My Lords, I am honoured to be in a position to introduce this Bill to your Lordships’ House. I am indebted to all noble Lords who have taken the time to attend and speak today, and to Humanists UK for its help in drafting and briefing.
When I was 13—over half a century ago; time flies—it was mainly Catholic children who were excluded from religious worship at my secondary school. They were made to sit in the domestic science classroom with nothing to do apart from catch up on homework and gossip, while the rest of us traipsed into the main hall to be updated with all the news and events as well as doing the religious worship bit. At the time, I thought they were the lucky ones. I said to my dad that I did not really think I was a Christian. His response was, “Don’t be silly, Lorely, of course you are.” I had no say; like many children then and today, I just had to suck it up and endure it. To me it was an irritation among lots of other things in school that I disagreed with. Others had—and still have today—more traumatic experiences, which I am sure we will hear more of as noble Lords make their contributions. Negative experiences affecting pupils and parents are also reported on the National Secular Society website.
The world 50 or even 20 years ago looks very different from the one we inhabit today. We have become a diverse, multicultural society and we put more store on children and their rights—except in the UK, and in this matter of compulsory religious worship. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recently recommended the repeal of all collective worship in UK schools as a contravention of children’s human rights, but the UK remains the only sovereign state in the world to impose Christian worship as standard and, unfortunately, there is no sign that the UK Government are contemplating a change. On the contrary, only this March, Sir John Hayes MP asked what steps the Government were taking to ensure that daily acts of worship were conducted each school day. Education Minister Nick Gibb responded that any school reported not to be fulfilling its obligation to provide daily religious worship
“will be investigated. Where needed, the Department will remind schools of their duty on this matter and advise on how this can be met.”
On whose behalf was this Minister speaking? Certainly not that of the parents or even the schools themselves. Currently, parental choice on this matter is severely limited, with parents forced to choose between letting their children attend collective worship or withdrawing them and, in doing so, isolating them from their peers and taking a risk on whether they receive a meaningful educational alternative to worship, which almost never happens.
In April, a Times Education Supplement informal survey found that less than half of non-religiously affiliated primary schools were providing acts of religious worship. It seems the schools that are not complying with the current law have pretty much taken it upon themselves to respond in a more appropriate way to modern times and the diversity of their audience. Are they all going to be investigated? Will these head teachers be made to stand outside Nick Gibb’s office door? I am afraid that he and his Government are swimming against the tide. Every generation since the Education Act 1944 has been less religious than the one before. All this compulsory school worship seems to have borne little fruit. The British Social Attitudes survey shows that, in 2019, just 1% of 18 to 24 year-olds were affiliated to the Church of England. The same survey reveals that 62% of British adults are non-Christian and, more importantly, 72% of those in the age bracket most likely to have school-aged children are non-Christian.
At this point, it is worth emphasising that a third of our state-funded schools are Christian, and this Bill does not propose to remove the requirement for Christian worship at those schools—although, regardless of whether they are from Christian or non-Christian families, are not all children entitled to assemblies that include them and do not make them feel like outsiders?
In 2019, YouGov asked parents what activities they thought should take place in school assemblies. The environment and nature came top, followed by equality and non-discrimination, and physical and mental health came third. Collective worship came 13th out of 13 options. Why do the Government persist in insisting on a practice that the vast majority of the people they purport to serve do not want? I hope that the Minister will explain this to us in her remarks.
Meanwhile, let me tell your Lordships about the Bill. It covers schools without a religious character that are state-funded in England and Wales. Faith schools are not affected by the Bill except that, for any children withdrawn from collective worship, they will be required to provide an equally meaningful school assembly in line with those available to other children. It repeals the requirement for schools of no religious character to carry out a daily act of collective worship.
Pupils and teachers at these schools may organise voluntary acts of collective worship for children who want to attend, as long as their parents permit them to do so, but the school may not insist that children attend and neither may parents—so children who do not want to attend an act of worship cannot be forced to do so, even if their parents want them to. This would have been great for 13 year-old me. What is the point of forcing any child to pray? We have already seen how well that has worked with the census on 18 to 24 year-olds.
However, the Bill would take away the right of pupils not to participate in school assemblies—no more being withdrawn, isolated or ostracised. It would be inclusive, bringing all children together in a community to reflect on matters that affect them and us all. It would address the spiritual, moral, social and cultural education of all children. When you have children coming together from many religious backgrounds and none, this spiritual dimension must take a different form for it to be meaningful to all.
It would be thoughtful, encouraging children to reflect on our world, the moral choices that we face, our responsibilities to each other and to the planet, and so on. Indeed, from the YouGov survey we know that these are all things that their parents want them to learn about in assembly and to consider. At best, it would teach them to think for themselves.
I have no bone to pick with the Church of England, and I know that many people of faith agree with my position. Some 60% of parents, many of whom are Christian themselves, think the law on collective worship should not be enforced. In fact, only half of Anglicans agree that worship should be enforced, showing that there is a diversity of views among Christians.
With this Bill we have an opportunity to help all children, regardless of their background, to feel included and welcomed in the community of their school. It could mark an important turning point for inclusive education. I beg to move.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on introducing the Bill. This is an important topic and one that tends to get discussed outside the Chamber in conversations over a cup of coffee rather than by us thinking about what we need to do legislatively. I find it a really difficult issue. If there were an abstention Lobby for us to vote in, that is probably where I would end up going. I will not support the Bill, but I want to contribute to it and listen to others as part of rehearsing the arguments, because there are too few opportunities to do that.
On the face of it, the Bill seems very sensible. It is reasonable and not aggressive, and it seems to make sense in modern 21st-century society. However, it is part of a far more complicated relationship between church and state, in a nation that has an established church, and between the state and the role that churches have always played in schools. They are a major provider of schools. They educated the poor children of this country way before the state educated them, and I have always found and continue to find the churches valuable and constructive partners in our joint endeavour to educate children for future generations.
