Question for Short Debate
My Lords, during much of 2016 and 2017, I spent time conducting a review for my colleagues in the Liberal Democrats on the challenge of the inclusion of racial and ethnic minorities in politics and, indeed, in the party. One thing that became very clear to me was that it was a problem of culture much more than of regulations or institutional arrangements. In other words, when people came to the UK from other places with other sets of views, there was a challenge for them as they became part of this community but also for the community to engage and involve people with other perspectives.
During that work, I was helped by one of my colleagues, Kishan Devani, who pointed out to me that an important piece of work was ongoing on religion and worldviews. When that was launched here in Parliament on 12 September, I went along to hear what was being said. I then read the report, and I was struck by how the fundamental principles behind that report were exactly what I had had to work on in my report for the Liberal Democrats.
The report is a thoughtful piece of work. In fact, arguably, it is the most substantial piece of work on the issue of religious education in our country since the 1970s. There was of course legislation in the 1980s, but that came from the process of digesting work done in the previous decade. I think that much the same will happen with this report because it addresses some fundamentally important issues. If it has a problem in how it presents itself, it is that goes into such detail that it is not difficult to find specific things that people might disagree with because it has been exhaustive in producing a set of propositions.
I should like to draw back from that and look at the fundamental principles behind the report and its intentions because they are of enormous importance. When I tabled this Question for Short Debate, the Government had not responded. The Secretary of State, Damian Hinds, responded last week. Sadly, it is a very negative and disappointing response because in many ways it fails to take up some of the most important issues identified in the report.
First, let me say a bit about what it seems to me that the report addresses. If we think about the question of what religious education is about, it is not the old view of religious instruction. We have clearly got beyond the point—this has been legally established by the courts—where it is simply education in one religious perspective. In our country, it is absolutely clear that we must take a wider perspective into consideration.
A man who is rather a hero of mine, an Irish theologian, dead many years ago, described religion in the following way. He said that religion is the most ultimate, real and compelling form in which we can see the social or universal relationships and obligations of our lives. In the case of those who may be called non-religious, it is necessary only to invert the form of the sentence: the most ultimate, real and compelling form in which they can see their social or universal relationships and obligations is their true religion.
In other words, religion is about how we understand and engage with meaning and that which transcends any particular subject or element of our lives, nation or state. It is how we understand our whole way of being in the world. That does not depend on being a member of any particular religious family. What is crucial in education is the drawing together, the giving to young people, of opportunity, encouragement and education to understand meaning, purpose and their engagement with the universe in which we live.
To deny that to young people, not to provide it adequately to them, is to leave them with an education which is a little bit of this, little bit of that and a little bit of another thing without any sense that it can be drawn together in a meaningful way. Whether that is in something that we would traditionally have regarded as religion or what we would regard as a non-religious viewpoint, it is, nevertheless, one that helps young people to develop a worldview, a way of thinking about and engaging with the world. It is not just something that they think about but their whole way of being in the world that they have. When the Minister responds by saying that it is about their getting knowledge of the values and traditions of Britain and other countries and therefore fostering mutual respect and tolerance, that is, for me, the expression of a generation for whom religious education was a failure, so that at the highest levels of the country, people fundamentally do not understand what religion is about and its role in the human condition.
That is not surprising, because we now find that in 2016 a large percentage of schools—33%—offered no RE at all at key stage 4, up from 22% the year before. Those schools are in breach of the law, yet the Government seem to show no interest or concern about it. Why should it be that in what is a law-abiding country, teachers—those who set down the boundaries, rules and ways of understanding and behaving for our children—should be so happy, at the level of the individual teacher, the school or the board of governors, to disregard what is absolutely clear in the law?
The answer is because they do not believe in it. It is not because there is not enough money, so when the Minister says , “We will put in a bit of money this way and that way”, it does not address the fundamental problem. The problem is that people do not say, “I believe that. That is important to me. I want to convey this sense of understanding to the next generation”. Why is that? I think it is because many people have gone beyond the traditional religious ways of looking at things, not to have no worldview but to have a different perspective with which many of the organised structures of religion have not kept up.
That is not a reason to dismiss religious education, throw it aside, allow it to fall into disrepair or disuse or to deny our children the encouragement to understand the way that, historically and in different parts of the world, we have struggled to understand what our life, our lives and society are about. It is not to deny that chance to say, “Here are a whole lot of ways people have tried to do it and it is really important that you study it so that you understand that where history, geography, physics and maths all fit together into some kind of perspective that has meaning for us and helps to guide us when we begin to make important decisions, personally and socially in our lives”. When we come to the ministerial response, there is no sense of that at all. It is, “We’ll put a little bit more money into it”, “Actually we do not have time”, or “What I really need to do is to reduce the workload of overburdened teachers”.
