Committee (2nd Day) (Continued)
41: After Clause 7, insert the following new Clause—
“Geographical spread of multi-academy trusts(1) The Secretary of State must not—(a) enter into an Academy agreement with a proprietor to fund a new Academy school, or(b) authorise the transfer of an existing Academy school to another proprietor,unless the condition in subsection (2) is met.(2) The condition is that the Secretary of State is satisfied that the geographical spread of the Academy schools that would be in the care of that proprietor is appropriate, having regard to, amongst other things—(a) the number of schools that would be in the care of that proprietor;(b) the number of pupils registered at each school that would be in the care of that proprietor;(c) whether the schools in the care of that proprietor predominantly would comprise primary schools; and(d) whether the schools in the care of that proprietor predominantly would comprise secondary schools.”Member's explanatory statement
This amendment is aimed at ensuring that schools within a multi-academy trust must be within a similar geographical area rather than spread across the country.
My Lords, in moving Amendment 41 in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Storey, I will speak also to Amendments 77, 79A and 95. Amendment 41 is aimed at ensuring that schools within a multi-academy trust must be within a similar geographical area rather than spread across the country.
It is important for the close working of schools across neighbourhoods. I recall the noble Lord, Lord Nash, saying on the first day of Committee that one of the advantages of multi-academy trusts as opposed to maintained schools was that they enabled the speedy movement of teaching staff from one academy to another. But, of course, if the academies are located right across the country, it makes it very difficult indeed for that kind of movement of staff actually to happen. The issue is one of accountability and transparency. It is much easier for parents and local communities if multi-academy trusts are located reasonably close to each other, as occurs now, for example, with co-operative trusts.
The amendment talks in terms of the Secretary of State having to be certain
“that the geographical spread of the Academy schools that would be in the care of that proprietor is appropriate”.
It is things such as the number of schools in the care of that proprietor and whether the number of pupils registered at each school is such that the total number is felt to be appropriate. Then, of course, there is whether a majority of the schools would be primary schools or secondary schools. Clearly, there has been a tendency for academies to be concentrated in the secondary sector. My question to the Minister is: what is the overall structure planned in terms of the geographical spread of multi-academy trusts and what limitations might be placed on that?
Amendment 77 requires the Secretary of State to report on the powers of autonomy available to academies and to assess whether such autonomy should be available to maintained schools. The issue is one of a level playing field. Why can academies have much greater powers than maintained schools may be able to have; for example, on issues such as the ability to set term dates, admissions criteria, the ability to depart from the national curriculum and staffing arrangements? The question that we are posing to the Minister is why similar powers of autonomy do not lie with the maintained schools sector. Of course, the date by which the Government would like all maintained schools to have transferred to academy status is still eight years from now, so I think the point is relevant.
Amendment 79A relates to the problem that college groups that sponsor multi-academy trusts have. They face technical barriers that impede them from operating an optimal service. This amendment is intended to enable colleges, academies and multi-academy trusts to work together in a more coherent, efficient and effective manner. I suspect that the Minister may well be aware of the problem but the barriers that exist can include DfE rules that make it harder for an academy and a college to jointly appoint senior staff or rules requiring the academy to put every contract out to tender, even those involving joint services with their partner college. As an example, it can make it harder for colleges and academies jointly to secure IT services. Technical solutions should be possible to solve these problems and enable colleges to offer much more joined-up local processes.
That takes me to Amendment 95, which relates to the need to increase transparency regarding multi-academy trust funding arrangements and expenditure. An example was quoted to me last week of a worry that rural schools have about their budgets being cut when they are part of multi-academy trust and money that was available in the local area being reduced without explanation because the multi-academy trust operates as a single financial unit. The amendment says:
“The proprietor of a Multi Academy Trust must annually publish information setting out the quantum of funding they have reallocated from schools’ budgets within their Trust and for what purpose.”
In other words, there is an annual agreed budget. It is about what changes were made, who lost money and, perhaps, who gained money—and, of course, if the multi-academy trust is operating right across the country as a whole, those geographical differences become very important.
The amendment aims to increase the transparency of multi-academy trust funding arrangements and expenditure. At present, a multi-academy trust can reallocate an uncapped proportion of funding from schools’ budgets within the multi-academy trust, with no requirement at all for transparency. That appears to undermine the national formula objective to achieve greater transparency. It is one thing to support multi-academy trusts having a degree of flexibility over budgets, but the lack of public transparency over their expenditure should be addressed. I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall speak briefly to Amendments 50 and 55. Amendment 50 seeks to protect the interests and encourage the involvement of all parties in a school community. It clearly makes sense that the Bill should provide for a procedure for the circumstances in which an individual academy seeks to withdraw from a MAT. The local governing body of such an academy may have very good reason, as outlined in the amendment, why such a step might be considered. Further, consistent with other amendments to this Bill, the amendment specifies that consultation on a proposed change must take place with the parties, including “parents and staff”. Two further elements to this are that the reason for seeking to withdraw, including the benefits that might accrue to children’s education should such withdrawal occur, and a timetable and financial framework for the activity, must be in evidence during the consultation. This is a coherent proposal that provides for the establishment of a clear procedure that is not burdensome or over-elaborate, in order to address a set of circumstances that may well occur.
On Amendment 55, clearly, there are many parents who choose schools with a religious character, whatever that may be. However, equally, there are parents and carers who would seek to avoid institutions of a religious character, believing that for them education should be in institutions with a secular ethos. Nothing in this amendment is designed to undermine, or otherwise interfere with, existing arrangements. However, given the intention that all schools should be part of a MAT by 2030, there should be a requirement that schools that have hitherto enjoyed a secular ethos should be required to consult widely before considering an application to a MAT with a religious character. Such consultation should be carried out in a timely fashion and deal with how joining a religious-character MAT would affect the existing school’s ethos.
My Lords, this group of amendments was powerfully and effectively introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blower. I just note that I have attached my name to Amendments 41, 50, 55 and 95. I shall briefly make some comments on a couple of them.