So I am in favour of religious education. It is imperative that at some point during a child’s learning they understand about all faiths and have the skills to decide what role they want faith to play in their lives. The Bill does not touch on that, but I know, given the noble Baroness’s beliefs, that she may wish to make alterations there as well.
This is not about our personal faith. It is about what we together decide should be the knowledge, skills and values that we pass on to the next generation. That to me is important. I must admit that, of all the knotty relationships between church and state over education, I find collective worship the most bizarre and the most difficult to justify, and the one whose roots are the most difficult to find out. I tend to think of it as something we have not been bothered with for so long that we have learned to live with it. There are advantages and disadvantages to it, but I think we would lose something if we abolished it, and that is why I do not support the Bill.
I want to rehearse some of the arguments. We all know that it is good to assemble children together and I am not sure that, without the need for collective worship, schools would do that on a regular basis. I think it has been a peg on which to assemble children together, and that is a good thing.
Cultural heritage and the ceremonies that pepper our lives are important. Although many of us do not have a faith, most of us choose to go through a ceremony at key points. I do not know the figures but, in terms of baptism, marriage, funerals or whatever, we turn to faith institutions. If we never had any experience of worship, service and ceremony based on faith, I do not know how we would cope with turning to those institutions at key points in our life and in the decisions that we make.
We have cultural experiences and occasions in common. Most children would not know about Christmas carols if they did not sing them at school. As harvest approaches, one of the reasons why we probably all know the hymns of harvest is that we sang them in school. I would not want a society where children did not know about Christmas carols because, although Christmas is often not celebrated as a faith occasion in many homes, that is its origin and that is what it means. That is what it stands for, and children need to learn and understand that so that they can make their own decisions. Faith gives the solid knowledge that underpins some of the ceremonies that are very important to us, and quite honestly it gives a framework for talking about values. Some teachers find that difficult, but I think faith helps them to do it.
In terms of disadvantage, the noble Baroness put her finger on it: it is the only time in our state system when we are legally allowed to separate children according to their faith. If we put children of one faith in one room and children of another faith in another room, we would get hauled over the coals and taken to court, and rightly so, yet that is what we do when we allow children not to attend assemblies. It can also become a focal point of disagreement in some schools between the leadership of the school and parents in the community of a different faith.
So there are advantages and disadvantages. The current situation is one of those things that, for me, sort of works. I am not saying it does not damage anybody, but it is certainly not a priority for me in changing law; I can think of other things in school that do greater damage to individuals. For that reason, I will not support the Bill for the moment, but I could very well change my mind by the end of the debate.
My Lords, I very much support the Bill, mainly because of what I believe education is fundamentally for. We can also talk about whether assemblies are a good thing and what their function should be and, perhaps, point to two particular factors: the desirability of collective worship in schools and its feasibility.
There has been no Ofsted inspection of this provision for 17 years. The reality is that collective worship, certainly in non-religious schools, is on the wane and, more broadly and importantly, as the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, pointed out, so is the desire for it. That is exemplified by the exemption schools have sought from the provision.
This is a good thing. I say that because a major part of the purpose of education should be to encourage the child to think for themselves as they discover the world around them. It has always seemed to me wrong and rather arrogant that we as a society should presuppose those beliefs for children who, through education, are in the very early process of finding out what they feel about the world and developing their own moral code and beliefs. It is education itself, in all its breadth and depth, that should play a significant part in that. For me, in part, it was the arts that helped me discover those things. I myself do not believe in
“reverence or veneration paid to a divine being or power”,
as the guidance defines worship. That is something that every child ought to think out for themselves, rather than having it imposed on them from the outset. Those are my views, but of course it would be immensely helpful if those of faith were also to be in support of the Bill.
I am not saying that religion should not be taught in schools. It is hugely important within the world, as are other beliefs, but it is time that we removed every aspect of religious instruction from schools, so that religion is understood as simply another topic of study, to sit within history or geography or alongside philosophy, including political philosophy—a subject that perhaps ought to be taught more in schools.
There are of course wider implications. There are too many faith schools in the country. In England in 2017, they were 37% of primary schools and 19% of secondary schools, percentages which have been creeping up. A new study by the National Secular Society has found that three out of 10 families in England have little choice but a faith school, meaning that children are pushed into these schools against their parents’ wishes, which is certainly unacceptable. It is right of course that students should be able to opt out of religious observance, but one cannot help the feeling that excluding a child from a part of the school’s corporate activity is not satisfactory either, in the long run. No child really wants to be exceptional in this way; better, surely, to have an assembly that every child can participate in fully throughout.
Assemblies are a good thing, which do not need collective worship to be meaningful. It is very healthy in itself that students and teachers who would not necessarily see one another during the week can meet up in a whole-school setting, if that is logistically possible. Apart from anything else, there can be very good practical reasons for doing so. A school I know well, which happens to be a private school not affected by the legislation, holds its assemblies—which contain no religious content—twice a week, under normal non-Covid conditions. It seems to me that there is no necessity for assemblies to be held daily, which the collective worship provision theoretically holds them to. Assemblies would be more special, and I am sure more enjoyable for students and teachers, if, as a matter of course, they could be held less frequently. Hopefully, in some state schools that is already the case.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, and to offer the Green group’s support for the Bill put before us today by the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, who gave us such a powerful and clear introduction to it. I have four reasons to express why I support the Bill.
The first is time. We know from many other debates on education in your Lordships’ House how much pressure our schools are under and of the many ways in which they are forced to deal with the issues of today to prepare our young people for a difficult, fast-changing world. We need our schools to be preparing pupils for life, not just for exams, and while assemblies might not be focused on exams, this is a time in which we can do more of that education for life. Picking up the suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, about taking away the current forced provision for assemblies, I point out to her that part of the Bill says that schools will be required to provide an inclusive assembly focused on
“spiritual, moral, social and cultural”
development. That element is not being taken away by the Bill.
I note the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, that when people expressed their first choice of what they would like to see in these assemblies, it was a focus on the environment and nature. We might think about how a local ecologist or nature group might be invited to come in and speak to the school, engaging with it and making contact with the community. That might also include a spiritual reflection on nature, with practical education about nature and our contact with it. Think about how wonderful an assembly like that could be for a school community.