We should be asking why people have lost a sense of passion about this. Teachers do not go into the profession to make a load of money or for an easy life. They go into it because they have a passionate belief in conveying to the next generation those things which are important to them and our wider community.
When it comes to the idea that religion is about conveying the culture of our country, the whole point of the Christian faith that I hold is that it is not nationalistic, it goes beyond that and says, “No, it is not just about this country”. My goodness, the person at the beginning of it was nothing to do with this country and was pretty sceptical about the nationalism of his own. To say such things tells me that there is a failure of religious education not just in this generation but for the past two or three generations—a failure which means that people at the highest level do not really understand what it is about.
Why is that important? It is because when we deal with other people in other places or with people in our society for whom this is very important, leading, thoughtful, decision-making people do not understand what they are dealing with. They make the wrong decisions when it comes to dealing with fundamentalism, terrorism and the politics of other countries, because, as the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury said in a debate on Friday, a majority of people in this country may not have religious perspectives, but if you look globally, it is quite the opposite and is a growing phenomenon in the world. We must therefore understand that we must take it seriously.
We have just come from voting in a Division—successfully, I understand, for those of us who voted for the amendment—about our concern about the way that the Government are handling relations with the Muslim community. Parliament is sufficiently concerned about that to ask for a review of Prevent. That is because there is not proper and sufficient understanding. When it comes to young people and their mental health, it is not about them being religious, it is about them being encouraged to have a coherent view of what makes meaning in their lives.
The report gives an opportunity not for the Government to say yes or no about legislation but, rather, to say, “This is a really worthwhile attempt to address the question. We will sit down and discuss with you your concerns and ours about how we make it better for the next generation”, not, “I am sorry, we are too busy, we do not have the time, we do not want to overburden teachers. Here is a little bit of money. Please go away”. It is far too important for that. If the Government do not deal with it and instead pay attention to a small number of stakeholders, some of whom are fundamentalist in their known perspectives, I guarantee the Minister, the department and the Government that this issue will not go away and those who are determined to promote it will not go away. There will be a substantial campaign by people who say, “These are important issues for our generation and the next, and we will continue to press them”.
I hope that the Minister will take that message back to his colleagues, particularly the Secretary of State. This is important and it is not going to go away.
My Lords, the experience and wisdom of the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, in this matter is immense and inspiring, and I thank him.
I am pleased that this report recommends that children should experience and learn to link the spiritual and the secular and be helped to broaden their world view. My secular schooling, in Cardiff, was traumatic and upsetting. I was asked to leave school at the age of 16 thinking that I was stupid. My Jewish evening classes, which I attended after school, were so narrow and strict, concentrating on ritual and practice, that I was made to think that I could not be spiritual.
Later, with help, I found first that I was not stupid but dyslexic, and that the different brain structure can sometimes be an advantage, particularly in retailing and entrepreneurialism. Secondly, I was helped to know that I have within me “spirit”, as we all do. I will mention five experts who are rectifying this lack of compassion and mutual respect between the secular and the spiritual in education and who demonstrate it with evidence-based practices and methodologies.
The consultant paediatrician Sebastian Yuen has helped to create a system of teaching called Genius School. It has been tested in places as variable as Ecuador, Las Vegas, Indonesia, Thailand and New Zealand, and he is now bringing it to British schools. It helps children to develop insights and skills needed for their future on this planet. It begins with a personality-type assessment so that children learn their strengths as well as their weaknesses. Next, they are helped to find their passion and purpose, aligned with the UN sustainable development goals, and then they are introduced to skills to help them to start and complete projects. Finally, there is an introduction to experiences that help them develop resilience through mind/body activities such as music and movement, mindfulness, meditation and yoga.
Then there is Rabbi David Geffen, who saw that teachers were not trained to introduce into their schools concepts of compassion, empathy, equality, respect and love, and he has created a wonderful system of training teachers to teach these values. I have placed a copy of his practical illustrated book, Loving Classroom, in the Library. He says, as suggested in this report, that genuine universal religious education is the study of unity and oneness. Loving Classroom is now used in schools with Jewish, Muslim, Christian and secular curriculums in Israel, South Africa and the UK.
People might not know that in Judaism the written word for God, which cannot be spoken, consists of four letters, which, if pronounced, could sound like “jeho” and “vah”. I must not say it all together—it must not be pronounced. It is referred to in prayer only as “the Lord” or “the Name”. In fact, it is not a word; it is the root of the verb “to be”. The past, present and future tenses of “to be” are was, is and will be. This is the energy that unites, permeates and gives life to all beings for all time. Moses, as depicted in this room, said exactly that when he came down from the mountain. Without this oneness, we each have an evolutionary survival image of ourselves which creates the illusion that we are all completely separate and in competition with each other. “Spirit”, as found in all religions, is an energy that moves humanity to work together to experience the unity of existence and thereby resonate with universal oneness. In secular mindfulness practice, this is also the ultimate pleasure of higher consciousness—a journey built on cultivating truth in one’s head, peace in one’s heart and justice in one’s hands. If children of all faiths and none were helped to experience this, it would help them to progress in whatever activity they find themselves undertaking in life.
