I beg to move,
That this House has considered religious education in modern Britain.
It is good to be here serving under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. Some families—sadly they are a minority, I am sure—will deliver religious education to their younger members, who will grow up with an understanding of whichever faith the family adheres to. But the majority of children, I suspect, learn something of religion at school.
The point is important, because a rounded religious education helps our young people to appreciate the place of religion in our culture, and supports them as they develop their own world view. RE will help them take their place in society. It will support them to be effective and engaged in both the workplace and the wider community, and allow them to critically consider the fundamental questions of life, God, meaning and purpose on the basis of which they will live their lives in modern Britain. It will enable them to learn from centuries of reflection on those questions.
I recall attending a parents’ meeting when my daughter was at junior school. The headteacher said that he regarded school and RE lessons as taking young people to the threshold of faith. That phrase has always stuck with me. It is a valuable one, and I would like our schools to adhere to it.
Life in modern Britain demands a knowledge not just of Christianity but of other faiths. A knowledge of the Christian faith is important not just as an end in itself but as a way of understanding much western culture, art and music. Many of the phrases used in everyday language come from the Bible. We frequently hear sports commentators refer to a “David and Goliath struggle”; if Grimsby Town, which I support, were drawn against Manchester City, that would certainly be appropriate. There are others, such as “the writing is on the wall” and “the salt of the Earth”, and two in particular that we politicians should particularly note: “how the mighty have fallen” and “a house divided against itself cannot stand”.
If we accept the importance of RE, and we accept that it is in school that most of our young people will learn of the importance of religion in our society, we must ask whether our schools are providing RE to a high standard. I googled “law on school worship”, which referred me to the gov.uk website, which then referred me to guidance note 1/94—“94” indicating the year it was published. Is guidance from 28 years ago still relevant to modern Britain, or should it be updated? The guidance states:
“All maintained schools must provide religious education and daily collective worship for all registered pupils and promote their spiritual, moral and cultural development.
Local agreed RE syllabuses for county schools and equivalent grant-maintained schools must in future reflect the fact that religious traditions in the country are in the main Christian whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of other principal religions. Syllabuses must be periodically reviewed.
Collective worship in county schools and equivalent grant-maintained schools must be wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character, though not distinctive of any particular Christian denomination.”
If, as the guidance states, all schools must provide that, what are the Government doing to ensure that they do? Way back when, I attended Welholme Primary and Havelock schools in Grimsby, and we indeed had a daily assembly with prayers and a hymn. Around a third of my class also attended Sunday school, as I did at Grimsby’s All Saints’ church, which is appropriate to mention on All Saints’ day. Adding those who attended All Saints’ to those who went to local Methodist and Catholic churches, we appreciate that the vast majority of young children in the area attended Sunday school and got a good grounding in Christian teachings.
Let me refer again to the Government website and the collective worship in schools document. The section headed “Government aims” states:
“The Government is concerned that insufficient attention has been paid explicitly to the spiritual, moral and cultural aspects of pupils’ development, and would encourage schools to address how the curriculum and other activities might best contribute to this crucial dimension of education.”
That was the view of the Conservative Government in 1994. Does it remain the view of the Government? I trust the Minister will clarify that.
I suggest that we have a postcode lottery in the provision of RE across the UK. Some of our children receive a comprehensive, well-taught religious education; unfortunately, others receive merely a tokenistic level of teaching. According to the Christian Institute, the Department for Education school workforce census 2021 demonstrated a worrying trend in schools—reporting on other curriculum subjects, but not on RE. That trend was higher in schools following the agreed syllabus and academies without a religious character, at 23% and 22% respectively, while the figure for schools with a religious character was only 5%. One school in five reported offering zero hours of RE for year 11, in a breach of their statutory responsibility. Just under a third—27.4%—of academies without a religious character reported providing zero hours of RE to year 11. About 10% of all schools reported zero hours in years 7, 8 and 9, on average. The figure with respect to provision in academies without a religious character is significant.
I thank the hon. Member for bringing this important debate to this place.
Yesterday was a day of mixed emotions for me as it was the end of De La Salle School in my Liverpool constituency of West Derby: the school was handed over to a non-faith academy. I want to thank the De La Salle Brothers for their fantastic service to West Derby and nearly 100 years of Catholic education, which positively changed the lives of so many of my constituents. That ended yesterday.
While I will work closely with the academy to ensure that our children continue to get excellent education, does the hon. Member agree that it is crucial that religious literacy is improved? Religious literacy is so important at a time when persecution and the limiting of religious freedoms have increased globally. It is also crucial to maintain the independence and integrity of the subject in schools of a religious character. In Catholic schools in particular, the academic discipline of RE is based on theological teaching, which is already vigorous and has been developed and refined over centuries.
The hon. Gentleman makes some important points, many of which I would agree with.
On provision from academies without a religious character, 13% report zero hours. What action are the Government taking to improve that state of affairs? I hope the Minister will directly address the fact that there should be a national plan for RE, and the fact that all secondary school teachers of RE should be well qualified and specifically trained to teach high-quality RE, either through initial teaching education or continuing professional development. The Government must reintroduce initial teacher training bursaries for RE to support trainee teachers into the profession.
On a national plan for RE, the national curriculum is used as a benchmark for standards in other subjects; if academies do not choose to follow it, they must provide a curriculum that is similarly broad and ambitious. However, there is no national standard for RE, and therefore no effective means to challenge weak or even invisible provision. Former schools Ministers have argued that RE is a vital part of fostering understanding among different faiths and beliefs. Despite that, by the Government’s own admission, no Government money was spent on RE projects in schools over the five years between 2016 and 2021. By way of comparison, during this time English has received £28.5 million, music £387 million, maths £154 million and science £56 million. I suggest there should be a national plan for RE, at least on par with music.
I turn to teacher training and bursaries. At present there are insufficient RE specialists to meet the demand in secondary schools. The Department for Education has missed its recruitment target for secondary RE teachers in nine of the last 10 years, whereas the total number of secondary teachers in history and geography has risen over that period by 6% and 11% respectively. The number of teachers of RE declined by almost 6% during that time.
Recently, the Department for Education failed to include RE in the list of subjects eligible for initial teacher training bursaries, meaning that trainee RE teachers continue to have no financial support from Government despite historic under-recruitment. The result is that pupils are now three times more likely to be taught RE by someone with no qualification in the subject than, for example, in history. RE often becomes the lesson filled by a teacher of another subject with a few spare lessons on their timetable. Recruiting sufficient specialists into training takes such a long period that it leaves senior leaders with no choice but to cut RE or fill lessons with teachers who mainly teach another subject.
