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Education (Non-religious Philosophical Convictions) Bill [HL]

Volume 827: debated on Friday 3 February 2023

Second Reading

Moved by

My Lords, I am delighted to see so many noble Lords here today. Last business on a Friday is hardly a propitious time to start a Second Reading, and I know even more noble Lords would have been here had it not been for the rail strike. I thank everyone who has managed to get in and turn up today—I presume that most will be giving their support to the Bill. Indeed, its predecessor, which I introduced last year, which aimed to introduce inclusive school assemblies, received the support of your Lordships’ House and went on to the next stage in the Commons, where unfortunately it ran out of time before it could progress further.

I believe that noble Lords appreciate the vital importance of education in developing an individual who is able to understand that, in this diverse society that we live in, other views exist and can be valid. There is room for everyone to have a view, and the more that we know about how other people think, the more we can appreciate how we can all fit into an inclusive and tolerant society.

I shall explain the reason for the title of the Bill, which I have to admit is a bit of a gobful. The term “philosophical conviction” is found in case law in the European Convention on Human Rights, which noble Lords will know that the UK is signed up to. The convention states that the education and teaching of children must be in line with their parents’

“own religious and philosophical convictions”.

Therefore, when teaching religious education, non-religious philosophical convictions or views must be given equal respect to religious views. Those non-religious views are termed “worldviews”, and the Bill would rename the subject “religious education” as “religion and worldviews”, or RW for short.

Why is it necessary to include worldviews in the syllabus? Because the British Social Attitudes survey consistently shows that half of British adults, and two-thirds of 18 to 24 year-olds, say they belong to no religion. Around half of non-religious people have beliefs and values that match the humanist outlook on life: crudely summarised, that means living their lives in the here and now because they believe it is the only life we have.

In terms of the law, the Bill would ensure that statute kept pace with case law. The 2015 judgment of Fox vs Secretary of State for Education, a case taken under Article 9 of the convention and Article 2 of the first protocol, stated:

“The State must accord equal respect to different religious convictions, and to non-religious beliefs: it is not entitled to discriminate between religions and beliefs on a qualitative basis: its duties must be performed from a standpoint of neutrality and impartiality as regards the quality and validity of parents’ convictions.”

This approach is supported by the subject association for RE, the Religious Education Council of England and Wales. It is also in line with the recent commission on RE, chaired by the then Dean of Westminster. The commission recommended that the subject be renamed religion and worldviews, and this has been RE council policy since 2018. Wales has already led the way and reformed its curriculum to match case law.

However, I can assure the Lords Spiritual Benches and all noble Lords of faith that faith schools’ right to teach faith-based religion will be untouched. Voluntary-aided faith schools and academies which were previously voluntary-aided schools will still be able to teach RE in line with the particular faith of the school and, just as now, parents will be able to request the locally agreed syllabus as an alternative. The remaining two-thirds of schools, which do not have a religious character, will be able, as now, to get their agreed syllabus from their local council or, in the case of academies, devise their own. RW will replace RE, as currently set out in the agreed syllabus conferences, which will be reformed to also include representatives of non-religious worldviews.

The way that the state school system has evolved over many years has meant a great deal of legislation has to be amended in this Bill, leading to a relatively long Bill but with a straightforward, clear message throughout. Where RW is taught in schools of a non-religious nature, it will cover religions as before: impartially. All religions and beliefs will be afforded equal respect, grounded on the principles found in common law and respecting the fact that religious traditions in Great Britain are, in the main, Christian.

Finally, noble Lords may remember an amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, who I see is in her place, to the Government’s Schools Bill, which would have introduced RW to academies. The Minister responding, the noble Baroness, Lady Penn, pointed out that the change was unnecessary because schools are already able to teach RW. However, being able to do something and being required to do it are not the same thing. Too many schools, and too many locally agreed syllabuses, still fail to afford equal respect to non-religious worldviews. These schools are going against the judgment in the Fox case and the consensus of the subject community. But who can blame them, when the current statutory position is unclear on this point and they are expected to follow a non-inclusive locally agreed syllabus?

The law needs changing, otherwise the Government need to be able to justify why they think that the beliefs of half the adults and two-thirds of the young people of this country should be disregarded. I beg to move.

My Lords, it is a privilege to take part in this debate and I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving us this opportunity to do so now. I say also, with an extraterritorial hint, how appropriate it is to be debating this while there are schoolchildren present in the Public Gallery. That adds lustre to the whole occasion.