I am also delighted that Jeffrey Leader, director of Pikuach, the government-accredited inspection service for Jewish schools, is set on ensuring that all Jewish schools in this country, whatever their strand of Judaism, teach not just the confining rules and regulations, history and scriptures but, as Rabbi Geffen suggests, the values of unity, spirituality and oneness that it advocates.
David Lorimer, programme director of the Scientific and Medical Network, is a founder of a programme in schools in Scotland called Inspiring Purpose. Its aim and vision is to give young people the opportunity to think about their values, character and strengths, while also reflecting on who or what inspires them and their aspirations and goals for the future. Its mission is to help young people set goals, demonstrate future-mindedness and develop a sense of purpose. It aims to help these young minds of the future find opportunities and causes that they care about, and to get young people to become involved with and take action on issues that matter to them.
Finally, I mention Dadi Janki, the spiritual leader of the Brahma Kumaris, based on Mount Abu in Rajasthan, who, 20 years ago, when I was in my 50s and she was in her 80s—she is now 103—began showing me, through her love and compassion, that I, like everyone else, had spirit within me. When we act from that connection, it is good for each of us and for all of us. The vision that Dadi shares has inspired values-based educational programmes around the world in schools, with young leaders, and in the Brahma Kumaris institution.
I ask the Minister to engage with the experts I have mentioned—they all have evidence bases for their methodologies—to see how they might be involved with the plans for implementing the recommendations of this report to create a system to teach not only heads, but hearts and hands.
My Lords, political elites frequently wring their hands and complain that all our problems would be solved if only religious adherents shared their own world view that God does not exist and nor should religions. GK Chesterton mocked this, remarking:
“When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything”.
Notwithstanding the crimes perpetrated in the name of religion, the Committee should remember that the great mass murderers of the 20th century—Hitler, Stalin and Mao—were united in their world view in hating and persecuting religion and, according to Rudolph Rummel, were responsible for at least 100 million deaths.
Unpalatable as it may be to some, around 84% of the world’s population has religious beliefs. There are 2.4 billion Christians, around 30% of the global population, and as the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, told us earlier, that number has been increasing. Lyse Doucet, the BBC’s courageous foreign affairs correspondent, was right to say that if you want to understand the world you have to understand religion. The ultimate paradox would be to counter a decline in religious literacy by teaching less religion. RE is not about enforcing a belief in God: it is about respecting and taking seriously those who do. This cannot be elided into social sciences, reduced to a purely human or theoretical phenomenon, or a methodologically agnostic, neutral approach to religion.
Lesslie Newbigin described Christian faith as public truth, confident that its message is true—based on evidence—and offering hope to humanity. As well as understanding religious faith as transcendent belief by which millions of people live, it is also about understanding religion as a human right, as defined by Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights: the right to believe, not to believe, or to change your belief.
Religious literacy and understanding of faith and no faith, the honouring of difference, the determination to understand one another and to reconsider bigotry, prejudice and caricatures, must surely be at the heart of how we form tomorrow’s citizens. This will not be achieved by forcing the dilution of religious education—quite the reverse. Damian Hinds, was, therefore, right to tell the admirable chair of the commission, Dr John Hall, that he had heard “concerns” that making statutory the inclusion of world views risked diluting the teaching of RE. The future flourishing of RE will best be achieved by strengthening and adequately resourcing the existing legal arrangements for the Agreed Syllabus Conference, and by supporting the Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education.
As an instinctive opponent of one-size-fits-all, centralised command and control, I much prefer the use of a syllabus agreed locally between faith communities, teachers and local authorities. This is about ensuring that children will be taught religious knowledge in terms of how religions understand themselves, not as how the non-religious would wish them to understand themselves. The report’s proposed abolition of the LAS would mean that the guaranteed contribution to and ownership of local RE by local faith leaders would end. A place at the table, with proper accountability, is a far better approach than telling faith communities that they are no longer welcome. For many, religion is not just about learning a subject, it is about a framework by which to live. Excluding faith communities from the proposed new national body, and with no requirement for the new overseers to be conversant with particular religions or faith communities, is quite unacceptable, and could be deeply divisive.
Government could, however, iron out some glaring inconsistencies by ensuring, for instance, that the legal obligations set out in the 1988 Education Act are actually met—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice.