Ofsted inspections can make or break a headteacher’s career. Their ratings can affect pupil admissions and, consequently, capitation funding. They can attract or put off high-quality applicants for teaching posts. As a result, school teachers frequently pay more attention to Ofsted than guidance from the Department and even the law. Evidence from a 2019 survey conducted by the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education showed that 61% of academies without a religious character received an inspection rating of “good” or “outstanding”, while only 50% of non-faith academies were compliant with their duties for delivering RE. Of community schools, 62% received a “good” or “outstanding” rating, but only 60% were RE-compliant. This contrasts with Ofsted’s approach to teaching other aspects of a school’s basic curriculum, which sits outside the national curriculum.
Failure to deliver relationships and sex education— the subject RSE—that meets Ofsted standards almost guarantees a rating of “requires improvement” or “inadequate”. In its report “The Watchmen Revisited” from February 2020, the think-tank Policy Exchange suggested that Ofsted defended this position by saying that the teaching of RSE is a matter of providing for the personal development of pupils, whereas the teaching of RE is simply about compliance with the law.
The Policy Exchange report concluded,
“We consider this approach concerning. Firstly, the view that RSE is of importance in personal development but that Religious Education is simply about compliance is a value judgement that suggests a lower importance is being placed upon matters of faith than upon other subjects. More fundamentally, regardless of a person’s individual beliefs about the relative importance of RSE or Religious Education, it is not the role of Ofsted to determine which statutory obligations schools should, or should not, be required to comply with, but rather to inspect according to the democratically expressed will of Parliament, or, in cases of Department for Education policy, the will of its democratically elected Ministers.”
It may also help if I remind hon. Members that the UK Government is a co-signatory to the statement on freedom of religion or belief and education, which states that signatories will commit to
“prioritising inclusive curricula and teaching, matched to all students’ needs, regardless of their background, that provides foundational skills for all”.
Signatories will also
“support teaching that promotes the equality of all individuals, regardless of their religion”.
I am sure the Minister will agree that freedom of religion or belief is a key principle that must be upheld. By taking the actions I have outlined today, we can be sure that the UK remains fully aligned with that principle. Sadly, a lack of knowledge and understanding about religious and non-religious world views, exacerbated by the reduced provision of RE, limits school leavers’ ability to have respect and tolerance for people with different religions and beliefs in their own communities.
The rise of faith hate crime in Britain is another indicator that more high-quality education in religion and world views is needed. RE is essential in equipping young people with the knowledge they need to work and interact with those who have different perspectives. It not only plays a vital role in ensuring that young people receive a broad and balanced education; it also ensures that our children are well equipped to interact and engage with their peers in our local communities.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his speech, and I am very pleased to see the Minister back in his rightful place in the Department for Education. Does my hon. Friend agree that faith-based schools have greater educational attainment rates than schools that have no religious element? Places such as the Hendon constituency in the London borough of Barnet have above-average exam results as a result.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, with which I entirely agree.
Modern Britain is a global Britain. It is more common than ever to meet people from all over the world in both a professional and personal capacity, and to deal with business partners, colleagues and friends who draw from a wide range of world views. Some surveys indicate that almost 70% of the world’s population affiliate with a religious tradition, so if we do not provide our children with knowledge of religious and non-religious world views, we are leaving them ill prepared for life in the modern world.
To recap, my main asks today are that the importance of RE should be reflected in a properly funded national plan for RE, with all pupils taught by well-qualified and trained teachers who have access to bursaries where necessary. This will ensure that high-quality RE is delivered, thereby promoting respect and tolerance, encouraging strong community relations and promoting freedom of religion or belief. Through a comprehensive, well-taught curriculum in RE, our children can engage with diversity with confidence, sensibility and respect. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) pointed out, we are pleased to see the Minister back in his place, and I urge him to give strong consideration to the points I have made. I hope that he will agree to meet me and the RE Policy Unit to discuss matters further.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Dame Maria. I thank the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) for introducing the debate so well and for clearly setting out his asks, which are shared cross-party.
I declare an interest as the proud son of a theologian. My mum taught me from an early age the importance of not just understanding difference but celebrating it. That is at the heart of the utility of religious education—the teaching of religions in modern Britain. If a cause can unite a fabulously camp lefty MP such as me and Government Members, I have to say to the Minister—it is good to see him back—that it is a cause worth listening to, because it unites the entire stretch of parliamentary debate.
RE is often valued for its contribution to values education—the teaching of values, which are the foundational building blocks of our society. Our diverse society provides an opportunity for students to examine values from a variety of religious and secular points of view. That is at the heart of what teaching religious education can provide as an output. Although the west is increasingly secular, it is worth saying that we are an outlier globally. The vast majority of people on our planet lead a religious life in some way, and we are setting our children up to fail if we do not teach them the value of understanding different societies, so that they can draw on the benefits of that diversity in their own lives and in a way that benefits our culture as a whole.
British culture would not be where it is today if it were not for religion. Regardless of whether someone is religious or not, understanding our culture, philosophy and politics matters, and that will be so much harder unless we equip our young people from an early age with an understanding of religion, the different values within religion, the tensions between religions and the fact that, at the heart of every major world faith, is a similar principle: to love each other and to do good to one another. However it is formed, in whatever book it is written, and however people worship, it is the same human principle of looking after one another.
Religious education matters, and it should matter to more of us more often today. Teaching a child to engage in the differences in the sensitive area of religion equips them with the skills of critical thought and listening to others and with the attitudes of empathy and discernment, expressed with courtesy. Those words matter because that is the type of person I want to see leaving our school system: someone who has strongly held, thoughtful views of their own, but who can also listen to someone else, even if they disagree, and who can challenge their own views and help inform others.
Like dance, modern languages and drama, RE is an endangered species in our school curriculum; it is being squeezed out by an attempt to focus on a smaller number of subjects. That is not to say that the subjects the Government have focused on in recent years are not worthy of focus—maths and English are important for everyone—but our education system should deliver well-rounded young people to the world. Without an understanding of RE, there is a hole in their education.