As the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, just commented, there is also a need for more culture in schools. Let us imagine a local theatre group being invited into a school, perhaps to present a short play with a moral conundrum that could provide later discussion in class. That is the kind of thing that could be done with a whole-school or part-school assembly. Here is one of my pet favourite things: let us have some education in first aid, combined with a discussion on how everyone has an obligation to help others. Those are the kind of things we could be doing, without this straitjacket of the current law.
My second argument is an issue of rights and freedom. Others have already noted how the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has pointed out that the imposition of worship undermines children’s rights under Article 9 of the human rights convention and Article 14 of the UNCRC. It is really worth focusing on how important it is that we as a nation stand up for children’s rights. When we fail to comply with our own obligations on the international stage, that weakens our position as an advocate of children’s rights around the world.
My third point is on inclusion. Parents or children who choose to step away from the current forced worship are separated out and divided. As the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, said, that splits children apart when we want to bring them together.
Finally, on a point of practicality, in the best survey we seem to have on the law—an imperfect survey—the Times Educational Supplement found that 53% of primary schools are not doing what they are apparently legally forced to do, and Ofsted is not enforcing that. We have an anachronism here which means that the law and practice do not coincide. As a sovereign state in the world, we have many curious anachronisms left in our constitutional and legal framework. This is one that we can tidy up while bringing in something better, with the kind of possibilities I outlined at the start of my speech.
My Lords, humans are essentially religious animals, in the sense that we are the only creatures who face the essentially religious questions. Who or what created us, and why? Is there a purpose to our existence? Are there absolute moral values or just our own preferences? Whether we answer yes, no, “don’t know” or even “don’t care”, we are taking a religious position, because these questions cannot be answered by the approach of physical sciences, nor can answers be derived logically from self-evident axioms.
Ultimately, we answer on the basis of our own perceptions and personal spiritual experience, or we adopt the current fashion or rely on the accumulated wisdom of our forebears. But initially, the answers we present to the next generation—explicitly or implicitly, and whether Christian or secular—will be in that sense essentially religious. The pretence that there is a choice between an upbringing based on science or abstract reason and one based on faith is essentially false, and the answers we give to those questions have a profound impact.
In his book Dominion, the historian Tom Holland shows how profoundly our history has been dominated by Christian ideas: by the gradual explication of the life, death, resurrection and teaching of Jesus Christ. He shows that even the enemies of Christianity or those who believe themselves emancipated from it have actually been derivative of it, albeit in unorthodox or even heretical form. He describes the history of Christianity, warts and all, but ultimately shows that it has been beneficial to us as a people. I am a terribly inadequate Christian, but even I can see that at the core of the Christian faith is the belief that God is love; that the whole of religion can be boiled down, in Christ’s words, to “love God and love your neighbours as yourselves—there are no commandments greater than these” and that, although we fall short of these laws, God wants to forgive us.
I frankly do not understand why the most sceptical, let alone humanists, should be upset about us teaching that belief to our children, but a generation has largely been deprived of that vision of the world. To adapt a saying attributed to GK Chesterton, when mankind ceases to believe in a benign creator, it does not believe in nothing but comes to believe in a malign creator.
I am struck by how children are taught, not universally but often in assemblies I have attended, a bizarre animist creed: that their maker—the planet—is the enemy of mankind. “The Earth has cancer and the cancer is Man” were the opening words of the letter from the Club of Rome, which has been repeated again and again. We are told that Gaia threatens us with extinction if we do not obey her commands. I remember going to a school where a boy said to me, “Mr Lilley, when are we all going to be burned to death?”. I thought that he had been exposed to a hellfire preacher, but he had been exposed to a modern ecologist at assemblies. Surely, we should be more worried by the propagation of such doctrines rather than those of our historic religion.
Machiavelli does not get a very good press in this place, or from Christians generally. However, he said that when a people become effete and decayed, they can only restore their vigour and purpose by returning to the principles on which they are founded. It would be very unwise for us to deprive our children of access to those principles.
My Lords, I support the Bill both in my own person and as a member of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, chaired by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. The commission’s Living with Difference report urged just such a change in the law as the Bill suggests.
I am not opposed to compulsory worship in schools in principle. It was entirely natural that, when our society was a predominantly unified one, the beliefs of the society as a whole should be expressed in state-funded institutions. However, as is obvious, this is no longer the case. As we know, worship has to be wholly or predominantly of a Christian character, but there are millions of people of other religions: Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Jews. Even more significant than that: we know that about half the population now say that they have no religion at all, and the percentage of young people who have no religion is even higher than that, so our present legal situation simply does not reflect the society in which we now live.
My second reason relates to our present situation, where the obligation to have compulsory worship in schools on a daily basis is either widely ignored or so widely interpreted that it is, in fact, evacuated of all significant religious content. As we have already heard, some 53% of primary school teachers indicated that there was no active religious worship in their schools. The Bill rightly insists that religiously designated schools continue to have compulsory religious worship, but, of course, with those schools, the parents sign up for it: it is where they choose to send their children. The situation is of course totally different with the whole range of those schools—the vast majority—that do not have a religious designation.
As we heard in our briefing, a spokesman from the Church of England said that the present situation gives a very valuable opportunity for pupils to pause and reflect. However, you do not have to have an obligation to have an act of worship in order to do that. The Bill makes very good provision for compulsory assemblies where children’s spiritual and moral development can be considered. My guess is that most heads, who are now pretty indifferent to what the law says, would gain new energy and imagination in order to make something of those assemblies, if it was something that they could wholeheartedly agree with.
I support the Bill because Christianity is fundamentally committed to free choice. The only good reason for believing in a religion is because you believe and personally recognise it to be true. The pioneers of religious freedom in this country, like John Locke, were Christians, and they passionately believed that Christianity ought to be able to shine in its own light. I support the Bill on Christian grounds because I believe that the Christian faith is such a wonderful thing. It could shine in its own light, if people could only do away with all the distortions with which it is usually presented in order to see it as such.