While recognising the important contribution that faith makes to our shared values, we disincentivise the teaching of high-quality RE by not including it in the English Baccalaureate. I am sorry the department has no plans to review this, but I at least hope to hear more positive news about the provision of extra teacher training.
Here are three responses to the report that we should hear this evening with some concern. The Board of Deputies of British Jews calls it “fundamentally flawed”, saying that it,
“might be seen as an attempt by those hostile to faith to push their agenda of undermining rigour in religious education at a time when faith literacy could not be more important”.
The Board of Deputies says that recommendations 1 to 4 are profoundly contentious and dismantle an important part of the Church-state settlement from 1944, 1988 and 1996.
The Catholic Education Service agrees and argues that the quality of religious education is not enhanced or improved by teaching less religion. It says,
“the scope of the subject”,
will become “so wide” and potentially “nondescript” that it would,
“lose all academic value and integrity”,
and potentially depress religious literacy and understanding at a time when persecution of religious freedom has increased globally.
The Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education also expresses disappointment. It says,
“the report paints an overwhelmingly negative picture of the current state of RE”.
It insists that RE in the UK is,
“the envy of the rest of Europe, if not the world”,
and suggests some very good ways of improving even further the teaching of RE, which I have sent to the Minister.
In his letter to Dr Hall, the Secretary of State, Damian Hinds, says:
“I have … concluded that now is not the time to begin these reforms”.
I agree with him, but I also hope he will come forward with positive proposals for strengthening the existing framework.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, for securing this debate and for placing our understanding of how to be in the world as the foundation for this report, Religion and Worldviews: the way forward. A national plan for RE. The report has been widely welcomed by many who are committed to the best possible teaching of RE, including the Church of England’s education office. We are grateful to the very reverend John Hall for leading the commission that has produced the report.
There may be many causes for the decline in the delivery of good-quality teaching in RE, but one of them will undoubtedly be the exclusion of the subject from the EBacc and a consequent decline in the number of qualified RE teachers in schools. This might well be an unintended consequence, but it is worth noting that for the same reason there is also a serious concern about the lack of music teachers and teaching posts. The EBacc is seen as a disincentive. On both subjects, I believe that the quality of the education we give to pupils in our state-funded schools is seriously diminished. I join others in welcoming the recent comments by Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman, who in a recent speech at the SCHOOLS NorthEast summit in Newcastle, asserted the importance of quality education in the broadest terms,
“encouraging the take-up of core EBacc subjects such as the humanities and languages at GCSE, alongside the arts and creative subjects”.
I hope the Minister presses the point with Ofsted so that a school could not be judged outstanding if it were not able to demonstrate excellence in religion and worldviews—RE, if you wish to call it that—and the arts, especially music.
It is the Church of England’s hope that this CRE report will contribute to a significant improvement in the delivery of an education in which the skills of religious literacy are a natural and valued element. The urgent need for this has been well stated by the Religious Education Council of England and Wales’s chief executive, Rudolf Eliott Lockhart, when he observes:
“More than ever, as our society becomes multicultural and religious extremism dominates the news agenda, we need young people to be religiously literate”.
In the 11 recommendations of the report, the language of national entitlement underlines the seriousness of the matter. I believe this is something that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has also touched on as a right. The entitlement is outlined in pages 12 and 13 of the report. The recruitment and training of teachers in this subject is a vital element in the delivery of excellence in this important area. The call for teachers of secure subject knowledge and for promoting the value of scholarship is greatly welcome.
In today’s pluralist society, we need teachers who will challenge cultural and religious stereotypes from a position of understanding and respect. In the case of religions that have an inherited and shared cultic practice, an identifiable canon of foundational texts and an organised pattern of leadership, it will be important to ensure that secure subject knowledge also includes the ability to explore a faith system’s world view through the practices that define and sustain it. In this respect, I hope that any national body that is responsible for developing coherent programmes of study would be required to consult religious and cultural organisations, particularly those whose practice, texts and organisation are the material for study in our schools.
Finally, recommendation 11 opens some serious questions about the withdrawal of pupils from this vital area of education. What plans does the Department for Education have to provide additional legal advice to governors and teachers about what should constitute legitimate grounds for the right to withdraw a pupil from the best that can be offered in the study of religion and world views? How will the Department for Education protect teachers from complaint and prosecution on the basis of ideological or racist views about this subject?
The Secretary of State has stated in his response to the report that his priority is to provide stability to schools, yet I fear that without action to support and incentivise the teaching of humanities, arts and RE by well-trained teachers the inevitable outcome will be not stability but narrowness and decline.
