Clause 72 - Interpretation of Part 6

Education Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 pm on 15th January 2002.

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Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight 4:30 pm, 15th January 2002

I beg to move amendment No. 470, in page 48, line 42, at end insert:

''''is religious education'', in relation to maintained nursery schools or the provision of funded nursery education otherwise than at a maintained school or maintained nursery school, means—

(a) (in maintained nursery schools) such elements of the local agreed syllabus as are appropriate to its pupils' age, ability and aptitude, and

(b) (in relation to funded nursery education otherwise than at a maintained school or maintained nursery school) such education about the religion prevalent among the pupils' receiving funded nursery education as the provider considers appropriate to those pupils' religious heritage (or, where there is no majority, the Christian religion), and to their age, ability and aptitude.''

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Labour, Burnley

With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 471, in clause 93, page 61, line 11, at end insert:

''''religious education'', in relation to maintained nursery schools or the provision of funded nursery education otherwise than at a maintained school or maintained nursery school, means—

(c) (in maintained nursery schools) such elements of the local agreed syllabus as are appropriate to its pupils age, ability and aptitude, and

(d) (in relation to funded nursery education otherwise than at a maintained school or maintained nursery school) such education about the religion prevalent among the pupils' receiving funded nursery education as the provider considers appropriate to those pupils' religious heritage (or, where there is no majority, the Christian religion), and to their age, ability and aptitude.''

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

I offer a warm welcome to you, Mr. Pike. The amendments probe the Government's intentions with regard to religious education in nursery schools and in nursery settings in Wales. There appears to be no obligation for nursery education to be provided in nursery schools or nursery settings, but there is an obligation for religious education to be provided in nursery classes in primary schools. The approach is inconsistent, and the amendment would remove the inconsistency in clause 72 with regard to England and in clause 93 with regard to Wales by dealing separately with maintained nursery schools and other nursery settings. I note that the word ''is'' appears on the top line of amendment No. 470 on the amendment paper. That should not be there. The insertion should be identical to that of amendment No. 471.

I propose that we insert two separate definitions of religious education that apply to maintained nursery schools and to nursery provision. The first definition,

which relates to maintained nursery schools, applies the local agreed syllabus as it would broadly be taught in nursery classes in primary schools according to the age, ability and aptitude of the pupils. That is uncontroversial. The second definition would make suggestions about nursery settings, which are cumbersomely called

''funded nursery education otherwise than at a maintained school or maintained nursery school''.

The nursery settings are not involved in the creation of the agreed syllabus. However, in some cases they are provided by religious organisations and in other cases by secular organisations. They provide for a wide range of pupils, who would be drawn in some areas from a large number of communities and in others from quite a homogeneous community. There are many settings associated with Catholic primary schools in my constituency, as there are few nursery schools but many pre-school playgroups, as they used to be called, that are associated with primary schools. One can imagine that the pupils in such a setting will be mainly Roman Catholic. It would therefore be appropriate that the religious education that is delivered in that setting should be consistent with the Roman Catholic faith. Similarly, it might be appropriate for the education provided in a setting associated with a mosque to be consistent with the Muslim faith.

In areas where the pupils are drawn from mixed communities where there is no prevalent religion or religious tradition, it would be appropriate for the Christian religion to be taught in a way that the provider believes is consistent with pupils' religious heritage and their age, ability and aptitude. The amendment is designed to discover the Government's intentions for religious education in nursery schools and nursery settings and to set out proposals appropriate for pupils of this age. I have not sought to apply the whole agreed syllabus in nursery settings because some faith groups expect their faith to be promoted and I do not want to compete with or contradict their wishes in that respect.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I apologise for arriving slightly late to this afternoon's sitting.

I vigorously oppose both amendments and I hope that the Minister will oppose them as strongly as I do. If we start bringing religious education into early years settings, where are we going to end up? The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) argued that faiths should be promoted in such settings, but I can think of nothing worse than a state-funded system that allows children in the Welsh valleys, for example, to be indoctrinated in a particular denomination at so young an age. I hope that the Minister will vigorously oppose that.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight for tabling the amendment because it will show where the Government stand on early years religious education. As I understand it, all early years settings—whether in Wales under the aegis of the Welsh Assembly or in England under the aegis of the

Secretary of State—receive funding for three and four-year-olds without the proviso of having to deliver any specific curriculum.

In the previous Parliament, the Secretary of State was forward-thinking in listening to the views of early years partnerships from the maintained nursery sector through to the Pre-school Learning Alliance and other voluntary groups and reaching a compromise on early learning goals, which were centred on play and socialisation rather than delivering a curriculum. I hope that the present Government will not stray into prescribing a curriculum for early years education. I trust that the Minister will not only oppose the amendments but state clearly that the Government will not support state-funded religious indoctrination in nursery schools.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Conservative, Epsom and Ewell

I rise in response to the substance and the principle of the amendment. I am unsympathetic to the amendment, but not on grounds of the principle outlined by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), whose concerns about religious education in schools I find disturbing. I ask him whether it is inappropriate for teachers in a nursery school celebrating Christmas to read pupils the Christmas story? Is any element of religious explanation inappropriate when Christmas or any other religious festival is being celebrated in a pre-school environment?