RE is vital to being not only a good global citizen but a good British citizen, which is what we should seek to create. That is why this debate is about not just faith but politics. At the next general election, I would like every major political party to include a simple line in their manifesto stating that RE should be taught more in schools. Parties should say, “We recognise the value of this. We think there is importance in studying it.” We should therefore focus on how we train our teachers and ensure they are equipped with the deep knowledge to interrogate and communicate faith and share experiences with others. That is why the asks of the hon. Member for Cleethorpes were so powerful.
The good folks at NATRE have done a great job in sharing briefing materials with Members—I am sure we will hear that a few times. In particular, I pay tribute to Katie Freeman, a brilliant young RE teacher from Plymouth, whom many hon. Members will have met. The way she expressed to me her calls for a national plan for RE made it human. It is not just a document to sit on a Department for Education shelf; it is a way of motivating RE teachers to see their own value and of saying to them, “What you teach our young people matters.” It is a way of saying that weak or invisible teaching should be challenged, whether by Ofsted, governing bodies, headteachers, parent governors or children themselves, with a focus on what has happened.
Over the past five years, more and more teachers have come into our school system with zero hours of teaching in RE, so they lack a deep knowledge of religious education. Teacher training lasts five years, and 20% of teachers reported no RE training, and a further 20% reported less than three hours’ training. That is wholly insufficient if teachers are to understand the fabulous diversity of faith on our planet, let alone how to communicate it to our young people.
I support the call for the Government to look again at reintroducing initial teacher training bursaries for RE. If we are to value RE in our school system, we must value the teaching of it and, therefore, the training of teachers in it. As mentioned, having a national standard for religious education to challenge Ofsted is really important.
Worship is not religious education, but it is what many people come to this debate through. They are concerned that the values they were taught have somehow deteriorated or been eroded or removed. However, the same value that we come to the debate with should encourage us to ensure that every child has an understanding of the diversity of faith, the diversity of values and, importantly, the similarity of values. When hate is on the rise, we have a choice about what we do about it. We need to arrest the immediacy of rising hate—the hate crimes against people based on their religion, background or sexuality—but we do so best when we root out the causes of that hate. That is not just with a counter-terrorism strategy or increased policing; it is with education.
I wish the Minister the best of luck in his role. I encourage him to look at how religious education can be not just a hallmark of the Department for Education’s approach to our young people, but part of our overall strategy to address rising hate in our society by working across Government to celebrate diversity and equip all our young people not just to understand the world they are going into but to thrive in it and benefit from the diversity in our communities and across our planet.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. It is also a pleasure to participate in this debate called by my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), and I commend him for his speech. It is a particular pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), my co-officer on the all-party parliamentary group on religious education. I have rarely felt more in agreement when listening to a speech by an Opposition Member—I am almost concerned about that. I absolutely agree that RE should be taught more in schools.
It is important that today’s generation, who will grow up to be tomorrow’s citizens and leaders, should have a knowledge-based understanding of religion and religious beliefs. It is important that that is taught in schools because, as we have heard, it is often the only place in today’s increasingly secular society where it will be heard by young people.
As we have also heard, understanding religion is critical to understanding so much of what is happening in the world today. Modern Britain is a global-facing Britain, and hate speech is on the rise—often much more so even than in this country. I will turn to the international perspective in a moment, but it is critical that we give our young people an opportunity to understand the religious context and content of society today and ensure that they have mutual respect for, and understanding of, those of different faiths or beliefs.
In that regard, RE does work. A pupil from Manchester spoke movingly about how studying RE helped him to be a better friend to a classmate during local repercussions following the bombing at the Ariana Grande concert. We hear, too, of how often other faiths are now shared in our schools. Nursery children at a Catholic pre-school have enjoyed a series of lessons on Eid, Diwali, Hannukah, Christmas and Chinese new year. It is vital that we continue to rigorously teach content-based and knowledge-based religion in our schools.
Understanding different religions is critical if our young people are to navigate the international scene that they are growing up and living in. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes mentioned the percentage of people across the world who regard religion as important, but there is also the increasing disturbance affecting different religious groups across the world. The Pew Research Centre assesses that 83% of the world’s population lives in countries where there are high or very high restrictions on those living with religious beliefs. Yet the issue is profoundly under-recognised and under-addressed compared with many other global concerns.
Sadly, hate is on the rise across the world. People are losing their jobs, education, homes, livelihoods, families, freedom, access to justice and even their life itself simply on account of what they believe. People are being discriminated against, marginalised, beaten, threatened, tortured and killed, often by their own authoritarian Governments—the very Governments that have a duty to protect their freedom of religion or belief.
I have the privilege of serving for a year and a half now as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. It is distressing to see how, in the year and a half since I was appointed, religious disputes across the world have escalated. Putin is weaponising Orthodox Christianity in the war against Ukraine. We have seen the military coup in Myanmar exacerbating the persecution of religious minorities, such as the Rohingya Muslims. We have seen the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, with every religious group there, other than those willing to succumb to the Taliban’s ways, now oppressed and living in daily fear. In Russia, Jehovah’s Witnesses are now being imprisoned as criminals, simply for being pacificists and for being unwilling to serve in the army. We see daily disturbances in Iran, where the Baha’is cannot own land and are restricted from going to university. Elsewhere, Ahmadiyya Muslims cannot vote and, in Nigeria, tens of thousands of Christians and moderate Muslims have been massacred by Islamic extremists. That is the world our young people are growing up in.
Even in what we might call peaceful countries, religion is a key issue and motivating factor in people’s lives. This week, in the elections in Brazil, religious views were a key factor when people decided how to vote. They will also be a factor in the US mid-term elections next week. To deny our young people an understanding of different religions and their importance in people’s lives is to do them a disservice as they grow up and mature. Those who wish to water down the content of religious education are doing our young people a disservice.
We cannot have RE watered down so that it is just an opportunity to have a chat or to discover oneself. How can young people discover and understand anything unless they are given information and knowledge-based academic teaching, so that they can make informed decisions about their way in the world? They have plenty of opportunities in this country to understand the secular environment they live in, but few opportunities to understand the importance of religion to so many others and, hopefully in time, to themselves.
In closing, I would like to pay tribute to the report on religion and world views provided by the Independent Schools Religious Studies Association. It contains some excellent comments and content, which I will not go into, because I am conscious other colleagues need time to speak. However, the report states:
“Religion is more than a worldview—it is a way of life, which involves community, shared values and the sense of the transcendent.”