I have opted to speak in this debate largely because, first, such progress was made the last time an attempt was made, and it was just time that was lacking. This attempt to resurrect what has already been before us is therefore welcome. Secondly, since the Commission on Religious Education produced its report in 2018, it seems sad that the Government have not felt that it was timely yet to respond—although, as the noble Baroness has properly said, in Wales there were no such constraints. The matter has been on the statute book for some time and I cannot think, coming as I do from nonconformist Christian Wales, that anything has imploded yet. We are moving in the right direction.

Perhaps I may express a potentially conflictual interest: I was once president of the Methodist Conference, and therefore a national religious leader. That ought to be brought into play as people estimate and evaluate what my intervention is all about.

I wholeheartedly approve of this very clear and logical Bill. I hope that it gets the kind of support that it deserves. For too long, we have pussyfooted around on this and I hope we can be clear in our judgment today. However, I do not want it to be thought that this is a mere defensive ploy on my part: namely, that because we have enjoyed privileges and suchlike in the past, and recognising that things are in decline now, we want to make the most of that—to manage the decline, if you like—or that we will make such concessions as we have to, to slow the process down as much as we can. In case anybody thinks so, that is not my motivation at all.

Let me remind those who have a read a book or two of a statement that was made in 1644. “I cannot praise”, said the author,

“a … cloistered virtue unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.”

That is from the Areopagitica, written by John Milton, in 1644. I bring that into my remarks to say that it is about time that we Christians put our faith out into the marketplace, where it can hold its own or not according to the interplay of forces and realities that exist in the real world that we live in. I relish the thought of being a Christian in such a world where openness, transparency and fearlessness exist.

I wanted to make it clear that, although a religious leader, I speak at this moment for myself—I might have some interesting exchanges on the floor of the annual Methodist Conference about this, and I will be happy enough about that—and it was for that reason that I quoted John Milton, not just for the quotation but because he was a great humanist. Six years before the Areopagitica, he went on a European tour as a young man, with the sole objective of meeting all the humanist thinkers in Europe. He started in Paris and went off to Italy—Sicily, Rome, Florence and Venice. He met Galileo in Florence and was lionised by Europe; I wish there were more British people lionised by Europe in our day. For all that, he was a humanist because Christianity itself should understand that, beyond the faith it adheres to, which gives Christians their sense of values, lies a common human cause to which everybody belongs and aspires to represent.

It is in that sense that I have joined the British Humanist Association because, like others in that association, I believe that the flourishing of humanity is what we all aim at. If I may therefore express just a tiny regret in closing: I long to see the British Humanist Association move from defining itself as anti-religious to being a force for good with others who collaborate, whether they are religious or not, in building a better world for our children and our children’s children.

My Lords, I speak in this debate feeling somewhat like an officer of the Salvation Army commending temperance to a conference of brewers. None the less, while I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, has made some important points introducing this Bill and I am grateful for them, I want to make some general points to gently demonstrate why this proposed measure for RE in schools without a religious character is unnecessary. I am glad to follow the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, although my view is somewhat different on this occasion from his wisdom and I have no immediate plans to join the British Humanist Association.

First, I stress the value of what remains of religious education within our schools. While the outcomes of education remain a contested area of debate in society, the purpose of education and what it does to us receives much less attention. Too much is assumed in that regard, and that partly informs this Bill. My belief is that human flourishing happens in body, mind and spirit and that education engages us in each of these aspects, which need to be held together holistically.

Religious inheritance in this country is primarily Christian, although I am not sure that the statistics take account of those who have very strong convictions of other faiths. It has shaped our culture, language and built environment. Even the shape of our present secularism bears the marks of an earlier Christian humanism and the Protestant Reformation. While that is the case, the whole framework of our education system, including that which the Bill calls a “worldview”, is the product of the European enlightenment. Consequently, what the noble Baroness seeks in this Bill in terms of a non-religious worldview is represented and imbedded already across the curriculum, from arts and social sciences to the sciences themselves. It is taught, imbibed and breathed in and out virtually every minute of every school day.