On Amendment 41, the geographical spread is absolutely crucial. It ties in with a point that I made on our first day in Committee—the idea of a school being a part of a community, a civic institution. It might be that we have a chain of coffee shops scattered around the nation, and people may like to go into a coffee shop that they are familiar with and are used to going into on their local round, so when they go somewhere else, they go to that coffee shop. But a school is not like that; it is not, or should not be, a commercial operation; it is not something that you skip around to, around the country—it is at the heart of a community. That geographical spread issue really needs addressing.
On Amendment 50, the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, set out what is clearly an unarguable argument. The world is not set in stone: communities change and groups of students change. A new industry may open up in a particular community, and that community may become very interested in a whole different area of study and focus—but then it is still signed up with an academy that has an entirely different focus, ethos and approach. The idea that all this could be set in aspic, permanently, really does not make any sense.
I shall pick up on a point that the Minister made on one of the earlier groups, when talking about how the Secretary of State needed the powers to intervene against a failing MAT. A MAT might work really well for some of its members but utterly fail to meet the needs of others; the idea that they are all going to work perfectly in perpetuity does not add up.
On Amendment 55, since this the first time I have spoken in a relevant debate I feel I should probably make a declaration of interest, if you like, of Green Party policy: we do not believe that any religious institution should be running state-funded schools. That statement of principle is where I am coming from. The noble Baroness, Lady Blower, made the very important point that people, communities and families have to be consulted before they find themselves forced into something that may very much not be what they want for themselves and their children.
Finally, I come to Amendment 95. Again, the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, has done a great job with this, but we are talking about transparency. If you have this lump of money, where is that money being directed? If we have a geographical spread—even if we do not—we know how money is often allocated in organisations: the way organisational structures work is that they often depend on personal relationships and emotion, not on explicit measures of need, so it is really important that people can actually see how the money, if it is given to one MAT, is spread around the members of that MAT.
My Lords, I shall speak on behalf of my colleague, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, and declare his interest as chair of the National Society. I shall speak against Amendments 50 and 55. Amendment 50’s proposal to give power to local governing bodies to withdraw from a MAT may inadvertently trigger fragmentation of MATs that are growing, an erosion of strong MATs that are reliant on academies within the MAT for sustainability and, as a result, wider instability in the system. The proposal does not reflect the company structure of the MAT or the remit of a local governing body as a committee of the board. Where there are concerns about the quality of provision, or the ability of a school to flourish and grow, these things should be discussed at a strategic level with the relevant regional director and, where appropriate, religious authority, so that together we can shape and develop an educational landscape that works effectively across communities of schools.
The language used in Amendment 55 is unhelpful. It should be noted that church academy trusts are based on church model articles which have a religious object, but that does not make them religious trusts. Church model articles provide a commitment to supporting the individual ethos of the school, whether it is a designated school or not. The requirement for additional consultation would add an unnecessary level of bureaucracy.
My Lords, I shall speak principally to the amendment in my name, Amendment 79B, about regional boards. This is part of my ongoing quest—our ongoing quest, as a Committee —to stimulate thinking on what an all-academy school system might look like in practice, and flush out a few thoughts to inform the Minister’s reflections as she seeks to improve the Bill as it goes through its journey in Parliament. In particular, what I am interested in in this amendment is the accountability of MATs.
One of the main criticisms I have of academies generally and, to some extent, multi-academy trusts, is that they are insufficiently accountable. We have heard that in the context of this debate now. I am also interested in the accountability of the Secretary of State, particularly if they take on a lot of powers through the Bill. The most appropriate body, or set of bodies, to hold the academy system to account are local authorities, because they are locally elected and have that legitimacy of election—he said, speaking in the House of Lords. Currently, the system has advisory boards for what, up until just after I tabled this amendment, were called regional schools commissioners; they are now regional directors. My sense is that the system does not actually regard the current RSC advisory board that highly. They are elected by the CEOs of MATs in the region and they elect some of their number to serve and advise the regional schools commissioner in her or his job.
I think we can do better than the current construction, so I am not giving up on a structure that already exists. If you can make something that already exists work, that can often be quite a helpful way forward. It is important to focus accountability at a regional level, rather than at a local authority level. We have local authorities of various sizes, from Rutland to Birmingham—in terms of the number of schools; I am sure there are local authorities with larger geographical sizes than Birmingham. But that we might want a set of local authorities within a region covering multi-academy trusts, given their catchments and the geography that they are drawing on, seems to make sense to me.
I am suggesting that the local authorities within a region form the majority of such advisory boards that now would have a statutory basis; and that they would be required to publish an annual report, so that they would be reporting on the way that the powers had been used by the Secretary of State in that region, and by the regional director. It was notable that the Minister, in response to the previous group, confirmed that in practice some of these functions will be performed by regional directors. This is an attempt to make those civil servants accountable for some of the decisions they are making in the name of the Secretary of State. In essence, it is the accountability of transparency that I am after—that, by asking those boards to publish and make publicly available an annual report, we can all see how the powers are being used and how the needs of the children in that area are working, and how local authorities would function as the voice of parents and pupils in their areas.
As I think the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, was just talking about, in the end this is rooted in the importance of schools as part of a community. I do not think anyone in this House, from the Government Benches through to this side, disagrees with that. It is important that the community is reflected in the work of an academy, that the community as a whole is there to attract and retain teachers, that the school understands how to engage parents on the basis of the parents in that community, that it is able to develop engaging learning by making it relevant to that community, and that it is able to adjust the curriculum according to what is going to create the relevance to its community. That is my suggestion, and it is merely a probing amendment to see if anyone thinks it is a good idea.
There are just a couple of amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, that I would comment on. Amendment 41 talks about a “similar geographical area”. I chair a multi-academy trust that is national and works across a bunch of regions, which by and large works pretty well, and some of the other national trusts work pretty well. The overall direction of travel of policy from the Government and elsewhere is that a more regional, localised approach is probably on balance better, but we are where we are with those large national trusts. We need to understand what is a viable footprint within a region to have a good relationship with a local authority, with its duties to SEND, and with its duties to children generally. If those national trusts have a mere smattering of a presence in a region, it might be as well for them to between them work out how to be more focused on a geographical basis. But if they already have a substantive footprint, and a substantive relationship with the local authorities, I do not think that it should be disrupted. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, might want to think about that.