That is critical; it is so important for young people to be given an opportunity to understand that in the world today, when so many of them are often questioning and looking for answers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. Dame Maria. I too thank the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) for setting the scene so well and for giving us a chance to participate. It is good to see the Minister is his place, and I look forward to hearing his comments, as well as those of the shadow Minister.
This debate could include many conflicting opinions, yet I trust we can all come from a place where we respect the ideal of faith. Although we may treasure our individual faiths, there is undoubtedly a place for all in the diverse United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I know that the ideal of religious education differs from region to region. I bring the Northern Ireland perspective to these debates, as I always do, and that is somewhat different yet again. The importance of religious and theological teaching could not be more prominent today, given the expansion of belief and the ever-changing faiths we all have.
It is great to be here today to discuss the importance of religion in schools, both primary and secondary. According to the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment, religious education in Northern Ireland is a compulsory part of the school curriculum. As I am sure all hon. Members are aware, Northern Ireland is no stranger to different and diverse religious beliefs and the impact they can have on modern society. For young people to be able to understand our changing world, they must be able to interpret different religious issues.
The Department for Education and the four main Churches in Northern Ireland define the religious studies curriculum, allowing for the teaching of the revelation of God, the Christian church and morality from both Protestant and Roman Catholic perspectives. That is as it should be, because the personal relationship someone has with the Lord Jesus is what is important, not their denomination or the church they go to.
Seven out of 10 people—73%—surveyed across the United Kingdom—agreed that the role of religious education in schools is to provide pupils with opportunities to learn about other people, beliefs and cultures. A further 65% stated that the subject also allows young people to evaluate their own political beliefs. That is why the hon. Member for Cleethorpes referred to political beliefs with a religious viewpoint.
I understand that some young people nowadays have become disillusioned with religion, but it is crucial that they have a basic understanding of how religion plays a part in modern society and indeed in modern Britain. Parents are allowed to withdraw their children from some or all aspects of the teaching of religious education, but I always encourage them not to do that, regardless of what they may think of that religion. Having strong faith oneself is one thing, but being able to understand and respect other people’s faith starts from a young age—as early as P4 teaching in Northern Ireland.
The High Court in Northern Ireland ruled that exclusively Christian religious education and worship was discriminatory. However, we must ensure that this ruling, and the calls for it to be considered UK-wide, do not diminish the place of the larger practised religions, such as Christianity, in religious education, but rather allow learning about other faiths equally. I have the utmost belief in Christ as my saviour, but that does not mean that the faiths of Judaism, Sikhism or Islam are of no interest to me.
I can recall the 1960s and 1970s, when I was at secondary college. Our religious education teacher asked the class whether we wanted to know about other religions, and the answer from us all was that yes, we did. Our teacher then introduced us over a period of time to other religions. In the closed society we were in, we perhaps did not have any knowledge of other religions. That teaching gave us an opportunity to understand these things at an early stage. Through another teacher in a different subject I had the chance to understand Irish history. As a proud Unionist, it did not do me any harm to understand Irish history—understanding it a wee bit better never made me less of a Unionist. It does not harm anyone to understand things from another perspective, but it does let people develop a wider understanding and respect for others, which is what I try to do in my life.
We live in an ever-changing world; nowadays people can believe and be practically anything. In my eyes, one thing that does not change is the importance of religion—not just my own belief in Christianity, but everyone else’s beliefs as well. As chair of the APPGs for international freedom of religion or belief, and for Pakistani minorities, I know that the study of religious education allows us a chance to learn about religions without feeling the socialisation or pressure of today’s society.
As always, there was not a thing that the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) said that I do not agree with. She touched on the Uyghurs, the Falun Gong in China, the Baha’i in Iran, the Yazidis in Iraq and the Rohingya Muslims. In Nigeria, which we visited in May and June, we ascertained just how bad the persecution of Christians was, but it is getting worse—there is less understanding. That is so frustrating, because the people we talked to told us they were trying to bring things together, but the reality is that that is not happening.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is not too lofty a thing to say that helping our young people understand how important it is to respect the freedom of religion or belief of others of different faiths and beliefs contributes towards nothing less than global peace? So many atrocities across the world start small and locally and then grow. If we can develop a generation in this country that has respect, and we can promote that across the world, we will be able to stop local friction developing so that people can learn how to live together peaceably. We will then see a better world for the next generation.
I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Lady. That is something we should all strive to make happen. I am reminded of the Hindus in Pakistan and the Ahmadi Muslims in India as examples of people across the world with a different religious viewpoint who are terribly persecuted, both physically and mentally.
My youngest staff member chose to drop religious education at GCSE in order to focus on mathematics, as that was what she wanted to do. She has since said on numerous occasions that she does not feel informed about what people believe and why they choose to believe it. She says it was great to pursue mathematics, but in a way it is a pity that she did not get that understanding at an earlier age.
While I appreciate that education is devolved and our curriculum guidelines differ slightly, the principle that religion is important remains the same. I call on the Education Secretary—we are pushing at an open door—and respective regional Ministers to ensure that the teaching of religion in modern Britain remains in our schools to help to tackle religious discrimination and promote respect for others with a different religion or faith. It is difficult to see a path forwards if we do not know where we have come from. For me, the teachings of Christ, which tell a child that they are loved and chosen, that there is a plan for lives and that they are not alone, are imperative. When social media tells them that the opposite is true, we need the calming influence of religious education in schools.
I am far from perfect—I am probably the most imperfect person in this room—but I believe that the creator, God, has a job that he has set only me to do. Oh, that more of our young people across this great nation would understand their unique, divinely appointed role and that, no matter what the world may say to them, they are special and worthy. I believe that RE plays an important part in understanding that. It is as essential a skill as home economics or technology. When we talk about the important things for future vocations, we should note that religious education in schools is a calming influence and gives us a better understanding of those around us. The hon. Member for Cleethorpes referred to a Scripture text, and I will finish by quoting Jeremiah 29:11, which says:
“‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans…to give you hope and a future.’”
Who does not need that?
Happy All Saints’ day, Dame Maria. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), who indeed is a very good friend, on securing this debate.