I am not seeking to decry the value of philosophy, not least the maxims of how to live a good life, nor do I demean humanism and the emphasis on individual and societal potential. Some of its greatest exponents were the Christian humanists of the 15th and 16th centuries, such as Pope Nicholas V and Desiderius Erasmus. But the heirs of Spinoza and Rousseau neither understand nor support the role of religion in public life. This is a failure of imagination and spirit, as it is of the intellect. As the Hungarian economist and philosopher of science Michael Polanyi demonstrated, no framework of human endeavour or education is value-free—even the scientific method. For him all knowledge is personal and involves a moral commitment. Polanyi insisted that, for example, Copernicus arrived at the earth’s relation to the sun not as a consequence of following a method but via

“the greater intellectual satisfaction he derived from the celestial panorama as seen from the Sun instead of the Earth”.

Religious sensibility acknowledges the spiritual dimension of life in very particular ways. It does so through the inheritance of centuries and the lived experience of the human race. In the three Abrahamic faiths, it rests on claims of historic revelation. This feeding of the whole person is now restricted to a very small part of any programme of education. The Bill risks assaulting its identity by adding explicit principles evident throughout the rest of the educational curriculum. Whether or not this is intentional, it should be resisted.

My Lords, it is an honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark, both of whom gave us very thoughtful contributions. The noble Lord articulated that his view is not defensive; I agree. His quoting from Milton’s Areopagitica and noting Milton’s passionate humanism has made my day. The right reverend Prelate believes that this Bill should not be necessary. While I respect his views, my view is that the current arrangements under legislation are not providing our children with a sure footing in understanding religions and worldviews.

I thank my noble friend Lady Burt of Solihull for presenting this Private Member’s Bill, which highlights a problem in the legislation for the teaching of religion and beliefs. The Bill sets out how to ensure the teaching of religion and worldviews in a 21st century which is very different to the early 1990s, when SACREs were set up and were designed to allow for councils to develop RE syllabuses suitable for their local areas. While this is not formally an interest, I was the portfolio holder for education and libraries on Cambridgeshire County Council from 1993 to 1997 and chaired the Cambridgeshire SACRE syllabus writing group at the same time.

The Government’s non-statutory guidance on religious education in English schools 2010 says on page 23 that:

“Pupils should have the opportunity to learn that there are those who do not hold religious beliefs and have their own philosophical perspectives, and subject matter should facilitate integration and promotion of shared values.”

The RE Council, under the headline “Why RE Matters”, sums up well why children need to learn about faith and belief:

“The ability to understand the faith or belief of individuals and communities, and how these may shape their culture and behaviour, is an invaluable asset for children in modern day Britain. Explaining religious and non-religious worldviews in an academic way allows young people to engage with the complexities of belief, avoid stereotyping and contribute to an informed debate.”

That seems right. Education does not restrict or limit the view of a child’s own faith or belief but sets it in the context of their world, which in the early years might be just that of their class, school or local area.

In preparation for today, I looked at some contrasting opening statements of two local SACREs. Unsurprisingly, I returned to the Cambridgeshire one as I was familiar with it. The 2018 Cambridgeshire SACRE says of its “Aims and purpose”:

“to acquire and develop knowledge and understanding of Christianity and the other principal religions and world views represented in the United Kingdom … to develop attitudes of respect towards other people who hold views and beliefs different from their own … to develop the ability to make reasoned and informed judgements about religious issues, with reference to the principal religions and world views represented locally and in the United Kingdom.”

In contrast, the SACRE for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the City of Westminster, which is an amended version of the agreed syllabus of Hampshire, Portsmouth, Southampton and the Isle of Wight published in 2016, says about the purpose of religious education:

“Living Difference III seeks to introduce children and young people to what a religious way of looking at and existing in the world may offer in leading one’s life, individually and collectively”.

If you read the full syllabus, you will see that the teaching of faiths other than Christianity and humanism are included but the emphasis is very much on Christianity being the principal focus. Indeed, this SACRE also has to agree to any head teacher wanting to do collective worship not Christian in nature. You might think that I, as a Christian, would be happy with that. But my concern is that all children in our country need to understand the faiths and beliefs of those around us, including worldviews. This does not diminish the experience that each pupil has in their own life, home and family, but will enhance it.

Last month, we marked International Holocaust Memorial Day with a moving debate in your Lordships’ House, remembering how man’s hatred can result in the murder of millions. This year, the special focus was on the role of ordinary people then and now. We live in a polarised society, with the curse of social media, as we heard in the previous debate. If those who disagree cut out thinking about the views of those whom they do not like or agree with, that is a problem.