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

If the hon. Gentleman reads Hansard tomorrow, he will see that I did not say that. He should spend some time in early years settings [Interruption.] I apologise, I meant in order to gain a grasp of what goes on in those settings. Of course it is right and proper for a nursery school in Leicester, for example, to make Diwali celebrations part and parcel of what it provides, irrespective of whether a pupil is from a Christian family, of no faith or whatever. The notion of an early years school in the Rhondda valley celebrating Christmas is a wholly different issue from the state providing an RE syllabus to prescribe what should be taught. There is a difference between celebrating faith and the aim of the amendment, which is about promoting faith in early years settings.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Conservative, Epsom and Ewell

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification, but I find his comments rather patronising. I have visited many early years settings in recent weeks and taken a close interest in the problems that they face as a result of an overbearing curriculum being imposed by the Government.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

It would be even more overbearing under the amendment.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

That is why my hon. Friend is criticising it.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Conservative, Epsom and Ewell

However well intentioned, the amendment is inappropriate because I am concerned about the way in which central Government continue to impose rules, regulations and curriculum guidelines on early years settings. I hope that we will have a

further opportunity to debate the provisions that set out curriculum requirements for early years education, which should be opposed to the hilt. In this particular case, an addition to the curriculum—already unwanted—would be undesirable. I have no problem with guidance suggesting that early years organisations should feel free to deal with religious issues, celebrate religious festivals and make young children aware of their religious context.

Will the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough assure me that his party is not seeking to remove religion from our schooling? Several of his comments gave me the greatest possible doubt about his party's level of support for religious education.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman takes such a close interest in Liberal Democrat policy. He raises a fair point, so let me assure him that that is not my party's intention. He was not a member of the Conservative Government when they introduced post-1988 the idea of clarifying religious education. They wanted to achieve consensus about how religious education should be taught in schools and the religious syllabus. That was all positive. The dividing line comes with indoctrination. That is where we cross from educating young people about religion in its broader sense—that must be a multi-faith approach, because we live in a multi-faith society—and using the state system to indoctrinate people in a particular faith.

Those two viewpoints are fundamentally different. As a practising Christian, I do not want religious education removed from schools, but my party and I are determined to ensure that other faiths are equally celebrated, and that young people have an understanding of faiths throughout the world, and the benefits and virtues that those faiths—

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Conservative, Epsom and Ewell

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. I appreciate that it is a fine dividing line, but children should be aware of the spiritual dimension in their education. The absence of that is regrettable in too many places in our society. I support the aspiration behind the amendment, but it is unnecessary to impose additional curriculum requirements in this case. To prove the diversity of opinion in my party, I beg to differ from my hon. Friend.

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Welsh Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales

This is the first opportunity I have had to welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Pike.

I understand the point of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight. I note that he said that the amendments were probing. My job is to assuage both his fears and those of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, which is the judgment of Solomon after what they have said.

Early years providers need some flexibility so that they can deliver their own curriculum in response to the needs of children, families and their communities. In that way, they will create an effective early learning

environment and plan an appropriate curriculum. The curriculum guidance for foundation stage, which was published in May 2000, helps practitioners to provide such a curriculum, including support for education about religion, cultural beliefs and ceremonies. The early learning goals in England and the desirable outcomes in Wales set out those elements. The Bill will require all funded early years providers to support children to achieve early learning goals or desirable outcomes. That is central to our proposals for the foundation stage. I hope that that assuages the concerns of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight.

However, an essential part of our approach to the foundation stage is that it includes a strong element of flexibility. It is right that all early years settings should have the flexibility to respond to the needs of the different children in their care. To accept the amendments would put that flexibility at risk, by explicitly requiring local providers to use the locally agreed RE syllabus for schools.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

Does the Minister agree that the Bill does not require them to use the locally agreed syllabus in settings? It does in schools, but it allows settings to provide such education as the provider considers appropriate.

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Welsh Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. However, if we were to agree to the amendments, several providers would use the local RE syllabus as a basis on which they could deliver what the amendments require.

It is right that all early years settings should have flexibility to respond to the needs of the children. My position makes further prescription unnecessary, and is supported by the Liberal Democrats and some official Opposition Members. I hope that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight will feel sufficiently content to withdraw the amendments.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

I congratulate the Minister on his bravery in trying to bridge the gap between myself and the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough. I would like to take a few points further.

Clause 75 makes it clear that the Secretary of State must secure that certain functions of the national curriculum, including religious education and worship, are provided in nursery classes. With the exception of nursery schools and funded nursery education, it makes it clear that those requirements apply to nursery classes in primary schools. If the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough felt so strongly about religious indoctrination, as he put it, in early years education, I am surprised that he did not table an amendment to delete the requirement.