Amendment 95 is about reporting on funding. Some multi-academy trusts do something called GAG pooling, which is nothing about keeping people quiet; rather, it is pooling the general academies grant to then distribute money across the map where it is deemed to be needed. As an example, I was in a meeting today to discuss an academy in Walsall that is the last one in the E-ACT group that is struggling. We put a considerable amount more funding into school improvement in that case than it would get through its general academies grant. It is that redistribution of wealth—to use an old-fashioned phrase that we like on this side of the Chamber—that is at the heart of the flexibility that the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, is questioning. I think he is basically saying that it is fine but that we should have some transparency about this. I am not afraid of transparency, and if the Government choose to move to get more transparency about things, so much the better. We have to publish in our annual report quite a detailed amount of financial information, and that is all publicly available. I hear criticism that more information should be easily available on an academy-by-academy basis. I do not think any of us should be afraid of transparency if that is what people would like.
My Lords, I have two points. My tendency is to support Amendment 41 but, after hearing what my noble friend just said about the direction of travel, maybe that is sufficient. I find the idea of widely dispersed academies problematic. In the White Paper that came before the Bill, in paragraph 131 on the size of trusts, the Government say:
“we will limit the proportion of schools in a local area that can be run by an individual trust.”
This is a genuine question: how does that fit together with the debate we have just had?
My second point relates to Amendment 55. I heard what my noble friend Lady Blower said, raising the issues of parents being faced with a decision about which they have not been consulted. We sort of had an answer from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester, speaking on behalf of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, but the Church needs to take a more understanding approach to this issue. We have a case in point: a group of parents were faced with the reality of their school being moved from an academy into a multi-academy trust with a Christian ethos. In principle I am against Church schools, but that is not the point here. The point here is whether those parents should have some input before that decision is reached. I find it impossible to believe that someone would argue in principle against consulting parents about this major change in the way that their school is run.
My Lords, this is a wide group of amendments. I shall speak first to Amendment 49, which says that, within a year, the Secretary of State must consult on whether the Bill is adequate enough a mechanism to enable schools to either de-academise or leave their trust. Once a school joins a MAT, it is trapped. We need to empower schools to leave failing MATs or those it has irreconcilable differences with. Where else in society would it be impossible to get out of an unsatisfactory agreement? No other organisation would be tied in this way to a compulsory contract with no get-out clause.
In our Amendment 94, we ask that the Secretary of State must report yearly on the financial health of academies, including any measures necessary to address disparities, especially over financial reserves, and that academies must state their intentions for the use of reserves over £250,000. Too many academies are sitting on reserves of millions of pounds. Notwithstanding the points made by my noble friend Lord Knight about reallocation and GAG—I had not heard that acronym before, but I will not forget it now—we need to encourage academies to be transparent about this. If they are saving for a huge capital project and can justify it, it is an acceptable way forward, but these institutions cannot be cash cows. Money needs to be invested for pupil benefit.
When I was cabinet member for education at Newport City Council, we set up a fair but far-reaching review of school balances to ensure that such practices could not continue. It was justifiable carrying over from one financial year to another for specific projects, but this needed to be accompanied by ongoing reviews by the financial team with the head teacher and chair of governors. It was my first opportunity as poacher turned gamekeeper—boy, did I enjoy interrogating those head teachers. We did not want to stifle innovation and capital projects—indeed, I could not be prouder of the new schools we built, constructed in partnership with the Welsh Government’s 21st century schools project—but we carefully monitored balances and reserves and we audited in order for pupils to be at the centre of school spending commitments.
On Amendment 157, within a year, the Secretary of State must consult on the merits of the functions of the Education and Skills Funding Agency and regional schools commissioners—they are called something else now—being combined and given to one entity. Duplication of services has always been a poor feature of bureaucracy and this amendment would go some way to avoiding the issue. Managing the finances and performance of schools is not well joined up. The ESFA, commissioners, LAs and Ofsted all have a role. This needs to change if schools are to be well run.
With Amendment 159, schools must maintain a digital record for pupils, updated quarterly, which may include an assessment of grades, effort, behaviour and any work experience completed. Parents need more information—and information that is relevant to them. Paper reports can easily be lost. All information needs to be centralised so that parents can track progress. Many, if not most, schools in the maintained sector have moved to online systems. If anything came out of the pandemic, it was a shift to online recording of student attainment and parental access to the whole spectrum of teaching and learning resources for their child. Notwithstanding that, I put in a cautionary note. I had a discussion with my noble friend Lord Knight earlier today about the confidential use of data and not selling data to commercial companies.
My Lords, I will now respond to this group of amendments, which relates principally to the academy legal framework. Amendment 41, proposed by the noble Lords, Lord Storey and Lord Shipley, pertains to the geographical spread of multi-academy trusts. I share the noble Lords’ view that this is an important matter.
The Government’s published guidance on building strong academy trusts states:
“When considering whether to grow, an academy trust will need to consider the geographical fit of schools”.
Many trusts operate successfully only in their local area, but others spread their expertise beyond local boundaries, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Knight, establishing clusters across England. This amendment risks restricting this sort of innovation, which can enable effective school support and improvements in performance, with clear accountability and strong governance. If I understood rightly, the noble Lord, Lord Knight, suggested that it was an either/or choice between regional clusters and national MATs. I do not think it is either/or; it can absolutely be both/and.
The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton, asked why we would not have only one MAT in an area—for example, having a single multi-academy trust in one local authority area. We believe that there should be parental choice. MATs will have different styles. There is obviously a particular risk profile if all schools in an area are in the same MAT. We think it makes for a healthier ecosystem if there are several MATs in an area. I have certainly seen examples in local authority areas where a number of MATs are collaborating extremely constructively to address some of the entrenched issues that they find in those areas.
Amendment 49 from the noble Baronesses, Lady Chapman and Lady Wilcox, and Amendment 50 from the noble Baronesses, Lady Blower and Lady Bennett, and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, relate to an individual academy leaving its multi-academy trust. As we stated in the schools White Paper, we will consult on the exceptional circumstances in which a good school could request that the regulator agrees to the school moving to a stronger trust, but we do not want to pre-empt the outcome of that consultation by legislating now, not least as we expect the process to be administrative rather than legislative. I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester for his reflections on the risks of destabilising the system through schools moving from one trust to another. I gently reflect back to the noble Baronesses who spoke on this that it is important that this measure works for the individual school, which both of them pointed out, but it also needs to work for the multi-academy trust, which I did not hear either of them refer to directly.