Religious views and worldviews can be taught to all pupils in a structured and supported way by our excellent teachers, who know their pupils and can foster and develop knowledge and understanding as part of the core curriculum. My noble friend Lady Burt quoted from the 2015 R (Fox) v Secretary of State for Education judgment. She is right that our current legislation and guidance need to be updated to include all state-funded schools. The Bill starts us along that road, and I hope that the Government will consider it carefully because, in today’s society, our children need it.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, for introducing the Bill, which I support wholeheartedly, in the belief that it is important for our society, our democracy and the moral underpinning of all that we think and do. As one of the co-chairs of the Humanist All-Party Group, I am aware of how strong the feeling is, across both Houses of Parliament, that this is a time for change.

Like other legal strides throughout our history, it is long overdue, and, like those important reforms, it comes after actual changes have come into play. Think of the past—children up chimneys, safety in mines and votes for women—when reform was already in the air, discussed, shared and agreed before the actual legislation made it a reality. Now is the time for legislation about what and how we teach children to become a reality.

The acceptance of Christianity as the overwhelming belief of most citizens of this country has long been in decline. In 1851, over 150 years ago, the great Victorian intellectual Matthew Arnold wrote, in his famous poem “Dover Beach”, of the retreat of what he called the “Sea of Faith”. He spoke of

“Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind”.

It is a much-anthologised poem, and generations have grown up sharing its recognition that the Christian faith is not the held belief of the majority of today’s citizens. That is not to deny, in any way, its value for its contemporary believers—members of the established Church of England, the Catholic faith, the Methodists and many others—nor Christianity’s historical role in shaping what we think and do. I include myself in that.

But today the majority of people share those moral values without the concurrent supernatural beliefs of virgin birth, an all-powerful God, the resurrection of Christ, the Holy Trinity and life after death. Other established religions—Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and others—embody for their members their own similar moral values, but so too do a growing number of humanists: believers in the human spirit and its power alone to shape values, justice and compassion in today’s world. Increasing numbers now follow these philosophical convictions that have power and significance without reference to the supernatural.

Younger generations, many of them growing up in non-believing homes, need to know the perspective that endorses moral values for us all, without what are considered the “believing” faiths. Humanists themselves have faith—in the human spirit, the values of human reasoning and the place of logic and evidence in the shaping of human behaviour in our lives today. So why would we deny our children the knowledge of such beliefs and how they are held? They are beliefs held by so many of today’s adults. It is time for the law to act on what is already the reality of belief in this country.

My Lords, it is a privilege to follow all noble Lords who spoke. I express my gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, for this opportunity to share my personal early-morning philosophical contemplations, with none of the expertise or eloquence of my noble friend Lord Griffiths. I thank the Library and particularly Nicole Winchester for her late briefing. I also thank those who have taken time to speak to me—they know who they are.

Despite the decline suggested in this Chamber and elsewhere, we live in a country of faith or faiths. When I arrived in the UK, I already had an understanding of only the most basic elements of my faith. My siblings and I were unable to access any religious studies in schools in London at that time—some 50 years ago. Hardly any masjids or mosques existed in the community, and there was no question that religious practice remained within our four walls. The racism experienced by many families was about colour, culture, clothes and a lack of English—even if you spoke good Queen’s English, it was not good enough. No one ever shouted, “You’re a Muslim” or “You’re a Hindu” as a slur.

Views on Islam have fundamentally changed, framing perspectives that have shaped worldviews through the falsified prism of 9/11. It is difficult to compare my experience to that of my children and grandchildren now, albeit that their experience appears to be similar when it comes to religious abuse and discrimination, although this is much more subtle.

Religious education in school is as diverse and varied as the number of schools that exist and the way they are managed, as well as their cultural context and leadership. This is despite countless instances of extreme reporting that one religion or another dominates in certain geographical areas, as though these schools are not under the strictest national curriculum guidelines. The facts speak for themselves, if anyone wants to delve deeper into the realities of students’ experience of religious studies, which are generally not fit for purpose.

My 40-year experience of sending children and grandchildren to Church of England schools is that parents of students whose families may be practising one faith or another experience few interactions on, and have little choice about, how their children are taught religion or religions. I sent my children to a school across the road and, as the years have gone on, I have concluded that many schools appear to have become more inflexible and polarised about teaching other religions in any meaningful way. I cannot imagine that many parents would go into a Church of England school and ask, “Are you teaching my children about Hinduism, Islam or Judaism?”, for example, regardless of how legally agreed the syllabus may be.