It is not all doom and gloom. There is an extraordinary, vibrant faith school sector in this country that provides tolerance and superb religious education. Indeed, I was a bit torn over whether to come to this important debate or to the mass at my granddaughter’s primary school this morning; however, I could not miss this debate because the subject is so important. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes made a powerful case in his introduction to the debate. It is extraordinary and, in a way, shocking that one in five schools offers zero hours of religious education. That is around 500 secondary schools. My hon. Friend is therefore right to say that children are subject to a postcode lottery. The entire thrust of our education reform since 2010 has been to drive up standards in all subjects.
It is a fundamental principle that parents are the primary educators of their children; that is in the universal declaration on human rights and the European convention on human rights. The state’s role, then, is to act as the agent of parents and facilitate their role. That we have a diverse ecosystem of schooling in this country reflects that our society is a rich tapestry, rather than a boring grey cloth. Each child is an individual, and finding a school or other educational route that matches and suits the needs and nature of that individual child is the task of their parents.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes that we need a national standard in religious education. I am rather bemused at the decline of religious education and the ability of so many schools to ignore what is in the Butler Education Act and more recent guidance. As I understand it—the Minister can comment on this—it is the duty of schools to provide some religious education.
My hon. Friend, again, is right to say that parents need the tools to challenge poor or non-existent provision. We need to give them the levers that they can pull to raise standards in our schools and hold staff and school leadership to account. The statistics he has cited regarding the number of RE specialists are disconcerting. We know—it is clear from this debate—that the current provision of RE in schools is not enough, but it seems that we also do not have the number of properly trained specialists to meet the existing level of provision. I hope this debate may make a difference.
I am sympathetic to our Education Ministers. I think we have achieved great things since 2010, and the Minister of State, Department for Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), has achieved so much himself; I think of him a lot as I try to converse with my granddaughter, who is learning through phonetics, rather than the alphabet that I was brought up on. The Minister has achieved great things, and he and other Ministers have been responsible for the free schools programme that has fundamentally shifted the balance away from a decrepit, left-leaning echo chamber in education provision. Parents have been put in the driver’s seat, and we have greatly lowered the barriers to entry into the education sector for those who wish to start new schools. However, there are still problems that need working out.
In that context, I mention the faith schools admissions cap, which I have campaigned against for many years; the Minister is well aware of my views. I am disappointed that we have not got rid of the totally counterproductive admissions cap for faith-based free schools. It was introduced as a sop to our Liberal coalition partners in the wake of the Trojan horse scandal, when Islamist extremists were infiltrating schools. That policy has been a total failure—it has not achieved what it was supposed to. First, all the schools involved in the Trojan horse scandal were secular, not faith based.
Secondly—this is the key point—the admissions cap only hits schools that are over-subscribed from outside their faith grouping. Whatever their merits or virtues, Islamic-run state schools tend to educate members of their communities and receive very little interest from non-Muslims. Catholic schools, on the other hand, are incredibly popular with non-Catholics, but although Catholic schools educate many non-Catholics, their primary purpose is obviously to provide a Catholic education to Catholic children. For that reason, our Catholic schools have not been able to take part in the free schools programme. In fact, the only practical effect of the cap is to prevent new Catholic schools from being founded. The policy is not even in legislation—all it would take is the Education Secretary’s signature for it to go away. In our 2017 manifesto, we made a promise to parents that we would scrap the counterproductive admissions cap and allow the Catholic schools sector to expand. We have still not fulfilled that promise, and I very much hope that when the Minister sums up the debate, he will deal with that issue.
Returning to general matters, I know—we all know—that Ministers are balancing a wide range of priorities, but our job in this debate is to remind them that RE is important, and needs to be backed up with funding and support. We last had a debate on this subject in 2011, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) mentioned. She was far too modest; it was her debate. Since that time, she has been made the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. She made a point that I will repeat, because it is obvious: the fact that we live in a world where persecution of people for their religious beliefs or world view is increasing only reinforces the importance of religious education as a school subject, and religious literacy more broadly. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) spoke powerfully in that respect—I think we all agree with everything he said, and he said it in a very moving way.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton is right that as Britain becomes more diverse, we face more challenges. There is a danger that Britons know less and less about their own background, and how central Christianity has been to the development of our society—to our family of nations, our monarchy, our democracy and our constitution. Indeed, Christian iconography is all over this building. Meanwhile, Britons from newer communities often have very vibrant and active religious faiths: Christian, Muslim, Hindu and otherwise.
Without sufficient religious education in schools, there is a danger that newcomers will find there is no culture to assimilate or acclimatise to, because the natives have forgotten it themselves. We need a holistic and inclusive approach that teaches pupils about not only their own faith, which is vital, but others; in this country, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism are important. Catholic schools in England and Wales devote at least 10% of their curriculum to RE, which allows them to do preciously that. Pupils in Catholic schools spend more time learning about other faiths and world views than students in most secular schools. Despite over a third of pupils in Catholic schools being non-Catholic, the withdrawal rates are almost non-existent at 0.02%, according to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference survey data. I wonder if the lessons from the model that Catholic schools provide could be deployed in other state schools. This is an excellent and important debate, and I hope it makes a difference.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I declare an interest as someone who was an RE teacher—although not a specialist, I must confess, which may upset some in the room—and my partner is a head of religious education. Of course, hon. Members will understand the lobbying that took place at home before attending today’s debate.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb) on his return as the Minister for School Standards. I did not have the honour of following him directly—although I told him that was my lifelong dream—but being replaced by him is something I am more than happy to take, because he is one of the best Ministers that this Government have had since 2010. A lot of the Gove-Gibbean reforms, as I always refer to them, have meant that education standards have dramatically improved in this country. As someone who worked on the frontline for eight and a half years and saw that at first hand, I want to thank him for his work in this area then and now.
RE is a compulsory subject. It blows my mind to this day that although it is compulsory, some schools are not delivering it up until the age of 18, as is meant to be the case. There has therefore been a watering down of the quality and take-up of this subject in schools, and I have witnessed that at first hand. The term “postcode lottery” is perfect; I have worked in London, Birmingham and other parts of the country as a secondary school teacher and seen at first hand the impact it has had on pupils wishing to take the subject forward. In some schools, pupils were made to take RE, and in others it was an option. It is sad to see the low take-up, which is why we are seeing a driving down of recruitment figures.