I turn to Amendment 55. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, for her amendment relating to academies without a religious character joining a MAT with a majority of or all academies with a religious character. The process by which an academy joins another trust is a matter for agreement between the two trusts and is subject to the approval of the Secretary of State in the person of the regional director. When considering any application for a stand-alone academy to join a trust, the regional director will consider what stakeholder engagement has taken place and take account of views expressed. It is neither necessary nor appropriate to provide specific consultation requirements in legislation. I again thank the right reverend Prelate for his clarification about church model articles.
I also thank the noble Lords, Lord Storey and Lord Shipley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, for Amendment 77. As the noble Lords pointed out, academy autonomy is a core principle of the academies programme. For the past decade, such powers and freedoms have been available uniquely to academies, providing them with greater freedom and flexibility in how they operate and promoting innovation and diversity in the system. As set out in the schools White Paper, our intention is that by 2030, all children will benefit from being taught in a strong multi-academy trust or with plans to form one. Therefore, all schools will be able to benefit from academy status and its associated autonomy in the near term.
Amendment 79A concerns the relationship between further education colleges and multi-academy trusts. Further education providers and academies are different types of organisation founded on different legal frameworks. Although that prevents them joining as a single legal entity, FE providers are still able to play a valuable role supporting academies, and this includes forming a multi-academy trust and sitting on academy trust boards. We are committed to considering what more we can do to minimise any existing barriers when further education providers work alongside academies, and we have established a working group with a group of FE providers to explore this in more detail.
Amendment 94, in the name of the noble Baronesses, Lady Chapman and Lady Wilcox, and Amendment 95, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Shipley and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, relate to financial reporting in academy trusts. The Government hold academies to account for their financial health through the academy trust, which is the accountable body that signs the funding agreement with the Secretary of State. The department publishes a full report and consolidated accounts for the academy sector annually. It is right that academy trusts hold appropriate levels of reserves to enable investment in initiatives that will improve pupils’ educational experience, as well as supporting them to meet challenges.
This year, the Department for Education will collect information from trusts holding reserves equal to 20% or more of their overall income to assure us that there are robust plans in place to use them, as the noble Baronesses suggest. There is a split in reserves between what we might call core reserves, investment reserves and those that academies will need if they take on failing schools with low pupil numbers to manage the lag in their funding as those pupil numbers increase, and we need to understand that picture fully.
I really do not recognise the example given by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, of rural schools feeling that they lose funding. I recognise much more the example that the noble Lord, Lord Knight, gave the Committee. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, may have a specific example that he would like to share. Often, we see exactly the reverse—that small schools are made sustainable through the MAT.
I can clarify that for the Minister. I simply picked up a view that rural schools may feel that they could lose money and that, as a consequence, such a school may feel that it has become less viable. It was a worry about what might happen as opposed to the case if everybody had to become part of a multi-academy trust; that was the concern. If the Minister could allay those fears, that would be helpful.
I thank the noble Lord for that. I will endeavour to find some examples that he can share with those who have expressed such concerns of where smaller rural schools have benefited from being part of a trust with the unattractively named GAG pooling, which the noble Baroness opposite will be dreaming about tonight.
Multi-academy trusts must publish their annual audited accounts online, including details of their objectives, achievements and future plans. They must set out what they have done to promote value for money in support of those objectives as part of their accounts. We currently publish funding allocations for each individual academy. School-level income and expenditure information for schools that form part of a MAT is also available online. If noble Lords are not familiar with that information, it is extremely comprehensive and useful. Parents and others are able to see not only what their child’s individual school receives and spends but how this compares to the income and expenditure of other similar schools, whether they are academies or maintained schools. I will put the link to that website in my letter to noble Lords after this debate.
Turning to Amendment 157, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, I am pleased to say that we have launched a new regions group in the Department for Education. It brings together the ESFA and the former regional schools commissioners to address some of the issues that the noble Baroness pointed to. We are confident that this new group will deliver the singular role of scrutiny that is set out in the noble Baroness’s amendment.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Knight, for his Amendment 79B, which proposes a regional schools commissioner advisory board. He will be aware that, as he alluded to, regional directors—formerly regional schools commissioners—are currently supported by their own advisory boards. We believe that it is beneficial that those board members are made up of a mixture of head teachers, trust leaders, trustees and business leaders who bring specific expertise and experience to decisions that directly affect academies, in particular approving academy conversions and matching schools to strong trusts. It is important to note that advisory board meetings are transparent: agendas are already published in advance and records of meetings are published. The noble Lord, Lord Knight, referred to an annual report, but an annual report is already published by region.
Last but by no means least, I turn to Amendment 159, tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Chapman and Lady Wilcox, opposite me. It requires that academies and maintained schools keep digital records on pupils’ grades, effort and behaviour. I am pleased to reassure the noble Baronesses that the Education (Pupil Information) (England) Regulations 2005 state that schools are required to keep and update pupils’ educational records. The Government’s updated behaviour in schools guidance, due for publication very soon, proposes to strengthen the expectation that schools should have robust systems to record and evaluate behaviour data and that schools should maintain positive relationships with parents.
With that, I conclude this group. I hope that I have provided responses that are sufficiently clear for the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, to feel able to withdraw his Amendment 41 and for other noble Lords not to move theirs.
Amendment 41 withdrawn.
Schedule 2 agreed.
Clause 8: Termination of Academy agreement with seven years’ notice
42: Clause 8, page 8, line 28, at end insert—
“(3) Subsection (2) applies to an Academy agreement in respect of a secure 16 to 19 Academy (see section 1B of the Academies Act 2010) as if the reference to the seventh Academy financial year were a reference to the second Academy financial year.”Member's explanatory statement
This amendment provides for a two-year notice period for terminating an Academy agreement in respect of a secure 16 to 19 Academy (in contrast to the seven-year notice period which applies to other types of Academy).
Amendment 42 agreed.
Clause 8, as amended, agreed.