My Lords, I welcome this report because it seems right that our approach should be that of a Weltanschauung. I speak as a humanist and atheist. I do not believe in divine revelation or miracles such as the resurrection, but religion plays an important part in our society—often for good, although not always. It is important that we should know about the historic contribution that Christianity has made to our history and culture in Britain, and about the important role of Islam in the Middle East and Asia and, indeed, in today’s Europe. I wish I had learned more about Islam and other religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, at school.
I went to a Church of England boarding school. Its approach was not a million miles away from that recommended in this report. Every day started with chapel, but actually chapel was not a very religious experience. We wondered which boy—there were no girls then—would read the lesson, commented on how well or badly it was read, hoped there was a good stirring hymn and took bets on the length of the sermons on Sundays. Generally speaking, religion was not thrust down our throats at school. Indeed some masters positively encouraged independent, and even dissident, views about politics as well as religion, but that is not true of many faith schools.
Teaching should teach us about beliefs—to understand them and be tolerant towards other beliefs, when they too preach tolerance—but in my view schools should not teach beliefs. They should teach children to think and question and if that leads them to adopt a religion or confirm their parents’ religious views, as they mostly do, that is well and good. But it should not treat children as Catholic, Protestant, Muslim or Jewish any more than we would treat them as Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat children. That would narrow their Weltanschauung. Children should have a chance to choose their beliefs for themselves. Religion should be taught in the context of science.
One of the great moments of history and civilisation, as Isaiah Berlin observed, was the Enlightenment. It dethroned authority, especially theocracy, as the arbiter of truth. Evidence, not dogma, was now the test for truth in the natural world. It undermined superstition, prejudice and autocracy because it taught that there was uncertainty and doubt. Some truths about nature are now established as facts, no longer as heavenly portents. Evolution, for example, is overwhelmingly supported by evidence and can be regarded as a fact—except in the United States—as is the fact that night follows day and the earth is round. But however well-established they are today, some theories about how evolution evolves—for example, Darwin’s theory of natural selection—may one day, like all theories, be succeeded by a better one. There are always uncertainties.
“Nature, and Nature’s laws lay hid in night.
God said, Let Newton be! And all was light”,
to which one later wit added:
“It did not last: the Devil howling ‘Ho!
Let Einstein be!’ restored the status quo”.
There is always some room for doubt, and science is not to be confused with scientism—as science’s opponents often do—which believes that science has an answer for everything. Of course it does not. Scientism has no room for doubt and was one of the flaws in certain aspects of Marxism, which certainly allowed no doubt.
It may be unrealistic to suggest that teaching about the Enlightenment should be part of the curriculum in all schools, but the new Weltanschauung should place religion in a wider context to avoid dogma. Perhaps one key quotation should be Locke’s plea for tolerance, which I regard as basic to the defeat of autocracy and the promotion of democracy:
“For where is the man who has incontestable evidence of the truth of all that he holds, or of the falsehood of all he condemns; or who can say that he has examined to the bottom all his own, or other men’s opinions?”
My Lords, this is a splendid report, and the Government’s response is feeble. The report commands our admiration for its range and thoroughness. It took two years and heard a lot of submissions. It is extremely good: broad-based, understanding and tolerant. The Secretary of State said that religious education is useful because it teaches respect and tolerance. Religion is far more important than that. It is a global crisis. It is the basis of many of our wars and the cause of a great deal of persecution, as the churchmen here will know.
We need to enlighten children about the nature of thinking, purpose and their world view. For 10 years, I did a BBC programme called “Belief”, in which I interviewed a variety of people: everyone from Richard Dawkins to Timothy Radcliffe, who was the leader of the Dominicans. There were Sikhs, Baha’is, Zoroastrians, atheists—all sorts of people, and every one had a world view. As a humanist, my view is that every individual holds within him a world view and a sense of morality. Unless we bring that out in children, the world is doomed.
I went to Northern Ireland to report on children’s religious education. I talked to Catholic children, who said that the Protestants were wrong and should be killed, and I talked to Protestant children, who said that the Catholics were wrong. I talked at a school which was attempting to bring them together, and the children were saying, “I’ve got a friend who’s a Catholic, and she’s perfectly all right!”. They surprised each other by the breadth of their understanding.
I believe that this report needs more attention and acknowledgement, and that it can be an important gesture towards the future peace and enlightenment of the world. Do not go to Pakistan if you are a Christian—you will be persecuted. Do not go to Saudi Arabia if you want to celebrate Christmas. There are countries across the world which persecute people for holding a world view that differs from their own. We need to eradicate that intolerance, and that applies to every one of us and to every religious and non-belief enterprise—I speak as a humanist.
My Lords, this is a very interesting report. As I started to go through it, I was very impressed by how it designs a method for improving the training of teachers and broadening the information they have.