So I support the Bill for three reasons: the present situation simply does not reflect where we are as a society, it brings the present law into disrepute and it does a disservice to the Christian faith itself, which ought to be able to shine in its own light, as I believe it does.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble and right reverend Lord, the former Bishop of Oxford. This is a short but very important Bill, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, for introducing it so comprehensively. The arguments have been well set out, not only by her but also by others, and I will not repeat the detail.
I support the Bill. I am a humanist and a member of the National Secular Society. I do not have a faith. I have beliefs, and I think—I hope—I have spiritual and moral perspectives. I have been a senior teacher in schools, and I am a parent. I have been present at many school assemblies and have conducted several. The issue of school assemblies has been troubling for many years. Issues could easily be resolved, amicably and in a sensible manner, by the Government’s acceptance of the Bill.
The Bill is not anti-religious or anti-belief. It supports parental wishes and opens up opportunities for greater involvement for children on the issues that concern them, such as mental health, relationships, the environment and so on. I see from a survey that religious worship in assemblies was ranked last by parents in a list of possible topics. In addition, 62% of people in Britain do not identify as Christian, yet assemblies are supposed—indeed, obliged—to have a Christian character.
I will talk about school assemblies that could make a real contribution to children’s lives. The time for collective gathering in schools and other organisations can be productive. The best and most relevant assemblies that I have ever been involved in were ones that actually involved children who were presenting interesting work that they were doing or things like volunteering, fundraising, being involved in a youth centre or Girl Guides and Scouts or working for a charity, such as reading to elderly people in homes. Visits by inspiring individuals, who came in to talk about their work—with adults or children—or their philosophy about life, were also popular in assemblies. The success stories of former pupils were also well received. I remember hearing in assemblies from pupils who had overcome hardship or disability and who were leading productive lives. This is relevant to children. This approach does not have its basis in any one faith or, indeed, any faith at all—although learning about different faiths can be interesting and inspiring. Anyone can enjoy singing Christmas carols.
If a survey of children were to be carried out on the useful nature of assemblies, I think that this kind of thing would come to the fore. I must say that, as a teacher, I found that smaller gatherings, such as year assemblies, were more intimate and allowed for some interaction with children—but there is certainly a place for larger gatherings.
Children’s rights are important. The UNCRC specifies that children and young people are free to be of any or no religion. Without invoking charters, the Bill makes sense in relation to what education is about. Good education ensures a broad exposure to ideas and experiences, and assemblies should be a part of that. Children are more open to experiences and ideas when they are able to discuss and express opinions. A good assembly will present thoughts that can be taken up by teachers, as appropriate, during lessons of the day. I remember having a discussion, many years ago, with pupils of around 14 about the rights of women, after an assembly on the suffragette movement and the relevance of their struggles.
Head teachers and teachers are committed to the learning and development of pupils, and assemblies that free them up to be so should be encouraged. This is what parents and children want and deserve.
My Lords, I wholeheartedly support the Bill. I am sad no longer to be following the noble Lord, Lord Taverne—this is for procedural reasons, as I understand it. I applaud the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, for his profoundly wise speech.
We live in a predominantly secular society: 62% of people do not identify as Christian, according to the most recent British Social Attitudes survey. Of course, some of these people belong to other religions, but many do not belong to any religion at all. I emphasise that this is a really important Bill; this is by no means trivial. It is of the utmost importance that children are encouraged to respect good values: kindness, generosity, tolerance of difference and more. They need very regular opportunities to explore these vital moral and ethical issues. You could say that the single most important part of our education as a whole is learning, as children, about the important values of our society.
Assembly seems to be the main context for the consideration of these incredibly important values. If these important values are conveyed within a religious narrative with which the children simply do not identify at all, there is an extremely high risk, in my view, that children will therefore somehow disregard the values themselves that are being conveyed within that religious narrative. It is not a small matter. If we are to have a good society in future, we have to ensure that good moral values dominate across our population, and that depends on this Bill finding its way on to the statute book.
The extent to which religious narrative is regarded as unhelpful is quite strange to me—it is quite extraordinary and phenomenal. As the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, mentioned, in a 2019 YouGov poll, religious worship was ranked last in a list of 13 possible activities that might take place in a school assembly. I am quite surprised by that; it is staggering, actually. Other noble Lords have referred to the percentages of people who support discussion of environmental and other issues. For me, it is values, values, values that need to dominate in those assemblies.
I was not aware that the UK is the only sovereign state where Christian worship is compulsory in state schools, including those without a religious character. I confess that I was also unaware that, under the Human Rights Act 1998 and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, younger children have the right to freedom of religion or belief, which is not being respected here. Some argue that parents can remove their children from assemblies, but that is not an answer; as others have said, parents do not want to single out their children. Some argue that these determinations are the answer, whereby a school can gain an exemption from the broadly Christian requirement. Those determinations are so bureaucratic that only 42 schools have actually gone through that process. These things are not the answer; this is far too important for that sort of get-out.
The Bill seeks to implement the UN children’s rights committee recommendation. I very much respect the Minister who will respond to this debate. Can she please either agree that this Bill should be incorporated into statute by government or, perhaps, explain to us why it should not? I look forward to her answer.
My Lords, I warmly welcome this debate. As others have said, it is very timely that it is raised. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, for her careful introduction, and other noble Lords and noble Baronesses who have spoken, particularly my distinguished predecessor but one, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, with whom I think I am about to disagree.
Worship and spirituality are a vital part of what it means to be human, and it is absolutely right, for all the reasons that have been given, that it be carefully reviewed and, possibly, that some changes should be introduced. But my reason for in conscience finding this Bill difficult goes back to my experience of leading assemblies as a local parish priest many years ago in Halifax. I put a great deal of time and energy into rehearsing the parable of the good Samaritan and the stories of Joseph and Moses, only for the otherwise extremely good and gifted head teacher of the school to reinterpret my assembly with the phrase, “Of course, what the vicar really means is don’t run in the corridors, and pick up the litter in the playground.” It is the reduction, without a serious faith tradition, of the fantastic values that are being articulated, to simple practical motifs which I fear is the danger of a Bill like this.
