it says I will write to noble Lords. I apologise for that. He made three points and, to make sure we answer them properly, I think it better that I write to the noble Lord and make sure that the letter is put in the Library.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, that this is a difficult issue, but I hope that I have clearly set out why the Government believe there is no need to amend the current legislation on collective worship. Collective worship is already flexible and inclusive in nature. We trust that our schools will strive to further the spiritual, social, moral and cultural education of all their pupils, without this impacting on their legal duty to provide daily acts of worship.