To start with the practicalities—I will come to my philosophical point in a moment—the report has the right approach: make sure that the people who teach the subject have a good understanding of it; otherwise, you will be trying to push water uphill from a very early point. The fact that we have got into a system where we do not take this subject seriously is probably at the heart of it—it has lost status. The noble Lord will be familiar with the criticism of EBacc. It has downgraded many subjects and religious education has merely joined a list. I am normally in a room supported by people who talk about the creative subjects—things that we make money on. Avoiding conflict and stress in society might be a very good way of saving money but we actually make money from them. However, those subjects are downgraded by the EBacc. The road to hell is undoubtedly paved with good intentions, and, trust me, you are on the road to purgatory when you insist on downgrading useful subjects. I am afraid that the EBacc misses the mark.
I turn to the philosophical point. It is probably presumptuous for a dyslexic—I join the noble Lord, Lord Stone, in the mafia of the mis-spellers; we would take over the world but we forget exactly who we are and where we jotted it down—to point out that the “s” on the end of the term “world views” is where this report scores. The first step towards a more civil and co-operative society is knowing what other people think and how they think. It is deciding that another person is well intentioned or it is thinking that they are wrong most of the time as opposed to evil, whether because of religion, politics or anything else. When we reach out from inside ourselves, politics works well. Those are good things to do, and this report says that we should do them and prepare other people to do them. The methodology is very similar to that devised by—back to the mafia of the mis-spellers—the British Dyslexia Association for training people in schools to deal with those in neurodiverse communities. It is important that there is expertise and support in this area.
If I were an Education Minister, I would instinctively go for two strategies. One would be to hide under the biggest desk in the room; the other would be to punt it down the road. We are talking about making a structural shift. My noble friend Lord Alderdice hinted at one or two of these things, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, suggested that the current system would be okay if only we would put a bit more effort into it. I think that the system is broken. It is out of date and reflects the old times. Politicians tend to be reactive—they say, “That was the problem yesterday. Let’s fix it today”—and we have a system that fixes the problems of some time ago. We have to try to address this situation in a new way, and this document gives us the platform to start thinking about that.
We do not need to reinforce faith. Jedi got on to the census. To the English, religion is a movable feast that does not go down certain tram-lines. It does not even go on branch lines; it is hiking across hills somewhere. Then we have groups that want to acquire an identity. Those of Islamic faith seem to defend themselves and their identity by hanging on to aspects of religion. We have to try to make these people see each other as the norm and not as alien. If you are alien, we can disagree with you and persecute you because you are not us. We are right and, if you are not us, you must be wrong.
This approach is a good one; if the Minister can give us some idea about how the Government are starting to address some of the ideas, I would be very grateful. However, the point of the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice—throwing a few more pounds at the problem, training three or four more teachers and saying everything will be fine and quoting a couple of statistics about a pass rate at, say, GCSE—does not begin to touch this. The important bit will be in primary schools to get the base of understanding.
If the noble Lord can give us some idea, I will be very surprised—it is a difficult question and this may be the opening shot—but primary is where we must put the emphasis on. Understanding will probably lead to great rewards in the future.
My Lords, this is a welcome debate on an important subject, and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, on securing it. Of course, the sands have shifted considerably since he did so; as we know, the Secretary of State has set out the Government’s position in a letter to the commission’s chair, the Very Reverend Dr John Hall. That letter amounted to little more than platitudes, followed by a blunt dismissal of the report’s recommendations and a firm refusal by the Secretary of State to address the current state of the delivery of religious education in our schools. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, was being kind when he described it as negative and disappointing.
Religious education is a vital academic subject, providing important knowledge as well as the tools to develop critical thinking and ask informed questions. It is important for pupils to have the opportunity to learn about all faiths and beliefs and to understand the way that these impact on how people view the world.
The commission’s report is the result of two years of consultation and has been widely welcomed, most notably by the Church of England, the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education, the National Association of Head Teachers and Humanists UK. We share the view of the National Education Union that it should form the start of a much-needed conversation about the place of religious education in our schools. The report confirmed that the pressures on schools to focus on limited, tested subjects and the shortage of teachers with the appropriate subject knowledge make it difficult to focus on religious education.
The commission’s headline recommendation is that the subject of religious education should be renamed religion and world views, which we endorse. That would allow the subject to be fully inclusive of humanism, reflecting the facts—uncomfortable for some, no doubt—that more than a quarter of people have humanist beliefs and values, and that more people self-identify as non-religious and humanist than the total number of adherents of all non-Christian religions in this country.