There are many benefits to collective worship in schools, as has been said, as a time to pause and reflect, to gather in community, to mourn in times of tragedy, as we have seen recently, to foster common values, to celebrate festivals, not just Christian, and to build religious literacy, which is vital. Although there is some evidence to the contrary, there is other evidence that suggests that the present arrangement works well, as many schools and children will testify. The noble Baroness and others have argued that the Bill would liberate schools to use the valuable time gained to cover themes such as the environment, health relationships and self-esteem, but all those themes are regularly part of good school collective worship in the present pattern, within the context of the great faith traditions.
If the Bill is passed, one effect may be to make anything that is more than secular assembly not legal and contested in our schools. I fear that one risk of the Bill is that it will weaken the protection around this valuable space for reflection in the school day, that the life of our schools will move in an ever more utilitarian direction, and that children will grow up in ignorance of the possibilities and depth of the faith traditions which, as the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, has said, have formed our society and culture and the societies of the world, where faith still plays a massive role.
Is it right in a pluralist society that worship remain wholly or mainly Christian? I believe it is, and for the following reason. The alternative to rooting collective worship in the Christian tradition is to root it in a largely invented contemporary gathered syncretic tradition, which lacks depth or authority, is unconnected to any faith community and will quickly be abandoned. The effect of the Bill may be to replace a tolerant, humane and hospitable Christian faith as the main strand of worship in our schools, combined with other faith traditions, with a largely manufactured cluster of ideas with few roots in our stories or culture and varying enormously from school to school. I do not think that the majority of the nation’s children and young people should be denied the experience of spiritual, moral, social and cultural development connected to a living tradition, which research shows they value. It is right that we are having this debate, and I hope that many conversations come from it, but I urge your Lordships not to progress this Bill.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate, even if I disagree with some of the things that he said. I should say that I am a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group and I applaud the initiative of the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, in bringing this Bill forward.
I was not going to mention this little story, but I shall do so in the light of what the right reverend Prelate said. I was talking about refugees at an event in Yorkshire. There were schools and faith groups there—it was not part of an assembly, or anything like that—and I was introduced as a humanist. A vicar was sitting there, and after I had done my piece and done my Q&A, I went up to her and said, “I’m sure you disapprove of me being a humanist”. She said, “Not at all—you and I believe in the same things. It’s just that I believe in God as well”. Maybe the right reverend Prelate would not agree with that, but it seemed to me that it gets to the heart of it: there are important moral standards that are shared and which in my view do not need a Christian backing. I shall come on to that in a moment.
As many noble Lords have said, what happens to children who are not in assembly? They are almost excluded if their parents do not want them to be there, because there is nothing for them. One parent said, “We don’t think it is acceptable that they be left to play with an iPad because they have been withdrawn”. There has to be something to fill that gap; otherwise, it puts young people in an invidious position, which is not very proper.
One clause in the Bill is absolutely crucial, at Clause 4(2), and I shall read it out because it goes to the heart of the argument in favour of the Bill. It says:
“Each pupil in attendance at a school to which this section applies must on each school day take part in an assembly which is principally directed towards furthering the spiritual, moral, social and cultural education of the pupils regardless of religion or belief”.
That seems to me go to the heart of it. There are moral standards, beliefs and views in terms of morality that do not depend upon a Christian imprint, but which are there because they are the right and proper way forward.
The Bill is important. It gets to the heart of what assemblies might be about. In my memory of school assemblies, I am not aware that they had any impact on me whatever over the years. That is except for one, when one teacher talked about apartheid in South Africa. I remember it to this day; it was totally different from all other school assemblies that we had and it made an enormous impact. It stayed with me as a matter of crucial importance.
There are better ways forward. School assemblies could have a part to play along the lines indicated in the Bill, which I fully support.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and I agree with every word that he and many people in the House today have said. One great advantage of speaking in the second half of a debate is that you will have heard so many good arguments.
I was going to quote another Bishop of Oxford. We have heard from the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford today. One of the successors of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, John Pritchard, when he was head of education at Oxford, made a very clear statement that he felt that personal prayer and direct worship was inappropriate. Religious education is of course completely different, but the personal prayer from a heartfelt faith is something that should not be forced on children, particularly in a society where so many people are not religious.
The Government’s failure to get to grips with reality is pretty disgraceful. They have not bothered to upgrade the policy since 1994. The current Minister, Nick Gibb, has written to say that if people are not implementing this policy they will be dealt with on an individual basis. We know very well that SACRE, the local committees that look after religious education, have no way of collecting data and nobody gives them any data about how religious assemblies are being implemented, so there is no data that the Minister could possibly collect. I worked out that there must be at least 16,490 schools not holding collective worship in assemblies, if they hold assemblies at all. One important matter in this Bill is that it ensures that assemblies are held to address those important moral questions that are so vital.
This reminded me of similar circumstances when the Government know that something is not being implemented. Do noble Lords realise that there are two Acts from 1297 still on the statute book that were apparently made redundant by Magna Carta later the same year but which have never been removed? The Law Commission looked at them quite recently in fact. Then there was an Elizabethan Act for compulsory Protestant worship on Sundays—what later became the Church of England, of course. Mr Monckton Milnes MP, on 11 February 1842, raised the issue that everybody knew that the Act was not being complied with, and had not been for maybe a hundred years. He was going to introduce a Bill to repeal that legislation, which of course was sometimes imposed on prisoners, who were fined. The Minister at that point replied that you cannot go around repealing laws just because they are obsolete. It was 11 February 1842, at col. 309 in vol. 60 of the Official Report. It took until 1886 to repeal that Act.
This is an opportunity for the Government to grasp the nettle. We want children to have enjoyable assemblies, to sing carols, to sing other sorts of songs that belong to other faiths and none, to enjoy them and to learn about moral issues and dilemmas and the great issues of the day. We want them to come together to do that. This Bill ensures that it would really happen and that we would get rid of this fudging and confabulation. I strongly support the Bill and I hope that the Government will be visionary and innovative in trying to address the issues.