I would go as far as to say that only faith schools that are not Church of England schools are more unfavourably scrutinised at the moment. Some faith schools are deliberately depicted in fearful ways, while very little attention is paid to the overall impact of Church of England schools on the experiences of religious education of the high percentage of non-Christian children who attend them. Many faith schools with an emphasis on one faith tend not to provide an adequate standard of teaching of other religions, which must be devastating for children’s mental well-being and their development of confidence in themselves as young minds. The impact of not being recognised, if they come from a family that practises a different religion from that of the majority of other students, must be detrimental to their personal growth and development. Denying a young student an aspect of their identity, such as religion, may impede their education and constrain their understanding of what valuing and respecting others means in their daily experiences in the community.

I cannot prescribe what a good religious education is, but it is my considered view that should religion be taught in a school, it cannot choose one particular religion over another. It has to be within an agreed context that values the faiths of all students in that school. How can that be possible if there are thousands of different schools? I cannot answer that alone. Our school system teaches a national curriculum based on consensus, so why can we not make religious studies more inclusive? The fact remains that religion is taught throughout primary and secondary schools, and we can make significant improvements to the materials that we currently use within set boundaries and with learned teachers who have been taught to respect all faiths of all peoples. I appreciate and acknowledge that those balances are difficult to address, but that is not a good enough rationale not to encourage and promote wider learning of all faiths while respecting pupils from families who do not practise any religion.

For this debate, I spoke to several young people about their experiences, and I will share a small snippet. One of the points made was that discussion of their faith was narrow, with a series of generalised and often inaccurate statements which children are not often able to relate to, empowered to challenge or to ask for clarification on in case they are chastised. Some comments came through about children feeling fearful about challenging their friends and teachers in case they were reported. Young people often feel under pressure to represent the whole of their community even though they themselves may have unanswered questions about their faith. Some feel isolated having to navigate their personal belief in a majority Christian learning environment. I worry about the gravest impacts of such marginalisation arising from religion being taught without adequate training, knowledge and expertise.

The whole world is in some turmoil or other. Conveniently, in recent contexts, religion has been cited as the reason for many conflicts. Young Muslims in particular are left disenfranchised, experiencing the wrath evident in the perplexing terminologies of fundamentalism as well as the pathetic concept surrounding the long disreputable and Islamophobic application of the so-called Prevent and Channel strategies, which have demonised even young primary school children, who allegedly are under watch if they refer to God too many times or, in secondary school, raise concerns about the Middle East.

England need not look too far for good practice if it is minded to be inclusive in providing religious education. We have distinguished experts and scholars in this very House. Following the 2015 judgment already referred to, the Welsh Government introduced the Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Act 2021, which ensures that RE is inclusive in those ways in Wales. Our Government are committed to

“promoting respect for human rights, including freedom of religion or belief, and pluralistic and peaceful societies, where all people are … respected, regardless of religion, ethnicity, gender, disability status or other characteristics”.

I agree wholeheartedly that religious education in schools must reflect respect, taking into account students’ lived experience, and must be inclusive.

I am conscious of what happens in religion-based education. I sent four children and grandchildren to a Church of England school fully aware that only one religion would be pervasive, without any evident, conscious efforts to include, inform and educate children within the context of all their faiths. The message to many children may have been that those attending one type of religious school cannot be expected to be enlightened equally about other faiths.

No matter what our liberal views of the world may be, religious education has never been more relevant, engaging or challenging, as religion and religious issues are ever present in our lives. Religious education may provide students with valuable insights into the diverse beliefs and opinions that may inform their personal development and understanding of the spiritual, moral, social and cultural questions that are ever present in their lives. Thoughtful lessons may assist pupils to gain insights that can help to challenge stereotypes, promote cohesion and encourage them to value themselves and respect others.

I have taken the liberty of this debate to share some of my experiences and observations. I thank all noble Lords for their patience. Surely we agree that much of these discussions are the purview of the scholars and experts who may be more equipped to enlighten us. In principle, I support the premise of this Private Member’s Bill and wish the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, well.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, on this Bill, which is long overdue; the Library Briefing refers to calls for it going back to 2013. I shall try to bring a personal perspective to this debate. It is a good, practical, sensible and constructive Bill, and maybe for that reason the Government will reject it. However, I support it not only as a born again atheist but because, with respect for all religions and none, I believe that we have everything to gain from inclusion, from discussing conflicting theories, practices and ideas; that is why I wholeheartedly support the Bill.

We have everything to gain from a wide education that we carry throughout our lives, consciously or subconsciously. Again, we have everything to gain from open minds and not closed minds. We have nothing to fear from inclusion, but perhaps some religious leaders and some religions believe that it could be an erosion of their power base, and I want to reassure them otherwise.