Clause 9: Termination of Academy agreement where Academy is failing
Amendments 43 to 46
43: Clause 9, page 8, line 29, at end insert—
“(A1) The Secretary of State may by notice terminate an Academy agreement with the proprietor of an Academy if any of subsections (1) to (1B) applies.”Member's explanatory statement
This amendment, and the other amendments to clauses 9 and 14 in Baroness Barran’s name, allow the Secretary of State to terminate an Academy agreement without first issuing a termination warning notice in certain cases where the Academy is failing.
44: Clause 9, page 8, line 30, leave out subsection (1) and insert—
“(1) This subsection applies if the Chief Inspector has given a notice in relation to the Academy under section 13(3)(a) of the Education Act 2005 (special measures required to be taken or significant improvement required).”Member's explanatory statement
See the explanatory statement to the amendment in Baroness Barran’s name at page 8, line 29.
45: Clause 9, page 8, line 34, at end insert—
“(1A) This subsection applies if—(a) the Academy is a 16 to 19 Academy, and(b) a report made under section 124(3) or 125(3) of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 (inspections of education and training and of further education institutions) states that the Chief Inspector does not consider the education or training inspected at the Academy to be of a quality adequate to meet the reasonable needs of those receiving it. (1B) This subsection applies if a pupil is provided with board and lodging at the Academy and—(a) the Chief Inspector has made a notification in relation to the Academy under section 87(4)(c) of the Children Act 1989 (duty to notify Secretary of State of welfare failure in boarding schools), or(b) the Secretary of State considers that a national minimum standard published under section 87C of that Act (boarding schools: national minimum standards) is not being met in relation to the Academy.”Member's explanatory statement
See the explanatory statement to the amendment in Baroness Barran’s name at page 8, line 29.
46: Clause 9, page 8, line 35, leave out subsection (2)
Member's explanatory statement
See the explanatory statement to the amendment in Baroness Barran’s name at page 8, line 29.
Amendments 43 to 46 agreed.
Clause 9, as amended, agreed.
Clause 10: Termination of Academy agreement in cases of insolvency
Clause 10 agreed.
Clause 11: Termination of master agreement on change of control or insolvency event
47: Clause 11, page 9, line 23, leave out “a” and insert “an Academy agreement or”
Member's explanatory statement
This amendment allows the Secretary of State to terminate an Academy agreement as well as a master agreement if there is a change of control or insolvency event (so that an Academy agreement in respect of a single-Academy trust could be terminated on those grounds).
Amendment 47 agreed.
Clause 11, as amended, agreed.
Clause 12: Termination of Academy agreement or master agreement after failure to address concerns
Clause 12 agreed.
Clause 13: Termination of Academy agreement or master agreement after warning notice
Clause 13 agreed.
Clause 14: Termination warning notices: Academy agreements
48: Clause 14, page 12, line 11, leave out subsections (6) and (7)
Member's explanatory statement
See the explanatory statement to the amendment in Baroness Barran’s name at page 8, line 29.
Amendment 48 agreed.
Clause 14, as amended, agreed.
Clause 15: Termination warning notices: master agreements
Clause 15 agreed.
Clause 16: Termination of Academy agreement after termination of master agreement
Clause 16 agreed.
Clause 17: Termination: contractual provisions and other rights
Clause 17 agreed.
Clause 18: Termination: consequential amendments
Clause 18 agreed.
Amendments 49 and 50 not moved.
Clause 19: Requirement to make regulations about governance
Clause 19 agreed.
Clause 20: Power to make regulations about governance
51: Clause 20, page 14, line 30, at end insert—
“(1A) In the application of this section to the proprietor of a Church of England school, subsection (1) has effect as if the power to make regulations were a requirement to do so.”Member's explanatory statement
This amendment ensures that regulations are made for Church of England schools in minority trusts.
My Lords, I speak on behalf my colleague, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, on his Amendment 51 and declare his interest as chair of the National Society. We tabled this amendment because, for Church of England schools, there will be occasions when schools are not in trusts where former voluntary aided schools are in the majority. For us, there needs to be the same consistency of approach in Clause 20, which is of particular importance for Roman Catholic schools, for example, as there is in Clause 19. Clause 19 sets out the requirement that the Secretary of State “must make regulations” concerning multi-academy trusts. However, as things stand, Clause 20 is only a “power” and does not guarantee regulations for trusts that do not meet the baseline voluntary aided numbers outlined in Clause 19.
We must ensure that there are appropriate regulations for all Church of England schools in trusts, so it is crucial that the Secretary of State must, rather than just may, make regulations in the context of the Church of England to provide legislative protection and assurance for any MATs where there are less than 50% voluntary aided schools within the trust. I would further welcome any assurance the Minister can provide that our understanding is correct that Clause 19 describes a baseline over which a trust must have majority articles but does not represent a threshold, and therefore does not prevent MATs that do not have a least 50% voluntary aided schools within the trust operating under majority articles.
I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester for moving this amendment. As he said, the amendment would require the Secretary of State to make regulations under Clause 20, rather than providing the Secretary of State with a power to make regulations.
The Government entirely appreciate that the governance protections in Clause 20 are incredibly important to the Church of England and all other religious denominations. They will provide reassurance to local authority-maintained schools with a religious character that their religious character, which is maintained and developed through their governance arrangements, will continue to be protected once they become academies.
To explain why the current wording in Clause 20 is appropriate, it is useful to compare the clause with Clause 19, as there are some differences. Clause 19 relates to a very specific point regarding members and directors in certain academy trusts. The exact provision that is to be set out in the regulations is stated in the clause. It is therefore appropriate for this clause to provide that the Secretary of State must make these regulations.
In contrast, the regulation-making power in Clause 20 is much wider and the extent to which it is used will be finalised only after consultation. Clause 20 applies to all academy trusts which contain academies with a religious character. It also covers a much wider range of governance matters than the specific point in Clause 19. For example, regulations made under Clause 20 may include who can be appointed into different governance roles and the connection they must have to the relevant religious body. It may also include alterations to the articles of association, the composition of committees and the delegation of responsibilities.