I find it extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman described what I was saying as requiring the promotion of faith, because it does not. The promotion of faith may be one intention with which, for example, the Roman Catholic Church establishes a playgroup in association with a Roman Catholic primary school, but the point is about religious education. There is no gap between us on that. I do not see any danger of indoctrination in the valleys or other parts of the United Kingdom, but I worry that he does

not seem to appreciate that, although the early learning goals and desirable outcomes do not specify a curriculum in detail, they specify some points about what the Secretary of State is putting a considerable amount of money into and the reasons why she is doing that.

I noted carefully the comments of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, but I am concerned that he is once again showing a certain hostility to religious education. The amendment would do no more than requiring all nursery schools and early years settings to do what the best do—that is not an unreasonable aspiration—and give a basic understanding of, for example, the Christmas story, if they are in association with a Christian school or if there is no prevalent faith in that setting, or other stories where the provision is by another faith group.

In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Mr. Grayling), I accept that there is a danger of over-regulation of the early years system. Indeed, I said as much in a debate in Westminster Hall. However, the spiritual development of youngsters is one of the most important functions with which we can assist, and I am concerned about the conflict between an all-embracing, a la carte view of religious education, which is far more than youngsters of that age are usually capable of accepting, and a clear understanding of the faith in which they have been brought up or, if they have not been brought up in any faith, the prevalent faith in this country. That said, the Minister has succeeded, at least, in bridging the gap between him and me, although the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough is still perhaps a little way off. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I should simply like to ask the Minister one swift question. The clause is concerned with interpretation and definition, and I have noted that the word ''maturities'' is used repeatedly throughout part 6. For example, one of the definitions in clause 72 reads:

'''attainment targets', in relation to a key stage, means the knowledge, skills and understanding which pupils of different abilities and maturities are expected to have by the end of that stage''.

I am sure that that is meant to mean something specific. That is why it is described as such in the Bill. I hope that it is, because if not it should not be there. I also assume that ''maturities'', does not mean the same as ''ages''. If it did, even in the jargon-bound world of the Department for Education and Skills, surely it would say ''ages''.

The Under-Secretary scoffs, but the one thing on which we must agree is that the world and the DFES are full of jargon. We should not work in jargon but in phrases that people can understand. Those who have to interpret a Bill such as this, including those who teach or run education establishments, should be able to do so just by looking at it. I am willing to accept that the word ''ages'' would not necessarily fit into this

description in place of ''maturities''. I do not suggest that it should, because I certainly accept that one child aged two years, five months and three weeks will not necessarily be at the same stage of development as another child of exactly the same age. I assume that to be the reason for the word ''maturities''. It is used not only in line 25 but repeatedly throughout part 6. I cannot tell from the Bill what it means. If others can, I should like to know. We deserve an explanation from the Minister about its exact meaning and why it is being used.

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Welsh Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales

In a previous incarnation as a councillor in Gwent, I once saw a report that described a pelican crossing as a pedestrian-assisted access way. We need to be careful about jargon and the words that we use. I take on board the point that the hon. Lady makes. The word ''maturities'' can cover a range of things, including age, ability and behaviour. As a father of four, I know that my children matured at different rates. It is quite a broad term. It is clear that children mature, by whatever target we set, at different times and at different ages. We are seeking to take account of that.

We are all on a steep learning curve in relation to early years learning. We place great importance on it, which is why we have the foundation stage. I have twin granddaughters who are eight. They are like little sponges. They take on board the most extraordinary things. We all find that as parents and grandparents, and see it in children in our schools. That is the broadest explanation that I can give the hon. Lady.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I appreciate that the Minister has attempted to answer my question in a genuine way. I agree with everything he said. But how is that word, which is used again and again, to be interpreted? I did not table an amendment suggesting an alternative because I genuinely did not know what the Government meant by the term. Is the Bill to be read in conjunction with the Minister's words in Committee, or will the Government take steps to clarify to those who have to interpret the Bill what this word means?

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

I am intrigued by my hon. Friend's argument and by the Minister's answer. The word ''maturities'' in a physical context is relatively easy to understand, but in a developmental context, the word will be of great interest when we are considering the definition in clause 72 because we are looking at attainment targets. The definition as it applies in clause 72 suggests to me that different attainment targets will be set for pupils of different abilities and different developmental stages. Perhaps ''maturities'' means developmental stages in the psychological context?

I am very glad to see the word ''maturities'' if it means what my hon. Friend has suggested as it would give greater scope to the providers of education to take account of the different developmental ages of different pupils. Like my hon. Friend, however, I am still intrigued to hear further from the Minister.

Mr. Touhig: I do not know if I can shed much more light on this.

Those who have been involved in education—teachers and other practitioners—will have different levels of measurement for maturity. As I have said, it could be subjective in the case of social skills or behavioural skills, but those who will be teaching our young people will understand what is meant by it. In fact, these words were used in the Education Act 1996, which was passed by the previous Government.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

It is still jargon.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 72 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 93 ordered to stand part of the Bill.