We all gain from keeping our minds open, from continually questioning. Again, I say that as a born again atheist. I was brought up as a Catholic, but publicly disconnected myself from my Church when I saw the harm done against people like me, LGBT people, around the world, and against a woman’s right to choose. So I disconnected myself from the Church. Yet I work with a brilliant nun, Sister Christine Frost, who has been working in Poplar for 50 years. She challenges me daily on my atheism: “How can you be an atheist,” she says, “because you believe in love?” So the mind is open again, even at my tender age of 72.

As we approach different stages in life, facing our own mortality or, even worse, the death of our spouse or a loved one, our minds open again and search for meaning, for comfort or for none. In a recent debate in the name of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury on asylum and refugees, he invited me and another noble atheist—I see the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, in his place—we were invited to revoke our atheism and to join with them. Quietly, I asked myself, “Why should I join a religion that is used in parts of the world to persecute LGBT people, so that they have no option but to turn and run from their own countries and seek asylum and refuge?”, yet still I keep my mind open. I gain this not from my education at a Catholic school but from life. Perhaps if I had learned it earlier, I would have been a much better and easier person.

Sister Christine Frost got it absolutely right to talk about love, and it is not the sole province of religion or religions. Inclusive education benefits us all, and religious education should not be detached from that.

The Government may well say that there is nothing preventing schools including non-religious worldviews in their teaching, but the fact is that far too few schools actually do. Many schools’ RE syllabuses are determined at a local level, and while many of those are excellent, others still do not include non-religious beliefs. The same can be said for RE syllabuses devised by academies, where there is enormous variation: some overly focus on Christianity to the exclusion of other viewpoints, while others promote faith as a virtue. That is certainly not the “critical and pluralistic” approach required by case law, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, referred. We need to create legal certainty and ensure that fully inclusive religion and worldviews education, rather than religious education, becomes the default. I believe that the Bill will do precisely that.

My Lords, I join other noble Members in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, for introducing the Bill and giving us the opportunity to debate an important subject. I put my name down to speak simply to express my strong support for the Bill, which comes, in part, from guilt: when I was a leading member of the largest education authority for a number of years, we never confronted this issue, even though I had the same views at that time as I have now. We did that because it was seen as being too difficult to deal with. I am sorry for that; we should have raised the issue, and maybe if we had, action along the lines of the Bill might have been taken earlier. I strongly support the Bill and the arguments that have already been made by more able speakers than me; I associate myself totally with them.

In a sense—a point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark—the Bill is not necessary because the argument has already been won, both in principle and in practice: religion is already taught in many schools in the way that is suggested in the Bill. That is the point. It is really bad to have a practice in our schools that is out of line with the legislation; let us bring them into line, through the Bill, as is happening in many schools.

The key to this is that views have been changing since the current structure was created. The suggestion is that religious traditions in Great Britain are, in the main, Christian, and we have the advantage of the latest figures from the national census: in London, 41% are Christian, 25% have other religions, and 34% have no religion. Those figures come from answering a census question. We know that, in truth, people say that they are Christian out of habit rather than that being what they actually believe. In my own London Borough of Lambeth, 38% of people have no religion. That is reflected, in practice, by what is happening in schools. Let us bring the law in line with what everyone thinks should be happening.

I have one additional thought. The opposite of religion is no religion, and that is the basis upon which it should be taught as part of the worldview curriculum. I strongly believe that religion should be taught in our schools but it must be taught in context, including the context of not having religious views. There is a difference between humanism and non-religion; they are not coterminous. The ability not to have any religious or humanist views is an option. We need the curriculum to reflect the ability to have philosophical views without the folklore.

My Lords, this is one of those debates where you sit here and think, “What am I going to say?” Then there is the further problem of seeing that the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, is in front of you on the speakers’ list, and you know he is going to come in with something important. When he speaks in favour of what I can only describe as muscular Christianity, backs it up with Milton and says bring it on, it would be fairly churlish to go far from that line.

My noble friend’s Bill would help clarify this situation. If we ignore the spiritual elements of religion—described as superstition or something else—and consider it as a guide to how you live your life now, humanism fits in with that very well. There might be more of a problem with other worldviews, but they are all there. You could not teach humanism without knowing about the other religions, for the simple reason that—the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, got there first and said this earlier—many of them feed off each other. At their philosophical centre, they are all in agreement. When reading up on anything about religion, the thing that gets me is the number of times that they all agree with each other. We may fight wars about whether you pray on a certain day or in a certain way, but basically most of the philosophical actions are in agreement. So I hope that we can go along with the general thrust of what my noble friend is proposing in her Bill.