Clause 20 needs to be a power for the Secretary of State to make regulations as the exact scope and content of the regulations will be informed by future consultation. However, to be clear, the Government do not intend to avoid making regulations under Clause 20. Instead, I assure the right reverend Prelate of our absolute commitment that, after consultation, the Government will make regulations under Clause 20 which apply to all academy trusts with an academy school of any religious character.
The regulations made under Clauses 19 and 20 will make clear the circumstances in which certain governance arrangements must be in place. For example, this could be when a trust must ensure that the majority of directors are appointed by the relevant religious body. However, this does not mean that similar arrangements cannot be used in other circumstances. For example, an academy trust in which fewer than half the academies are former voluntary aided Church of England schools can still adopt articles of association in which the majority of directors are appointed by the relevant religious body.
In addition, as stated in the clause, the Secretary of State will consult before the regulations are first made. This consultation will include appropriate stakeholders, including religious bodies. The right reverend Prelate can be reassured that this means we will continue to work constructively with dioceses and other religious bodies to agree the most appropriate governance arrangements for academy trusts comprising different types of academies with a religious character.
I hope this has provided some confidence to the right reverend Prelate that, after appropriate consultation, regulations under Clause 20 will be made. I hope he is therefore able to withdraw the amendment on behalf of his noble friend.
Amendment 51 withdrawn.
Clause 20 agreed.
Clauses 21 and 22 agreed.
Clause 23: Religious education: former foundation or voluntary controlled schools
Amendment 52 not moved.
Clause 23 agreed.
Clause 24 agreed.
Clause 25: Special arrangements for worship and religious education
53: Clause 25, page 18, line 20, at end insert—
“(2A) For any pupils who have withdrawn from collective worship in accordance with subsection (1) or subsection (2), the Academy school must provide an assembly of equal educational worth, which must be principally directed towards furthering the spiritual, moral, social and cultural education of the pupils.”Member’s explanatory statement
This requires academies with a religious character to provide pupils with a meaningful alternative to collective worship if they or their parents request that they are withdrawn, so as to ensure that all pupils enjoy the benefits of the full length of the school day, irrespective of religious belief.
My Lords, I will also speak to Amendments 57 and 58. I thank Humanists UK for its excellent briefing and the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, and any other Peers who support these amendments.
The context for these amendments is worth noting. Some 62% of people in this country do not identify as Christian, according to the most recent British Social Attitudes survey in, I think, 2022. More than 50% say they are of no religion. In this context, is it really appropriate that all schools in England require pupils to take part in a daily act of Christian worship? Surely not. Also, under the Human Rights Act 1998 and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, younger children have the right to freedom of religion or belief. We do not seem to provide that in this country at the moment.
Many parents send their children to a faith school because the school has a good academic reputation or a good reputation for discipline, for example. They may not be people of religion at all. Others find that they have no option but to send their child to a religious school; it is the only nearby school suitable for their child. The law needs to take account of these situations. In reality, many children in faith schools for whom Christian worship has no meaning do not opt out of the collective worship events because they do not wish to attract attention to themselves or to be ostracised by others.
In my view, the lack of any organised alternative activity for these children increases the child’s reluctance to draw attention to themselves and opt out. At present, children who have withdrawn from collective worship often just have to sit outside the door—almost like a naughty child—or are left in an empty classroom with nothing to do.
These three amendments would ensure that the needs of all children are met. They are supposed to be not anti-religion but in favour of the needs of all children. Amendment 53 would require faith academies to provide a meaningful alternative assembly for pupils who have withdrawn from collective worship. It is already law in Wales, which apparently is way ahead of England, through the recent Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Act 2021. This amendment would bring England up to speed with Wales.
Amendment 57 would replace collective worship in academy schools “without a religious character” with a requirement to hold inclusive assemblies. The UK is the only sovereign state in the world to impose worship in all state schools, including schools without a religious character. That is pretty remarkable; I am quite surprised by that. The majority of parents do not support this, according to the findings of a YouGov poll. Most parents were not aware of the law but, when made aware of it, 60% of parents opposed it being enforced.
Amendment 57 would free up schools to hold assemblies on subjects that parents do want to see covered. A YouGov poll from 2019 found that religious worship came bottom, surprisingly, of a list of 13 possible topics that could be covered in assemblies, with fewer than one third of parents considering it to be appropriate. The topics that parents wanted to be covered in assemblies included, for example, the environment and nature, equality and non-discrimination, physical and mental health and celebration of achievements. The topics could include religious content but not in the form of veneration of a divine being; it would be more like religious discussion, debate about different religions and so on, with more of an educational content.
Very importantly, the amendment would reflect the recommendations from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which has urged the UK to repeal our collective worship laws. In reality, many schools pay little heed to the law and lay on secular assemblies on many different topics without any worship. Amendment 57 would sort out legal uncertainty and bring the UK into line with key international organisations and, indeed, the rest of the world. If there were a demand for acts of worship from some of the children, as there might well be, a school could organise these on a voluntary basis; but this would be entirely separate from the inclusive assembly for all children.
Amendment 58 is slightly different. It would significantly reduce discrimination against teachers applying for a job in a faith-based academy. The law already maintains that faith academies cannot discriminate on grounds of religion during the hiring or promotion of teaching staff unless there is a “genuine occupational requirement”. However, the current law is confusing. The English educational law, Section 124AA of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998—sorry to be so tedious—and paragraph 4(d) of Schedule 22 to the Equality Act 2010, appear to allow faith schools to discriminate on the basis of religion or belief for the purposes of appointment, promotion, remuneration or termination of employment of teachers, even where there is not an occupational requirement. The result is that many schools currently do discriminate even where the employment equality directive makes it clear that this is not allowed.
Amendment 58 would remove any ambiguity in the law and make it clear across legislation that discrimination is allowed only where there could be said to be a genuine occupational requirement, or GOR. Again, we have a precedent. This reform was recently introduced in Northern Ireland through the Fair Employment (School Teachers) Act (Northern Ireland) 2022, passed apparently to the sound of applause across the Chamber. The Act attracted wide cross-party support—again, interestingly, to me—from all the religious and non-religious communities, including both the Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist parties. There cannot be many policies that get the full support of both those parties. Now it is for the UK to catch up.