It is clear that people who want to come into teaching do not feel that RE is valued in our curriculum. Although I am broadly supportive of a national standard for RE teaching to ensure that there is equalisation across the country, there is an easier way to put RE on the map. I know the Minister disagrees with me about this, but I dare to utter it: we could put RE in the EBacc, giving it the same status as history and geography. Many RE departments sit within the humanities department and feel like the ugly duckling in that department when RE is the only subject not to go in that EBacc pot. Doing so could have a positive impact, enabling pupils and parents to understand that RE is a subject that is worthy taking, and giving it the status it requires to be in schools. That will have a positive impact on recruitment figures, and on the take-up of RE into GCSEs and post-16 education.
When it comes to recruitment figures, I confess that I was the Minister who signed off the latest round of bursaries and scholarships, and I accept that RE was not on that list. That is because—for good reason—subjects such as physics and geography, which also face under-recruitment, offer highly competitive professional wages in the private sector. On top of the £30,000 starting salary that we are committed to delivering as per our manifesto, we had to give bursaries for those subjects—particularly physics, for which new teachers will get a £29,000 scholarship—to drive up recruitment. Had I had longer than my 50 days in post, I would have ensured that RE was included in that list. We reintroduced the bursary for teaching English. It would be good to see that happen in religious education as well. I will certainly support that from the Back Benches.
Although I do not think that someone needs to be a specialist to teach RE to a high standard—of course, I am biased as someone who did that myself—having more specialist teachers for a subject will always improve educational outcomes and attainment. There is no one better than someone with that passion. I am interested in politics and was trained in citizenship, so I was able to deliver those subjects with passion and gusto. Similarly, my partner, who did philosophy at university, is able to go into school and deliver incredibly high-quality religious education teaching. Again, I accept my bias, but her ability to teach is because of her passion for her subject area and the deep knowledge she has gained through her degree. The more we can do to drive up specialisms, the better.
Hate crimes and radicalisation are real threats, as we know at first hand in Stoke-on-Trent. The attack on Fishmongers’ Hall was carried out by a man from my constituency who had been radicalised within Islam. Islam is not a radical religion—let us not forget it is the faith that says, “To kill one human is to kill all of mankind”—but sadly there are those in every faith who push a perverse ideology. We also see that on the far right in the great city of Stoke-on-Trent, with some people pushing a white nationalist agenda.
If we do not have high-quality religious education alongside the fantastic Prevent work that is undertaken by the city council, police and local schools, how will we ever tackle the misunderstandings, mis-teachings and perverse ideologies that are pushed, particularly on to young people? That is why it is so important that we get religious education right, and we make sure that young people understand and challenge their misconceptions.
It is most important that we accept that faith schools are an important part of our system, and even allow some schools to select by faith. The idea that we would not push RE to be a compulsory subject that is taken up properly in the school system seems to be a bit of an oxymoron, and challenges what we are saying in other areas. We should be pushing work at schools such as St Wilfred’s, St Mary’s and St Thomas’s—all within Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke—to give a high-quality, faith-based education alongside a high-quality, rigorous curriculum. The Minister would want and demand that, and I fully support him in that.
I hope that we have sent a big signal today. This is definitely a cross-party effort and feeling. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) gave a fantastic speech, and his idea that every Government and every party should commit to religious education in their manifesto is something that I will push within the Conservative party come the next general election.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) on securing a debate on this important issue.
It was less than two months ago that Her late Majesty the Queen lay in state in Westminster Hall. As a nation, we remember that time with sorrow, but we have immense gratitude for her life of service and faithfulness. In that life, she was strengthened by a personal faith in Jesus Christ. That was explored in the only book to which she personally wrote a foreword, entitled “The Servant Queen and the King she serves”, which was published on her 90th birthday. Her personal faith in Christ, which sustained her in service to people of all faiths, was also an expression of important principles at the heart of the UK’s culture, law and constitution.
The cross and orb that surmount St Edward’s crown, which is used in the coronation, represent the same truth as the title of that book. When the monarch sits on the throne wearing the crown, he or she is sitting below a representation of the cross of Christ that itself sits atop an orb representing the globe. The meaning is profound: the monarch is accountable to God for his or her rule. All human rulers reign under God. The laws that they enact must be accountable to a higher standard of morality, embodied in the character of God as seen in Christ and in his word.
The cross represents the fact that we all fall short of that higher standard. None of us can live up to it, but Christians believe that Jesus suffered on the cross so that we can be redeemed and restored to have a relationship with God. They believe that he rose again to reign as the ultimate king, not of a kingdom of this world—as he said to Pontius Pilate—but of a spiritual kingdom. His reign sets the example of servant leadership—of the one who stooped to wash the feet of his disciples and then stooped lower, even to the grave. Many people—young, old and of all faiths—admired the expression of that in our late Queen’s life of service. However, there is a real concern that our education system robs young people of the chance to understand the substance of Christian belief, which shaped not only the life of our late Queen and of our nation, but the lives of countless people in this country and across the world.
Of course, Jesus Christ was Jewish, not British or European. Christianity is not a uniquely western religion, and, sadly, we as a nation have often fallen very short of his example, but without an understanding of Christianity it is not possible to understand British culture or the foundations of our institutions and laws. It is right that the law requires state-funded schools to provide religious education to all pupils, and that that education reflects the fact that religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian, while taking account of the teachings and practices of the other principal religions represented in our country.
It seems to me that that balance is exactly right. We are not about excluding other religions from consideration —quite the opposite. They should be properly recognised and taken account of in the preparation of the RE syllabus, but RE needs to recognise the particular place of Christianity in Great Britain. Young people are entitled to be taught about it; that is what the law requires. However, under pressure from many competing demands, the failure of Ofsted to hold schools to account regarding this requirement means that it is all too tempting to let it slip, particularly when the failure to invest in teachers and to resource religious education makes it hard to deliver the subject well, yet RE is a popular subject at GCSE and A-level. I would therefore be grateful if the Minister could tell us what can be done to ensure that schools respect the will of Parliament in this matter.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) on and thank him for securing this important debate on a subject that is vital to the future of young people and our country.
Let me take this opportunity to welcome the Minister of State, Department for Education, the right hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb) back to his place. Although he is the fourth Minister in post in the 10 months I have had the privilege to shadow the role—I do not know whether that is my doing or his—I look forward to working with him to put our nation’s children first and give our schools the support they so desperately need.
It is clear from the contributions this morning that Members from throughout the House agree that religious education is a vital part of children and young people’s development. I pay tribute to RE teachers up and down the country for their professionalism and dedication.