My Lords, I refer to my interests in the register. I am a humanist and, while not a Satanist, certainly not a God-ist. I consider myself very lucky that I did not have a British education. I was therefore spared religious assemblies every year of my life while I was in school, so I ended up a clear-thinking person.
I heartily support the Bill. Indeed, I think it is too mild. What harm have Christians and Buddhists and Muslims done to not be able to escape assemblies every day, or whenever it is? It is a very strange idea that moral and various spiritual educations can be learned only by getting people together and haranguing them. The whole of school education should be doing that all the time—you do not need a special hour to get students together. I suggest the following experiment: if people think it is so good, and if they think the students think it is so good, hold it at the end of the day, make it voluntary and see how many turn up. That is a challenge. I do not really want to go on for ever, because I think it is absolutely obvious that all children of all religions should be spared assemblies. If you cannot find anything to do in that hour, start school later—they can all sleep more and it will be better for them than having assemblies.
It may have been that one generation or 10 generations ago, people thought that assemblies were great things. I did one year of primary school in my native state of Baroda, which was a princely state. We had to do praise of the king; it was not quite a prayer, but I guess we had to pray to God that the king would have a long reign. Coming from a properly educated family, I knew that politically his reign was about to disappear in one year—that was a fact. So I never had any faith in prayers, which is another very healthy thing that happened to me.
I heartily support this Bill and I think that, if possible, it should be amended in Committee and all schools should be liberated.
My Lords, business in the House is always preceded by Christian Prayers. We are reminded that, at all times, we should lay aside
“private interests, prejudices, and partial affections”.
Unfortunately, this laudable advice is soon forgotten as we begin to debate controversial issues, but at least the thought is right. As a Sikh, I can understand reference to God in Christian worship, but I have never been able to understand who or what is the Holy Ghost. My attitude to Prayers in the Lords is to go along with sentiments close to Sikh teachings and respect the right of Christians to their beliefs.
Assemblies in schools, however, are different, because of the age and vulnerability of children. In the past, when most children were of the Christian faith, assemblies provided a sense of oneness and unity of thought and purpose. Today, children are often from different religious backgrounds. Assemblies couched in the teachings of one faith as gospel truth can cause confusion and hurt, particularly if stress is laid on literal texts. For example, in the Gospel according to John, chapter 14, verse 6, Jesus Christ is reported as saying:
“I am the way … No one comes to the Father except through me.”
This can be quite upsetting to young children of other faiths. It can cause a lack of confidence in a child’s own belief and work to brainwash sensitive minds, sometimes with damaging family upset.
Although I believe that the Bill is right in suggesting that school assemblies should be changed in line with changing times, the proposal to replace them with vague spiritual and moral teachings is unhelpful and does nothing to enhance understanding of different faiths, when this is needed now more than ever before. Today, we live in a world in which we are reminded daily that most conflicts have their origin in religious bigotry. We need to recognise that what passes for religion is often a complex mix of ethical teachings overlaid with the culture of thousands of years ago—culture that frequently demeans women and people of other faiths.
Never has the need to understand the beliefs of other people and what motivates them been greater. Never before has there been such ignorance and reluctance to talk openly about religion and its good and not so good practices. This ignorance extends to all levels of society—to civil servants and politicians and to educators, particularly in our school lessons, where emphasis is often laid on the size and shape of places of worship and artefacts of different religions, but much less on ethical teachings. If we want a better and more cohesive society, the best place to begin is in the school assembly, with a multifaith assembly showing respect for common ethical imperatives in all our different faiths.
My Lords, I warmly support my noble friend in her Bill and congratulate her on her birthday today—I think I have got that right. I am very sorry that circumstances have conspired to prevent my noble friend Lord Taverne joining the debate, as we would have liked to have heard from him.
This is not an attack on Christianity or the assembly of a school community. On the contrary, the school community getting together is valuable as an opportunity not just for day-to-day practical matters but as a chance to reflect on things outside the formal curriculum—ethics, morality, values; matters which are the subject of proposed new Section 70A, referred to by other noble Lords, and which are not the monopoly of any one religion, or indeed of religion at all.
Schools should bring students together, whether they are in reception or sixth form, not cause some to feel excluded because it is not their religion or because they do not really understand what is going on, think they will be in trouble if they do not conform or feel a conflict between home and school. The current position simply does not reflect the equality and diversity which we so often talk about. I can well see that religion delivered through assembly and education delivered by the same teachers can be very confusing.
The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, referred to the very big question of the relationship between the Church and the state, but the Bill does not deal with religious education. In my view, this is important to ensure as wide an education as possible. The speech of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, was worth attending today for. Not everyone will share this view, but I regard my religious identity as being part of my cultural identity—not culture in the sense used by the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, although I agree with him—and young children reach an understanding of this at different ages. Sorting out one’s beliefs may coincide with adolescence and is all very complicated and unsettling. It is very hard for parents who find that their child’s school is setting up an educational context which does not accord with home.
The right to withdraw is not something introduced by the Bill—indeed, the converse, as my noble friend has explained—but until the Bill is enacted, Section 71 really should be complied with, and with respect, ensuring that the right is known and understood. It seems that the option to withdraw is no such thing in practice. The Bill introduces the alternative of an assembly of equal educational worth, with the same educational objectives as an assembly—noble Lords have talked about this.
I went to school a long time ago and in a very different world, and I will not say it scarred me, but this has stayed with me. My own school’s traditions were pretty conventionally middle-of-the-road C of E and there were a lot of Jewish girls. We were separated off for assemblies, or large parts of them, and when I was deputy head girl, I was expected to take Jewish prayers. I was singularly ill-equipped for it and had no support. It did not do me any harm but I do not think it was very helpful to those who attended. I have no doubt that the school thought that this was very advanced. I hated it and resented it, and not only on the occasion when the meat ran out at lunchtime and I was called up to explain why the Jewish girls had been eating the ham.