Part 1 of the Bill was highly controversial and will continue to be so. I hope that these relatively small amendments will provide some relief for our Minister—they are widely supported and present no political problems at all. The ideal way forward would, of course, be for the Government to adopt these amendments and move them on Report, no doubt with some tidying up of the wording. I look forward very much to having discussions with other noble Lords and the Minister as to the best way forward. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support all the amendments in this group. I shall speak to Amendments 53 and 57, to which I have attached my name. As a patron of Humanists UK, I want briefly to emphasise the points made in the clear, comprehensive and persuasive introduction by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. Basically, as the arrangements stand for what the Bill calls worship and religious education, there is no recognition of the fact that many parents will have an ethical and moral code that is not based on faith. As the noble Baroness said, current figures suggest that it is actually over half of our population. Why should these parents not have their values recognised and their children enabled to learn them?
I hasten to add that these amendments in no way disparage religious education. It is simply that there are other sets of beliefs, and indeed other religions than Christianity, that have a long and influential tradition, have helped to form our national identity and should not be sidelined in an education worthy of the name.
I will add only that we now live in a diverse society, which I believe the Government welcome. One corollary of that is that we need to develop and strengthen the bonds that unite us in our differences. We will not do this by neglecting the elements of our various faiths and beliefs in the education of our children. To live with each other, we need to understand each other. Within a framework of human rights, we need to learn to respect where our fellow citizens are coming from. I suggest that this is a better way to avoid extremism—from any side—than excluding the traditions that people value. Among those are values that establish a moral code that is not faith-based. These values are no friend to extremism and are a source of rational and compassionate analysis of the issues that confront us, whether they are environmental, democratic or furthering peace and well-being.
I hope the Minister will recognise the educational deprivation that will continue without these amendments, and accept them.
My Lords, I am supportive of the last two speeches. One of the things that I suppose I regret about the decline of collective worship is the decline of moments of collective reflection, although I am not of faith. Indeed, I am a humanist, and two years ago I was lucky enough to get married on a deserted heart-shaped island in the Orkneys at a humanist wedding. At that time, and I imagine this is still the case, I was advised by the celebrant that there are more people getting married in humanist ceremonies in Scotland than all the other faiths put together. That is a demonstration of the sense that society is changing, whether we like it or not.
I shall speak to Amendments 54 and 56 in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Burt of Solihull and Lady Bakewell, and myself. Amendment 54 would require faith academies to provide an inclusive alternative to faith-based religious education for those who request it. Amendment 54 seeks to mitigate some of the issues caused by compulsory faith-based RE. It would do so by introducing a requirement for faith academies to offer those pupils who withdraw from faith-based RE a new subject called religion and world views education. This new subject would be objective, critical and pluralistic. This alternative would cover both religious perspectives and non-religious perspectives such as humanism.
We have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, the stats from the British Social Attitudes survey regarding the number of those now identifying as non-religious, non-Christian and so on. It is particularly high, at 72%, among those in the age bracket 25 to 44 —that is, those most likely to have school-age children—yet over one-third of our state-funded schools have a religious ethos, and I respect them. The vast majority of those, 99%, are Christian, and I respect that too. Indeed, in 2020 the Church of England’s own Statistics for Mission revealed that the number of places in Church of England schools now outstrips the Church’s entire worshipping community.
The DfE’s associated memorandum declares that it is not compulsory for a child to attend a school with a religious designation, but of course this ignores the fact that, as we have heard, thousands of parents are effectively having to send their children to faith schools every year because there is no suitable alternative locally. That was definitely the case in my former constituency of South Dorset in the rural areas where many or indeed most of the village schools were Church of England schools. They did a perfectly fine job, but while you could get assistance with transport if you wanted to send your child to a different faith based-school, you certainly could not get such assistance if you wanted to send them to a comprehensive non-faith-based school if that was what in accordance with your views.
It is that kind of discrimination against people who are not of faith which I am keen to try to do something about, when we have the right opportunity to do so in an inclusive way. Amendment 54 provides a remedy. It would mean that children who do not share the religion of the school they attend will have access to an “objective, critical and pluralistic” version of the subject that does not seek to indoctrinate them into one religious perspective.
Amendment 56 would make it explicit that RE outside of faith academies must be inclusive of non-religious worldviews such as humanism, in line with what is already required by case law, and rename the subject accordingly to “religion and worldviews”. RE is a statutory subject in all schools. However, recent figures from the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education found that 50% of academies without a religious character, which make up approximately two-thirds of academies, do not meet their legal requirements to provide the subject as set out in their funding agreements. Although there are a range of reasons for this, it seems plausible to suggest that many schools—as well as pupils and their parents—see the subject as outdated and irrelevant to their lives. This is an opportunity to give the subject a shot in the arm.
I think that is why, when there was a review of the subject by the Commission on Religious Education in 2018, chaired by the Very Reverend Dr John Hall, the Dean of Westminster and former chief education officer for the Church of England, that report recommended the policy of both the RE Council and the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education: that we should do exactly this. It has been properly considered and thought through, and seems a perfectly reasonable adjustment to make, as do the amendments proposed by the noble Baronesses, Lady Meacher and Lady Whitaker.
Finally, I stress that the new “religion and worldviews education” would still reflect the fact that the religious tradition in Great Britain is, in the main, Christian. This is not at all an attempt to whitewash out teaching about religious traditions. Those are really important if we want to have an inclusive society that respects each other’s traditions and faiths. However, as I say, this amendment provides a shot in the arm for what I think is a vital subject.
My Lords, I speak on behalf of my colleague the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and declare his interest as chair of the National Society. I speak against Amendments 53, 54 and 56 to 58.
I strongly urge noble Lords not to support the proposal set out in Amendment 53. It is framed as a mandatory requirement. However, it is unclear what would satisfy the definition of “a meaningful alternative” for pupils. Furthermore, it does not consider the resourcing implications in terms of staff and accommodation, depending on the number of pupils opting out.
Amendments 54 and 56 provide no definition of what constitutes such an “objective, critical and pluralistic” education. This would require a much fuller consensus to be achieved about the purpose and content of the RE curriculum, which is not the purpose of the Bill—although I note the helpful observations of the noble Lord, Lord Knight, on the work done by Dr John Hall. There may be some helpful work elsewhere that could be continued from that.