The hon. Member for Cleethorpes spoke about the importance of religious education and of religion’s importance to art, culture and society. He raised concerns about the postcode lottery of RE teaching in schools and the need for a national plan for RE. I was also struck by his remarks about the contribution that RE can make to the prevention of hate crime.
Those views were echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard). As ever, he spoke passionately, recognising and celebrating the diversity and importance of RE and the role it has to play in the curriculum. He also spoke about the importance of training RE teachers. He raised the issue of tackling rising hate crime and said there should be a cross-departmental effort on that, including by investing in RE. Other Members spoke about why all this matters at a time of uncertainty and conflict, when we are mindful of the world that young people are growing up.
The critical role that religious education plays in children’s learning is felt throughout the country. According to the RE Policy Unit, 64% of the UK adult population think that an education in religion and world views is an important part of the school curriculum. However, although Members have made clear in this debate the importance of religious education in schools and the role that RE plays in the development of children’s understanding of the world around them and their fellow classmates, the cracks are starting to show in the Government’s attempt to deliver RE.
According to analysis in the National Foundation for Educational Research report that was published earlier this year, the recruitment of secondary school RE teachers was nearly 20% below the level required to meet the 2022 target. The report also said it was expected that the recruitment of secondary school RE teachers would finish below this year’s target, despite it being a subject that has
“recruited relatively well in recent years”.
The RE Policy Unit has highlighted the lack of RE specialism in schools—a concern raised by Members in today’s debate. According to the unit’s 2022 report, 25% of RE lessons are taught by teachers with no A-level qualification in the subject—more than three times the proportion for history. Furthermore, the same report also identified a fall in the number of GCSE entries, with entries for a full RE course falling by close to 20% between 2016 and 2021. The organisation’s conclusion about the Government’s performance on religious education was that words need to be backed up with action. Labour agrees.
Let me put to the Minister a number of questions; I look forward the response. What specific action is he taking to ensure that the Government meet their targets for the recruitment of secondary school RE teachers, to address the lack of RE specialism in schools and to address the concerning drop in full-course GCSE entries for RE? Will he introduce a national plan for RE? If not, what are his reasons for not doing so?
Ministers will point to the wider economic fallout for their failure to recruit the teachers we need, but the actions of the past 12 years of this Government have got us into this mess. Labour is ambitious about our children’s futures and would deliver the well-rounded education they need and deserve, to ensure that they are ready for work and for life. If Conservative Ministers will not deliver that, a Labour Government will.
It is a pleasure to debate this important subject under your beady eye, Dame Maria. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) on securing the debate.
Quality religious education is an important part of a knowledge-rich curriculum. It ensures that all pupils understand the value and traditions of Britain and other countries, and helps to foster an understanding among different faiths and cultures in our modern, diverse nation. In his powerful speech, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) rightly said that a proper understanding of politics and culture requires a deep knowledge of the world’s great religions. That point was echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes, who cited common phrases such as “the writing is on the wall”, “the salt of the earth” and—perhaps pertinently to this place—“how the mighty have fallen”, all of which come from the Bible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) demonstrated how important academic knowledge of religion is to an understanding of many of the great events and conflicts around the world. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), citing two teachers from his school days—which were probably a few decades ago—reminded us of the important role that teachers play in our lives. They ensure that we have the knowledge—in his example, of Irish history and of other world religions—that we need to understand the world.
RE is an important part of a modern school curriculum that aims to promote the spiritual, moral and cultural development of children and young people and to help them to prepare for the responsibilities and experiences of adult life. It is important that pupils know about the world’s key religions. We need to develop students’ knowledge and understanding of religious beliefs, of the teachings and sources of those beliefs, and of the key religious texts and scriptures of all the world’s major religions.
Knowledge of world religions is also valuable in supporting Britain’s relationships with other countries. It is clearly important to understand the values and perspectives of those with whom we wish to conduct business or build diplomatic relationships. It is because of the importance of the subject that it remains compulsory that all pupils at maintained state-funded schools in England—including, through their funding agreements, academies—study religious education up to the age of 18.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes will be aware of statistics that indicate that 64% of the UK adult population think that an education in religion and world views is an important part of the school curriculum, and that 71% agree that the subject should reflect the diversity of backgrounds and beliefs in the UK today. We require schools to publish on their websites details of their curricula, including RE. We want parents to have a clear understanding of what their child will be taught and to be able to talk to the school if they have any questions or concerns.
The support for RE shown by Members in this debate is reflected in the continuing popularity of the religious studies GCSE, to which the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan), referred. Provisional 2022 figures show that 34.3% of pupils at the end of key stage 4—some 221,000 of them—took the GCSE in religious studies. It has more entries than each of art and design, computing, business studies and PE. In 2010-11, the figure was 195,109, but that was of course for the full-course GCSE. At that time, there was also the short-course GCSE. The 2010-11 figure amounted to 31% of the cohort. In 2016-17, the figure was higher than it is today, with 264,000 pupils—some 45% of the cohort—taking the GCSE.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) raised the issue of the EBacc, as he is wont to do. As he will know, we deliberately kept the EBacc small enough to enable pupils to study other subjects, such as music, art, RE or vocational subjects. Our overriding concern when we introduced the EBacc was that the core academic subjects it represents—English, maths, science, languages, and history or geography—were being denied to too many pupils, especially the more disadvantaged. Let me take this opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his period in office as Minister for School Standards. I know he is committed to raising academic standards in schools. He did so during his period in office and will continue to do so in the other roles he plays, in which I wish him well.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes referred to a decline in the time spent teaching RE. While figures will vary from school to school, at a national level the proportion of time secondary schools spend teaching RE has remained broadly stable: it made up 3.2% of all teaching hours in 2010 and 3.3% in 2021.
The hon. Member for Strangford raised the issue of the right to withdraw from RE. Although our view is that RE is an important subject, we think it is equally important that parents and older students have a right to withdrawal. We currently have no plans to change the situation.
In respect of a school’s RE curriculum, except for subject content specifications for the religious studies GCSE and A-level, the Government do not prescribe curriculum content, how RE should be delivered or how many hours should be taught.
In Northern Ireland we recently had an outrageous court judgment that declared that exclusively Christian RE lessons in primary schools are unlawful. In my mind, this ruling reveals the real agenda of so many: the removal of Christianity from school settings. In this broken land and society, we are seeing the breakdown of the family unit and soaring rates of suicide, born out of hopelessness. Surely the teaching of love, hope and charity within Christianity is what society needs more of, not less of?