From the perspective of decades later, I realise that the staff then were not all well-equipped to feel comfortable to cope with the difference. There is no excuse for that in 2021. Indeed, from the perspective of 2021, some of what some people have experienced does not seem to me to be Article 9-compliant, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, referred to. This Bill is long overdue and very significant.
My Lords, first, I also offer a welcome to the Minister; while she is no novice at the Dispatch Box, I think I am right in saying that this is her first education debate.
I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, on her success in bringing this Bill forward. She introduced it with conviction and highlighted the many issues that surround the requirement for collective worship in schools in England. For that reason, I have to say that it is somewhat incongruous that the schedule makes several references to Wales, although collective worship in the Principality, as I understand it, is the legislative responsibility of the Senedd. I do not know whether the noble Baroness can explain that anomaly. I am unclear as to why Clause 1(5)(a) refers to “the governing body”. Does that refer to multi-academy trust boards? Academies that are part of a MAT may not have their own governing body.
I should say at this stage that, notwithstanding the outstanding and in many ways compelling contribution from the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, the Official Opposition are not going to express an opinion for or against the Bill. We see it as a useful exercise in opening a debate about the future of collective worship in schools, and the Government should be put under the spotlight because they have many questions to answer as to their apparent ambivalent position with regard to current legislation. Perhaps the most fundamental is the question posed by the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, and many other noble Lords, as to why the UK is the only sovereign state in the world to require Christian worship in state schools, including those without a religious character. That was highlighted, as was referred to by many noble Lords, by the United Nations recently, as it did in 2016 in calling for the repeal of legislation concerning collective worship in schools. Can the Minister explain why this should be the case, given that the 2019 British Social Attitudes survey showed that 62% did not identify as Christian? Have the DfE and Ministers given any consideration to the implications of that statistic?
As we know, the law as it stands is widely ignored. There was a time when Ofsted was required to note non-compliance, but it ceased inspecting collective worship in 2004 after 76% of schools were found to be non-compliant. The law certainly needs updating, but, as the basis of that, we believe that there should be a proper public consultation to test opinion and gauge the appetite for continuing with collective worship in school assemblies and, were it to emerge that the majority view was that it should not, whether they should be replaced with assemblies focusing on spiritual, moral, social and cultural education, as set out in the first line of Clause 1 of the Bill.
This is not necessarily a binary choice. The view of the public may be that school assemblies as an event have had their day and that the current system should be brought to an end and not replaced. A public consultation is a step that the Government should undertake because, as the excellent briefing from the Library makes clear, there are no official figures for the proportion of schools without a designated religious character that meet the requirement to provide compulsory daily acts of collective worship. The current guidance on collective worship dates from 1994, in spite of several changes since then to primary legislation. So, even if the Minister tells us—as I suspect she will—that the Government have no plans to undertake a consultation on the current requirement, which they wish to retain, the guidance relating to the legislation is surely due an update after more than a quarter of a century.
As other noble Lords have mentioned, we have one recent indication of the extent to which the legislation is complied with—or not, as it appears. That may have been merely an informal poll involving primary school teachers, but, nevertheless, in the absence of any other indication of the current state of play, it was given sufficient credence to be reported by the widely respected Times Educational Supplement. That appears to have taken the Schools Minister, Mr Gibb, by surprise. When he was asked by one of his MPs what steps the DfE was taking to ensure that there is a daily act of worship at every maintained school, the Minister replied rather ominously that schools in breach of the requirement would be investigated.
Noble Lords may not be surprised to learn that this was not the first time a Minister had been asked that question. My research uncovered this gem from a Written Question submitted by a Conservative in your Lordships’ House: to ask Her Majesty’s Government
“what action they intend to take in respect of the 70 per cent of secondary schools that do not comply fully with the requirement to have a specific daily act of worship.”
The reply that he received from the Minister said:
“The department relies on the OFSTED inspection cycle to identify where failure to fully meet statutory requirements is a key issue, and arrangements are in place within that inspection cycle to revisit those key issues on post inspection plans.”—[Official Report, 11/10/1999; col. WA 70.]
That Question was asked in your Lordships’ House in October 1999 by the former Secretary of State for Education, the noble Lord, Lord Patten. It was answered by the then Education Minister, my noble friend Lady Blackstone.
I have other questions for the Minister, which I fully understand she is unlikely to be able to answer today, but I ask that she writes to me in due course. Can she say whether the Government are satisfied that schools are aware of their rights to seek a determination allowing them to hold multifaith assemblies, assemblies of a different faith or no faith assemblies at all under the current legislation? Does the DfE know how many schools have applied for determinations? Schools Week reported that of the 48 schools that applied to their local Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education board to opt out of the daily act of worship between 2015 and 2018, 42 were successful. Do those unsuccessful have the right to appeal that decision and, if so, where is that appeal heard? What steps are schools taking to ensure that parents are aware that they may also withdraw their children from collective worship and that sixth-form students may withdraw themselves? If not Ofsted, who is now responsible for investigating and determining breaches of the legal requirement on collective worship? Can the Minister set out the process for investigations, which the Schools Minister has said he is now prepared to reintroduce?
The DfE has said that collective worship
“encourages pupils to reflect on the concept of belief”.
I entirely accept that premise, but surely that is the purpose of religious education being part of the curriculum—an issue referred to by my noble friend Lady Morris and the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty. Studying the various religions and belief systems, which should include humanism, helps to expand and shape young people’s understanding of other systems. Yet the figures show that the proportion of schools providing RE at GCSE level has decreased, while parents are increasingly opting their children out of RE to study other subjects. Is that a matter of concern for the Government?
The Bill offers the Government the opportunity to state clearly where they stand on a number of issues around the role of religion and religious education in schools. I suspect that the Bill is unlikely to travel far, but it provides the opportunity to open up a debate on these important issues. It is surely the Government’s duty to use this to ensure that the legislation is brought up to date and that it aligns with the views and concerns of the broad population, whether or not they identify with a particular faith.