As the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, said, the Library briefing made it very clear that there is a direction of travel. My noble friend is not paddling upstream on this issue; we are already going that way. It might be possible to work this into the rest of the syllabus at the moment, but if it is not exact and clear, as the noble Lord, Lord Davies, pointed out, you will always get diversity.

Surely we require of people an understanding of what goes on around them, as understanding what other people think makes tolerance easier because you are less frightened of them. That is one of the primary directives of the Bill. Allowing somebody to understand that, if somebody disagrees with you, they are not, by definition, evil is probably the best we can hope for from this. If we look back to the various historical points when that has not happened, certainly from the 16th century onwards, and at the number of deaths, plots and prejudicial laws that have been based on that lack of understanding, we see that it is quite mind-boggling. If noble Lords ever wanted to feel guilty about something, look at history: all nations can drown in their own sins, if they have been playing at all.

I hope that this small change and the direction of travel in the Bill—if not this one then another, because Private Members’ Bills have a habit of getting chewed up by the system—will be embraced by the Government and future Governments. It is clearly where many people want to go. We can argue about statistics and whether you come from a Christian or non-religious background—you can do that for ever—but the fact is that there is a growing diversity of faith and philosophy in this country that dominates the way that people react and change. If we do not admit to that, we are fooling ourselves. If we do not make sure that people are taught from the earliest age how they can take that onboard, we are missing a trick and probably making all our lives more difficult.

I hope that the Minister, when she replies, will be able to tell us how that will be done and what the future guidance will be. I have a little sympathy with her, as I know that everybody wants their particular pet horse put into the curriculum, but this is one change we could make.

I look forward to what the Minister, and indeed the Opposition Front Bench, has to say, so that we can get an idea of how their thinking is going, because if we are not going to take this on board, this is not going away, and I would like to know how we are going to achieve the aims of the Bill, or at least some acceptance of them.

My Lords, we have heard that the Bill would introduce a requirement for maintained English schools to include non-religious worldviews, such as humanism, in RE lessons, and we have heard views sincerely expressed from across the spectrum. If only I could convey my thoughts with such insight and as lyrically as my noble friend Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, but at least I know where places are in west Wales.

I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, for her efforts on this issue—she has been a tireless campaigner across several legislative vehicles—and I thank Humanists UK for its briefing on the issue. As she noted, Wales has already changed its curriculum.

The place of religion and belief in the education system in England is incredibly complex and comes from a time when our society was much less diverse and much more religious than it is now. In recent opinion polling, more than two-thirds of young people in Britain state that they do not belong to any religion and, as many noble Lords stated, we must acknowledge that the UK is rapidly changing in its demography. The 2022 census showed that less than half the population in England and Wales now describe themselves as Christians. In one decade, there has been a 57% rise in the number of people who are not following any religion at all. We are in a world where intolerance and hate speech are starkly apparent due to social media, and conventional media—anyone who watched the BBC last night saw intolerance very well displayed in certain programmes. I urge the DfE to think soberly about how to use the levers it has to equip children to navigate this extremely challenging world.

The aim of the Bill appears to be to ensure that cultural education is balanced and non-exclusionary. In this modern and increasingly secular society, where children and young people are exposed to all views online—in the previous debate, we heard about the dangers of the metaverse—this would provide an excellent opportunity to discuss a variety of topics and issues. Each local authority must establish a standing advisory council for RE—SACRE—to advise it on the provision of RE and to convene any agreed syllabus conferences. Each SACRE comprises four representative groups: Christian and other religions, the Church of England, teachers’ associations, and the local authority.

I chaired the Newport SACRE for many years, and I experienced the inclusivity that came from representatives being able to meet to discuss what were increasingly mutual objectives. Despite overall concerns about the validity of a SACRE in our increasingly secular world, Humanists UK itself has said that it is willing to see SACREs continue as a challenge for consultation between teachers, local religion and belief communities, although it continues to argue that humanists should be included equally with religious people on these bodies, as many increasingly are. The Bill would provide for such inclusion.

