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Schools: Religious Education

Volume 773: debated on Thursday 30 June 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government in what way the guidance produced by Dr Satvinder Juss on the implications of the High Court’s ruling in R (Fox) v Secretary of State for Education is “inaccurate” as they have stated.

My Lords, the Government believe that Dr Juss’s guidance is inaccurate in a number of respects, not least in its suggestion that the need to accord equal respect means that the teaching of other principal religions must be balanced by compulsory and systematic teaching of a non-religious world view to the same extent. We do not accept that it is appropriate for such views to be presented to schools as statements of fact. It is right for the Government to say that they do not agree.

My Lords, first, I must declare an interest as a member of the British Humanist Association and apologise for the obscurity of the Question. The case referred to was a very complex but important case in which the judge ruled in favour of three humanist parents who challenged the Government’s policy that non-religious views could be excluded from schools’ curricula of religious studies. The judge found that the Government had made an error of law and that such studies should be pluralistic and should include non-religious world views. Dr Juss of King’s College London issued guidance on those lines.

Will the Government explain why they have condemned this guidance, which on the face of it is a fair interpretation of the judgment? More generally, it is of course right that children should be taught about religions of the world and about the importance of Christianity in the history of this country, but is it really the Government’s view that children should not be encouraged to think critically and make up their own mind and should not be made aware of the views of a very large and growing number of people in this country who do not subscribe to any religion?

The case was on a very narrow, technical point, but the noble Lord may be pleased to hear that all six GCSE-awarding bodies’ GCSE content includes development of students’ understanding of wider beliefs, including a non-religious world view. The judge made clear that there was no challenge to the content of the GCSE and no requirement in domestic or human rights law to give equal air time to all shades of belief. We do not accept the wider interpretation that Dr Juss places on the case.

Do the Government not recognise that their advice to schools may in itself contradict the law, as just explained by the noble Lord, Lord Taverne?

The Minister says that he disagrees with the judgment. Will he explain why the Government have reached that decision?

Because the decision was based on a very narrow point, and Dr Juss’s interpretation gives it a much wider aspect. It was a very specific case about the content of GCSEs.

My Lords, as we have heard from three humanists in a row, may I be allowed a word? Does my noble friend not agree that it is very important that children should have a good grounding in the faith of their country, or of their particular group if they are Muslims or Jews or whatever, because they cannot challenge what they do not understand? It is right that adults should have the proper opportunity to challenge, but if they are challenging on the basis of flimsy information, that is not very sensible.

I entirely agree with my noble friend. All children should be made aware of the basics of all religions as part of a broad and balanced education. It helps you to respect someone if you understand more about them.

My Lords, I address the House at this point in my capacity as a lapsed atheist. I make it clear that I welcome the place of non-religious world views in religious education; they are very important. However, will the Minister further agree that one of the best ways in which people can counter the race hatred, xenophobia and misunderstandings that we see in our society at the moment is by strengthening religious education in schools?

I agree entirely with the right reverend Prelate. The Church has a good record of creating much inclusion in its schools. We have a considerably increased intake for the more academic, rigorous GCSE that we introduced.

My Lords, one of the most popular words at the moment is “binary”, as in in/out. When it comes to the question of science and religion, it is a question not just of teaching doctrines but of the examination of the compatibility of, for example, Christianity with the Big Bang origin of the universe. It is not just a question of a binary argument about what should be on the curriculum.

We have a settled policy that evolution should be taught in schools as an essential element of a rigorous modern scientific education. Outside science lessons there is scope for people to discuss beliefs about the origins of the earth and so on.

Will the Minister reflect on why, if the Government believe that non-religious beliefs have a full and important place in religious studies, they have moved to encourage schools and those who set syllabuses to ignore a legal judgment that sets out exactly that position?

As I have said already, a much wider interpretation is being made of this narrow judgment than should be.

My noble friend mentioned science in respect of religious studies. However, will he accept that science is quite properly evidence-based, while whatever faith a person is it is not called faith for nothing?

Will the Minister agree that what might combine both an understanding of the role of science and of religion in the world is good teaching of citizenship in schools so that young people can develop critical thinking skills in a way that enables them to apply them to their life and to the well-being of the community around them?

I entirely agree with the noble Lord. The same could be said of PSHE and character education. We are looking at what more can be done to strengthen the curriculum to further prepare pupils for life in modern Britain through citizenship, PSHE, character education and other matters.