I note from their responses to the report that the Catholic Education Service and the Board of Deputies of British Jews—bodies that I respect—oppose the addition of humanism and other non-religious perspectives to religious education. Both organisations suggest that the incorporation of world views into the syllabus would somehow diminish religious education. In his response to the report, the Secretary of State said that he had received similar representations. I contend that, with the number of pupils taking religious studies at A-level having fallen by 22% since 2017, and with 70% of people aged 18 to 24 identifying as having no religion, the inclusion of a diverse range of world views would make religious education better equipped to remain relevant to young people growing up in 21st-century Britain, both those with religion and those without.
Currently, legislation and funding agreements require all state-funded schools to deliver religious education. Yet it is clearly not a subject that the Government hold as being of much importance, having been further sidelined by the introduction of the EBacc. Further evidence was provided earlier this year when the Schools Minister, Mr Gibb, stated in a reply to a Written Question:
“Ofsted does not routinely compliance check whether schools, Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education … or Agreed Syllabus Conferences … are meeting all of their statutory requirements”.
Why would that not be a matter of routine importance to Ofsted? As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester said, if the requirements relating to the teaching of religious education are statutory, then by definition they must be complied with. That echoes the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, that 33% of schools do not offer religious education at key stage 4.
Will the Government begin ensuring that the current law is upheld by schools in terms of religious education, or are they planning to rescind that part of the statute? Which is it? The Government cannot continue conniving in the law being effectively ignored in such a manner. This laissez-faire approach adds weight to the commission’s recommendation that a national entitlement to the subject should be introduced in place of existing legal requirements. With the Government apparently unable or unwilling to ensure that religious education meets their statutory requirements, having a nationwide entitlement would ensure that parents knew what they could demand of their child’s school and have clear recourse were it not to be met. This should become statutory for all publicly funded schools and, for maintained schools, should replace the requirement to follow the locally agreed syllabus.
The commission also recommends that for faith schools, a requirement should be introduced to provide religion and world views within the national entitlement. This would be provided in addition to any faith-based education and, again, is not supported by either the Catholic Education Service or the Board of Deputies of British Jews—I think I can understand why. Labour is minded to support that recommendation but, before doing so, we intend to meet both those organisations and those representing other faiths to understand why they believe that by teaching pupils at their schools about world views, they would undermine the teaching that they currently offer. Surely, those religions are more than robust enough to withstand their adherents receiving a broader understanding of the philosophy that underpins the beliefs of others. No matter; the law is quite clear that humanism should be included on an equal basis to the major religions—indeed, this was the conclusion of a 2015 judicial review of the matter.
This is not, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, suggested, about telling faith communities that they are no longer welcome. That is a mischaracterisation of those who advocate broadening and deepening the curriculum through critical thought and reasoning. In its response to the Secretary of State’s letter, the Religious Education Council said that it was disappointed by his reaction to the report which,
“fails to grasp the urgent need for reform of Religious Education to better prepare young people for life in modern Britain”.
That is a view with which we concur. The Government should think again.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, for securing this debate. I am grateful for this opportunity to set out the Government’s position on religious education and our response to the Commission on Religious Education’s report. During this debate, noble Lords have argued strongly for the importance of religious education and a commitment to its continuation and improvement. The Government share that commitment.
We have decided that now is not the time to implement the commission’s ambitious recommendations radically to reform religious education. However, the Government agree that good-quality religious education can develop children’s knowledge of the values and traditions of Britain and other countries. It can foster understanding among different faiths and cultures. It is an essential part of a school’s legal duty to promote young people’s spiritual, moral and cultural development. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, when he said that we have to help children to understand their way of being in the world.
Schools and colleges have a duty actively to promote fundamental British values as part of the duty to prevent people becoming drawn into terrorism. These shared values—democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and respect and tolerance for those of other faiths and beliefs—unite us and underpin our society. The religious landscape of this country forms part of those principles, and the noble Lord, Lord Stone, referred to the value of unity and oneness. Understanding our British values is a vital part of that. I perhaps have more faith in the power of the teaching of British values than other noble Lords who have spoken in the debate, and it is of course still an evolving part of the responsibility of schools, having been introduced only recently.
According to the school workforce statistics, 3.3% of all teaching hours in state-funded secondary schools in 2017 were spent teaching religious education. This compares with a figure of 3.2% in 2010, so it has remained broadly stable over that period. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, worries that we do not have enough time in the curriculum for the teaching of religious education. However, we do not specify that equal time needs to be spent by each year group on the subject, only that it must be taught throughout a pupil’s school life. For example, there is no reason why schools could not dedicate more time at key stage 3 than at key stage 4, when pupils are generally not studying for GCSE. The key stage 3 national curriculum is designed as a three-year programme of study to prepare children to start GCSEs in year 10.
The noble Lords, Lord Addington and Lord Alderdice, worry that there is not enough time at key stage 4. Having said that, the EBacc was designed to be limited in size to allow pupils to continue to study additional subjects and reflect their individual interests and strengths. This allows not only for schools to teach RE, as we would expect, at key stage 4, but for religious studies to be a feasible GCSE option.