I am aware of the Government’s commitment not to make changes to the curriculum. I know myself how difficult it would be to expect teachers—an already overloaded workforce that is undervalued, under pressure and underpaid—to cope with yet more reforms. Therefore, as much as is feasible, we do not want to add to the pressures already on them. There is a downside to piecemeal changes such as this, but the Bill is extremely helpful in highlighting the need to refresh this important area of the curriculum, and we believe that the Government should be open to discussion and review. I hope the Minister will reflect on these matters and consider how best to take them forward.

My Lords, I offer my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, on securing a Second Reading of her Bill. As we have heard from your Lordships, high-quality religious education is an important part of a rich curriculum and supporting pupils to understanding the value and traditions of Britain and other countries. I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark for eloquently making that point about our culture.

While I welcome the noble Baroness’s continued commitment to ensuring that RE remains at the forefront of discussions in this House, I must express reservations about this Bill on behalf of the Government. In doing so, I would like to clarify for your Lordships the Government’s policy on RE and how current provision already addresses, in the main, the Bill’s principal intentions.

The Bill seeks to introduce, as we have heard, an explicit requirement for schools in England, with the exception of voluntary aided schools with a religious character, to teach non-religious worldviews as part of their RE curricula. This is only right. As the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, said, there has undoubtedly been a shift in belief over the last decade. The 2021 census showed a 13 percentage-point decrease in the number of people who describe themselves as Christian, and a 12 percentage-point increase in the number who describe themselves as having “no religion”—although I must say that I am rather drawn to the definition given by the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, from Sister Christine, of religion being about love, but perhaps that is for another debate.

Nevertheless, Christianity remains the most common response in the census, and it is therefore appropriate that religious education in schools without a religious designation should continue to be, in the main, of a broadly or wholly Christian nature. The Government consider the Bill to be an unnecessary amendment to that, given that RE may already include the concepts of both religious beliefs and non-religious worldviews. In many cases, non-religious worldviews are integral to RE, and this is evident when looking at the contents of the department’s religious studies GCSE and A-level subject content specifications.

While the Government’s view is that RE is an important subject, we think it equally important that parents and older students are free to exercise their right of withdrawal. As such, a child or young person can be withdrawn for all or just part of their school’s RE curriculum without having to give a reason. It is permissible, therefore, for pupils to be withdrawn from all or some religious aspects of RE, while continuing to attend lessons on non-religious worldviews. For that reason, the Government do not think it appropriate or necessary to enforce the production and delivery of a discrete, parallel curriculum on non-religious worldviews for those who have been withdrawn from RE. A number of your Lordships raised the very important issues of individual liberty and tolerance of those of different convictions. Of course, that is covered in the wider school curriculum.

A number of your Lordships, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Burt and Lady Wilcox, and the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, referred to the situation in Wales. Let me clarify a couple of points that distinguish the situation in Wales from that in England. First, as noble Lords are well aware, Wales does not have an established church—in other words, a church recognised by law as the official church of the state and supported by civil authority. Secondly, my understanding—noble Lords will correct me if I am wrong—is that the Welsh Government, through the new legislation implemented in, I think, September last year, have removed the right for parents to withdraw their children from that education.

The Bill also represents a significant departure from the current Government policy on curriculum design and implementation. The Government believe that RE curricula should continue to be designed at a local level, for many of the reasons your Lordships raised earlier in this debate, whether this be through locally agreed syllabuses or by individual schools. Continuing with this model ensures that local demographics can be appropriately accounted for, including where this relates to non-religious worldviews.

It is the opinion of this Government that there is no need to amend the legislation surrounding the provision of religious education in schools, especially where this relates to the inclusion of non-religious worldviews in the curriculum, the provision of an alternative non-religious worldviews curriculum for those who withdraw from RE or the membership of SACREs. We know that most schools are already integrating non-religious worldviews into their RE provision, and that non-religious representation already exists on many SACREs across the country. We will continue to trust our schools to deliver high quality religious education that is reflective of all beliefs and inclusive of the local demographic.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have participated in this debate. It has been really stimulating and I feel somewhat humbled by some of the eloquence and strength of what people have said. I have learned about Milton. I have learned about the spread of humanism. I have learned a lot about humanism—the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, spoke very eloquently, and much better than I could. For the understanding of noble Lords, I do not want to proselytise about humanism, because what I am looking for in the Bill is something that is inclusive and respectful of other people’s views, so I was a little disappointed in the Minister’s response; I will take it away and lick my wounds. Nevertheless, the overall response of noble Lords today has been tremendously positive and supportive, so I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.