My Lords, this is my first time back at the Dispatch Box for quite some time, so I feel a complete novice, I can tell you. I offer my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, on securing a Second Reading for her Bill—and, of course, many happy returns for her birthday today; what a place to be on your birthday. I thank all noble Peers who have taken part in what has been a fascinating debate.
The Bill’s aims are well intentioned and attempt to address provision of collective worship in a number of different settings, a topic that has long been considered contentious. While I understand the intention of the Bill, I must express strong reservations on its contents and would like to clarify to noble Lords how the current legislation relating to collective worship already affords us the sufficient flexibility that the Bill tries to achieve.
We believe that collective worship is an important part of school life. It encourages pupils to reflect on the concept of belief and the role that it plays in the tradition and values of this country. Importantly, the legislation around collective worship is inclusive and allows all schools to tailor their provision to suit their pupils’ spiritual needs, as well as providing an opportunity for schools and academies to develop and celebrate their ethos and values.
There can be no doubt that there has been a shift in belief in Britain over recent decades. The 2018 British Social Attitudes survey showed that there are many citizens who hold non-Christian religious beliefs, with 9% belonging to a non-Christian religion, including 6% who belong to Islam. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and other critics may say that the law requiring a daily act of worship that is wholly Christian needs to change in line with this evolving demographic. I refute this claim, as legislation already allows for schools to seek an exemption from wholly Christian worship in cases where the principal religion of the pupils or community is not Christianity. They can provide collective worship that is predominantly of another faith, such as Islam or Judaism. It does not permit replacement of collective worship with a non-religious option, and the Government stand by that policy.
In a small school-scale survey conducted in 2019, two-thirds of head teachers at non-faith schools said that they used collective worship to focus on personal, social and ethical matters rather than religious ones, with under one-third stating that collective worship reflected the main features of the school. The law is flexible and inclusive, allowing all schools to tailor their provision to suit pupils’ needs.
Let me be clear: children are not forced to take part in daily acts of collective worship against their wishes or their parents’ will. They do not have to suck it up and endure it, as the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, said. The law affords them a right to withdrawal. This can be exercised by pupils over the age of 16 and by parents of pupils under the age of 16. We will investigate a school only when a complaint is made directly to the department.
Having demonstrated the flexibility of the current legislation, I now turn to the Bill itself. It seeks to replace the daily act of collective worship with an assembly aimed at
“furthering the spiritual, moral, social and cultural education of the pupils”
in schools without a religious character. However, the Government do not think this is necessary given that, under the Education Act 2002, schools are already required to ensure the SMSC development of all their pupils. The noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett and Lady Meacher, and the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, talked about this. There are many opportunities, both within the basic and national curriculums, for schools to promote SMSC education without amending the legislation surrounding collective worship; in fact, collective worship is one of the many ways that SMSC education can be promoted. Other areas of the curriculum in which schools can meet this requirement include religious education, history and citizenship to name but a few.
All these subjects help to give children and young people a sense of enjoyment and fascination in learning about themselves, others and the world around them. This includes being reflective about their own beliefs, religious or otherwise, and perspective on life. Furthermore, schools can provide assemblies that promote the SMSC development of their pupils in addition to daily acts of collective worship, rather than in place of it, should they wish to.
The noble Lord, Lord Singh, talked about worship being Christian rather than that of other faiths. State-funded schools are subject to the public sector equality duty and asked to follow that path. They are also required to actively promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. This is broader, perhaps, than what is typically covered by daily collective worship in schools and, along with SMSC provision, effectively provides much of what has been suggested in this Bill.
Over my left shoulder appeared a bit of paper that may answer some of the questions of the noble Lord, Lord Watson, but probably not all. Indeed, it does not, because it says I will write to noble Lords. I apologise for that. He made three points and, to make sure we answer them properly, I think it better that I write to the noble Lord and make sure that the letter is put in the Library.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, that this is a difficult issue, but I hope that I have clearly set out why the Government believe there is no need to amend the current legislation on collective worship. Collective worship is already flexible and inclusive in nature. We trust that our schools will strive to further the spiritual, social, moral and cultural education of all their pupils, without this impacting on their legal duty to provide daily acts of worship.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in this thoughtful debate today. It is clear that everyone who spoke expressed their genuine and heartfelt beliefs. It is a huge tribute to this House that we can have this kind of debate in a well-mannered and mature way. I thank the Minister for her remarks and welcome her to her post, and I also thank my noble friend Lady Hamwee for her birthday wishes. I will not go into detail, because there are so many points to cover, and my noble friend Lady Hamwee did an excellent job of summing up.
The noble Lord, Lord Watson, suggests that we might wish to have a public consultation. I think that is a good idea, and I do not understand why the Government would be averse to the idea of a consultation.
The Minister in her remarks said that assembly is hugely valuable—she acknowledges that. The question is how much an assembly is enhanced, or the opposite, by the imposition of collective worship. She mentioned the exemption that schools can apply for, which is called a determination. However, that does not exempt schools from some form of religious worship, so it does not change the fact that we still would have compulsory worship in all schools.
The Minister says that the children are not forced to worship, but the alternative to being withdrawn from religious worship is to be excluded—to be alienated. What the Bill does, if nothing else, is to enable inclusion, bringing all children together, focusing on the values that unite us and enabling them to reflect on the kind of issues that affect them. You cannot be inclusive when a lot of children have been withdrawn from school, and it is important that we focus on those children.
For religious schools, the Bill keeps the requirement in relation to children being taken out of classes. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, mentioned that all children who attend religious schools subscribe to that religion, but that is not always the case. Sometimes the religious school is the only one in the local area, so it is absolutely proper to have the right to withdraw a child in those circumstances.
In summary, I am hopeful that the Minister will reflect on all the cogent and well-thought-through arguments that have been brought forward today. Perhaps she might well discuss with her colleagues whether some kind of consultation might indeed be the way forward. This is a democratic country; we are all here not on our own behalf but to serve the people—not, in this House, those who elected us, but we are still here to serve—and so I hope that the Minister will reflect on that. With that, I beg to move.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.