The hon. Member makes an important point—those are common features of the world’s major religions—but obviously RE and education is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland.
RE is part of each school’s basic or wider curriculum. While academies, free schools and most maintained schools designated as having a religious character may design and follow their own RE curriculum, all other maintained schools must follow their area’s locally agreed syllabus for RE. The locally agreed syllabus specifies details of the RE curriculum that they should deliver and is monitored by the standing advisory council on religious education that is established by each local authority.
I understand the concern raised by several Members that some schools may not be taking their duty to teach RE seriously. I should be clear that all mainstream, state-funded schools are required to teach RE. Schools that are not teaching RE are acting unlawfully or are in breach of their funding agreement. Any concerns that a school may not be complying with the requirement to teach RE should in the first instance be raised via the school’s complaints procedure. If a complaint is not resolved, the issue can be escalated via the Department for Education’s school complaints unit.
Members have cited the figure that one in five schools are not teaching RE—I think my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) made that point. Actually, the Department does not collect data on schools’ level of compliance with the requirement to teach RE, but it does collect data on the hours of RE teaching by teachers. The data cited by my right hon. Friend is drawn from individual schools’ timetabling systems, so it does not really represent a completely accurate picture. For example, it may not pick up instances when RE is taught as part of another subject or under a different title.
I will keep that idea under consideration. We have already issued guidance about the teaching of religious education in schools.
Regardless of whether teachers are following a locally agreed syllabus for RE or one designed by their own school or a multi-academy trust, ensuring that they have access to high-quality teaching resources is important, as it is for every other subject. We intend to support the teaching of RE through the procurement of full curriculum packages by Oak National Academy—that goes to the point made by my right hon. Friend. We want to make sure that what is taught is of high quality, and that applies not just to RE but to other subjects. Oak is playing an important role in providing resources for teachers and, in the second tranche of its procurement process, will be procuring curriculum materials, maps and plans for religious education.
As the hon. Member for Portsmouth South and others said, recruiting and retaining teachers is crucial to every curriculum subject, so the Department is driving an ambitious transformation plan to overhaul the process of teacher training. This includes stimulating initial interest through world-class marketing, providing support for prospective trainees, and using real-time data and insight from our new application process to help to boost recruitment where it is most needed. In the 2020-21 academic year, we exceeded the postgraduate initial teacher training target for religious education teachers, achieving 129% of the target. The equivalent target in the 2021-22 academic year was narrowly missed, as we achieved 99% of the target. We will keep these issues under review.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes and the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport raised the issue of initial teacher training bursaries. As the Government do not provide bursaries for every subject, I can understand the disappointment of those who are not eligible, and I do not put all the blame for that on to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North. These are difficult decisions that are taken every year as we decide how to allocate the scarce resource of the bursaries. They are allocated to take account of recruitment historically, the forecast economic conditions and the teacher supply needed in each subject. That allows us to focus the bursary expenditure on subjects with the greatest need and ensures that we spend money where it is needed most. My hon. Friend got that decision absolutely right in his period in office.
Specialist teacher training and continuous professional development are important for every subject. In some cases, subject knowledge enhancement courses may be appropriate for those training to become a specialist. This is where a School Direct lead school or an initial teacher training provider can identify applicants who have the potential to become outstanding RE teachers, but who need to increase their subject knowledge. There is an eight-week subject knowledge enhancement course to help them to become specialist teachers.
The Minister is completely correct to say that continuous professional development is so important to being a high-quality teacher, but sadly we are the only country in Europe that does not have enough specified hours for teachers to do teacher training throughout the academic year. This is something I was looking at in the Department while I was there. Does the Minister agree that to enable the eight-week course to be taken up by non-specialists, such as someone like me, we will need to be able to protect time for teachers to get that professional development?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and we have clear guidance to schools about mentoring and continuous professional development. The early career framework was implemented to help teachers in the first two years of their career to make sure they have the right mentoring and training so that they can turn into accomplished teachers.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes raised the matter of collective worship, which is an important part of school life. It encourages pupils to reflect on the concept of belief and the role it plays in the traditions and values of this country, and equips them with the knowledge they need to interact with other people. It deals with how we live our lives and includes important moral and ethical issues. Any concerns that a school is failing to provide a daily act of collective worship should in the first instance be raised via the school’s complaints unit.
My right hon. Friend will recall that when that decision was taken by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), Catholic schools were encouraged to use the voluntary aided route to establish a new school. Of course, we will continue to keep all these issues under review.
I reiterate the Government’s commitment that schools in England should continue to teach religious education. It is mandatory now and we have no plans to change that, but there is scope to work on achieving greater consistency in standards. We will seek to improve that through the work of the Oak National Academy.
The Minister may recall that this summer the UK hosted a very successful international conference on freedom of religion or belief, to which 88 Governments sent delegates. Out of that, the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance is working on developing workbooks for primary school pupils to help them to understand the importance of not discriminating against others of different faiths or beliefs, just as pupils in many countries across the world understand not to discriminate against, say, disabled pupils. Will the Minister meet me as we work on that project? We now have 42 countries in our alliance, and our aim is eventually—while respecting those countries’ different cultures—to promote and ideally disseminate that through the Education Departments of our respective countries.
I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend. I pay tribute to her for the superb work she does in her role as special envoy. I would also be delighted to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes and the RE Policy Unit to discuss these issues further. I think that is a good note to end on, so I will finish my remarks there.
This has been a wide-ranging debate, and I thank all colleagues who have taken part. It shows that there is considerable concern about RE teaching in our schools. The Minister rightly pointed out the procedure for dealing with complaints about schools not meeting their legal obligation, but I hope that he and his ministerial colleagues can be a little more robust in getting that message down through the system so that parents have the confidence and knowledge to challenge what they may perceive as a lack of RE teaching for their children.
This has been an exceptionally good debate. I took note of the fact that there is an annual decision about bursaries, and I urge all colleagues to lobby the Minister so that, when that comes around again next year, RE may be just that bit luckier than it was under my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis).
I share the disappointment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) about the fact that the Minister was not quite there on the renewed guidance. Guidance is important, as no end of agencies and authorities that we deal with tell us, “Our Government guidance says this.” I welcome this debate, and I thank all colleagues who have taken part.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered religious education in modern Britain.