However, one of the commission’s most concerning statements was that it had found a number of maintained schools and academies either no longer teaching RE or no longer teaching it as a dedicated subject. On that point, I would like to be very clear: RE is not optional. Schools not teaching it are acting unlawfully or are in breach of their academy funding agreements. We will take action if this is found to be the case.
I assure the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Alderdice, that where we are made aware of a school not meeting its duty to provide religious education, my department will investigate, as long as the school’s complaint procedures have been followed. In the last two years, the department has received only one formal complaint about a school not complying with its area’s agreed syllabus for religious education. Following the department’s intervention, the school has revised its curriculum to meet requirements.
One of the commission’s key recommendations is to change legislation so that all state-funded schools have to deliver the national entitlement on religion and world views. Reworded legislation would therefore be extended to encompass non-religious world views. Many teachers already cover aspects of world views in their RE lessons. Both GCSE and A-level content specifications include reference to non-religious views. But the potential scope of what could be considered a world view is very wide. Agreeing precisely what should be taught as part of a national entitlement would be fraught with difficulty.
The commission’s report suggests that existentialism and Confucianism are examples of suitable non-religious world views as they each make ontological and epistemological claims. This illustrates how defining world views and then deciding those worthy of study is complex. There is a risk that religious education is diluted in an attempt to embrace many other strands of thinking. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, raises the responses of the Catholic Education Service and the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Both have publicly expressed their concern about this. They are unlikely to be alone. This would make it difficult to agree a consensus.
An important focus of the commission report was the need to recruit, train and retain specialist teachers of religious education. This is key to maintaining the integrity of the subject and the quality of teaching. In recognition of this, we made two announcements in September. First, we increased bursaries so that RE trainees with a First, 2.1, 2.2, PhD or Master’s will now receive £9,000. Secondly, we allocated new funding for religious education subject knowledge enhancement courses of up to eight weeks. These offer graduates the chance to refresh their subject knowledge either before or during initial teacher training.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester raises the importance of Ofsted assessments of religious education, and I agree with him that this is an important part of an inspection of a school. I will take back his suggestion that to achieve an outstanding grade, schools should provide good-quality religious education.
The noble Lords, Lord Addington and Lord Watson, worry about the decline in teaching of religious education in schools. Actually, the picture is not quite as bleak as one might think. There was a 21% increase in the number of pupils entered for the full-course RE GCSE between 2010 and 2018, from 176,000 to 213,000 pupils. There has also been an increase in the percentage of the total key stage 4 cohort entered for this examination, from 28% in 2010 to 37% in 2018. This is important.
I thank the Minister for giving way. He talks about key stage 4, but as the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, said and I repeated, a third of key stage 4 students do not get religious education, so cannot sit exams in it. If the Minister wants to increase the figures, as I think we all do, surely he should be getting those 33% of schools to make sure they do what they should be doing under the law and teach religious education at key stage 4.
Referring to my earlier point, we will always investigate any serious allegation about the non-teaching of religious education, and this report certainly highlights examples of that. If they are referred to us, we will certainly investigate. To reassure the noble Lord, Lord Watson, we are committed to ensuring that religious education remains a key part of a child’s education.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned Article 18—freedom of religion—and violations of it. The Government are concerned about the severity of violations of the freedom of religious belief in many parts of the world. Defending and promoting human rights is an essential aim of the foreign policy of global Britain, and derives from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The report mentions that the right to withdraw from religious education has existed in our education system since 1870 and was reconfirmed in legislation in the 1944 and 1988 education Acts. The commission found that many schools are not clear on the scope of this right and how to handle applications for withdrawal. The report recommended that the DfE provide clearer guidance. Since then the National Association of Head Teachers and the National Association of Teachers of RE have produced guidance for schools on this issue. The Government are comfortable with this guidance; my department will help to raise awareness of it.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, raised a concern about the locally agreed syllabus for RE. For many schools the current requirement is that they follow a locally agreed syllabus monitored by the standing advisory councils for religious education. The department’s guidance is clear: that at local level, representatives of religious and other interests can serve as formal or co-opted members on both SACREs and in groups of this conference to review the locally-agreed syllabus. These are important principles which should not be lost without more careful consideration.
I thank the Commission on Religious Education for its well-considered report. Although it offers radical options for reform which at the moment we cannot consider implementing, we welcome the debate that it generates. The Secretary of State for Education has been clear that reducing teacher workload is one of his top priorities, and as part of that he committed in March not to make further changes to the curriculum. In this context we must decline to take forward the commission’s vision for the future of RE in England.
Committee adjourned at 7.35 pm.