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Education: English Baccalaureate

Volume 727: debated on Tuesday 24 May 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations have been received about the place of religious education in the proposed English baccalaureate.

My Lords, since announcing the subjects that would count towards the English baccalaureate in the 2010 performance tables, the department has received a wide range of correspondence on whether it should include religious studies. Ministers and departmental officials have held a number of meetings with interested parties. The Government are currently considering the content of the English baccalaureate for the purpose of the 2011 performance tables. We intend to publish information on all measures to be included before the Summer Recess.

My Lords, surely the inevitable consequence of the exclusion of religious studies as an examination subject in the English baccalaureate will be its downgrading and increasing marginalisation. Is that what the Government intend? Given the widespread popular support for religious studies as evidenced by a petition signed by well over 100,000 people, would not the Government be well advised to consider a possible two-out-of-three option for the humanities component of the English baccalaureate? That means two out of history, geography and the very popular and rigorous religious studies.

My Lords, I am aware of the proposal for a two-out-of-three option and my ministerial colleagues who are responsible for this area are aware of it too. On the noble Lord’s point about the marginalisation of religious studies, I am glad to say that in recent years the opposite has been the case—more pupils have been studying religious studies at GCSE, so we are starting from a position of strength. As the noble Lord will know, the thinking behind the EBacc is to try to ensure that more children have the chance to do a core of academic subjects which will enable them to progress to A-level and into higher education. That was the focus of what the EBacc was attempting to do.

My Lords, the Church of England is concerned about high-quality RE and religious studies not only for the 1 million pupils in its own schools and academies. Is the Minister aware that it is not just religious organisations that feel dismayed at the exclusion of RE from the English baccalaureate?

Yes, my Lords. As I said in my initial Answer, we have had a series of meetings and representations, and I am aware of the wide range of views that have been expressed on the importance of religious studies—a view which I share—and that those views have been expressed not only by churches and faith bodies but also more widely. It is generally accepted that religious studies plays an important role in educating children and giving them an understanding of some of the ethical and moral issues that we want all our children to learn about.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that many of us who favour the inclusion of religious education in the syllabus are equally anxious that the tradition of humanism should be there alongside specific religious studies?

The noble Lord illustrates one of the difficulties that one has when one starts to expand the number of subjects that one would like to have in some kind of EBacc. There are many people who can make an extremely strong and persuasive argument as to why particular subjects should be included—the subjects of music and creative arts, for example, have been raised in Questions before. If one wants to have a small core of subjects that enables us to see what is being offered, one has to try to keep it to a core. I understand the point about the range of subjects, but the principal drive in this is to ensure that children, particularly those from poor backgrounds, have the chance to study a core of academic subjects alongside vocational subjects, and then there is time for a range of other subjects to be taught alongside them.

Can my noble friend think of any time in history when an understanding between different faiths was more crucial to the future of world peace? Does he not think, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, pointed out, that a step which will inevitably result in a marginalising of this subject is a step in the wrong direction?

Well, my Lords, an understanding between two religions could have been usefully applied in our own country in the 16th century. I accept my noble friend’s basic point about how important it is. Nothing that I have said, I hope, or that the Government are intending for religious studies, in any way undermines our support for the subject. I agree about the important role that it plays, particularly in a religiously and culturally diverse society. It is a statutory subject and the take-up is increasing, which I very much welcome.

My Lords, can the Minister give an absolute assurance that no school’s performance will be assessed on the basis of retrospectively applied rules and that all schools will be judged on the rules that applied at the time that they were assessed?

Yes, my Lords. As the noble Baroness will be aware, the point of the EBacc is to provide information. It is not a performance or accountability measure. We use the same measure as we inherited from the previous Government—that is, five A to C GCSEs. The point of the EBacc, alongside other measures, is to try to provide more information. One would want to see more information being made available about schools offering RE, alongside the other, vocational subjects. The more that parents can see what a school is offering, the better it will be.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is essential that all pupils have access to a broad syllabus in the bacc, including religious education that teaches all faiths and none, which is about what people believe rather than teaching them what to believe? Does the Minister further agree that, in addition to RE being an academically rigorous subject, effective all-faith teaching promotes understanding, social cohesion and tolerance?

I very much agree with my noble friend’s second point—I think that it does precisely that. The position with EBacc subjects is as I have set it out. The Government are considering the subjects and will make them clear before the Summer Recess.