The wording around acts of worship and “religious observance” in Amendment 57 is open to interpretation, which is subjective. It would be very difficult to define or apply it consistently. A prohibition as proposed under this amendment would appear excessive and it is unclear how it would be monitored.
Amendment 58’s removal of provisions may conflict with church school trust deeds and governance documents that require certain staff in a church school to have particular attributes as a genuine occupational requirement; for example, fitness and competence to teach religious education because of their religious opinions, attendance at religious worship, and/or willingness to teach in accordance with religious tenets.
I thank the right reverend Prelate for giving way. I just want to make two points. First, does the right reverend Prelate really feel he should be persuading Ministers not to adopt these amendments when religious communities as well as non-religious communities support them? Secondly, he said that teachers must not be discriminated against if they have a requirement in their job, but the amendment allows for that very clearly. If there is an occupational requirement to have religious knowledge, that teacher will be expected to have religious knowledge, so I am unsure why the right reverend Prelate is arguing those points.
The points I am arguing reflect the experience and response, particularly that garnered by the National Society. It is on the basis of that that the rejection of these amendments is built. It presents for us a national picture from the Church of England.
My Lords, it is very useful to have the right reverend Prelate raise a religious voice against these amendments and raise some concerns. Maybe I could raise a non-religious voice with some concerns I share against these amendments.
I am particularly worried about Amendments 53 and 57 and the idea of alternative assemblies
“directed towards furthering the spiritual, moral, social and cultural education of the pupils”.
I fear this would become a secular version of religion, with all its preaching of things I do not particularly like. It was interesting that the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, mentioned what is happening in Wales, where I am from. I met some teachers from Wales over the weekend and one talked about how, apparently, the alternative to religion is that we teach environmentalism—the new religion—and made that joke. What would the content of these things be?
While I am not religious and consider myself a humanist, I feel queasy because we have a problem in this country of religious illiteracy. I think we want a secular society that understands religion and shows some regard for religion and its tradition. Religion seeps into the public sphere and a lack of religious literacy can be problematic. We have seen in the last week the issue around the film “The Lady of Heaven”, which several major cinema chains have backed off from showing in a really disgraceful instance of artistic censorship. I noted that the reason given for that was that it was offensive to local Muslims, but the film was made by a Muslim filmmaker. At the very least, that could indicate that people panic in the face of religion without necessarily understanding it.
This religious illiteracy is perhaps why I have a preference—if I had to choose between them—for Amendments 54 and 56, which make some attractive points. “Religious and worldviews education” sounds more palatable. If anything, I would say, “Why not for everyone?” The amendment mentions non-religious philosophical convictions to be taught. I think all pupils, including those of religious faiths, would benefit from reading John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration and understanding the philosophical roots and importance of religious freedom for a secular society, ironically, and from reading On Liberty by John Stuart Mill. This might counter, for example, the shocking events we saw in Batley, where a religious education teacher is still in hiding for his life over the allegation of blaspheming—despite the fact there is no blasphemy law. People seem to feel very queasy about calling this out or saying anything about it in this House, or in politics more generally.
I was glad to see in Amendments 54 and 56 an acknowledgement that Christianity is the predominant religion in Great Britain, because I think people have got a bit queasy about saying that for some reason. It is important to understand that the Christian tradition does not just inform faith or even a moral framework for the country, but has provided centuries of cultural imagery in art and literature. I remember, as an English teacher, standing in front of a group of A-level students and asking, “What might that apple symbolise?” I was met with blank faces because they could not understand what I meant: the apple did not symbolise anything to them. I do not think that it was entirely my poor teaching that did that; when I explained it, it took quite a lot to get there because they were unfamiliar with the symbol. I would like a greater understanding of the traditions, history and philosophy of religion, if anything.
Finally, I worry about some of the comments made that assumed that people of faith or introducing pupils to faith—within faith schools, for example—equals indoctrination. That is the wrong way to see it. I was brought up in a Catholic school but it backfired on them terribly, which made me think that people are not indoctrinated in that way.
It is also wrong to associate religion with extremism per se, or to imagine that the problems of political extremism that we might see in society are to do with religion—goodness knows that there is plenty of secular extremism about. We should also be concerned about a mood of intolerance to Christianity, or even a squeamishness, with people feeling embarrassed by Christianity in this country; I do not think that that is particularly helpful. Although I have some sympathy with two sets of the amendments rather than the others, we should be careful not to demonise religion, religious people or faith in our aspiration to widen education and give more options for non-religious families.
I reassure the noble Baroness that Amendments 53 and 57 apply to children who have already opted out of religious worship, as is perfectly legal and has been the custom for some time. Is she reassured by the fact that it is highly likely that John Locke and John Stuart Mill would be taught as part of a moral and ethical basis in any decent education, I would have thought?
I am familiar with what is happening in education at the moment, and John Locke and JS Mill are nowhere near it. The point I was suggesting is that, if they were, they should be taught to everyone. Opting out is fine; on other amendments, we are going to go on to talk about parents opting out of different things—that is fine. I was worried about secular assemblies; that filled me with horror. Maybe children could go and listen to some classical music or something that would be more productive. That was my concern on that matter.
I have a great deal of sympathy for what the noble Baroness has just said. The phrase that comes to my mind is, “Better the devil you know”—if I am allowed to refer to the Church of England in that way. We know that religion is an immensely powerful and deep force for people. The Church of England is very civilised and easy to get on with; it is part of our community and history. That is the right way, and the right environment, for that part of children’s education.
If you are sending your child to a school run by the Church of England or the Catholic Church, for goodness’ sake, you know what you are getting. Although I have come out the far side of religion some long time ago, I very happily sent a couple of my children to schools with a strong Church of England ethos, and it did not do them any harm any more than it did me harm to go to church twice a day for 15 years of my life. Religion is not a poisonous thing; it is an enriching thing. When I get to go to a decent wedding, I bellow the hymns with enthusiasm and deep memory. I am sure that a lot that I have experienced enriches my life. We should not look at this as something harmful; it is something that we are, by and large, all used to and live with, and is a positive force in our country and lives. We should celebrate it and not try to shy away from it.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, for her comments. There are two things. I am very aware of the important statement that the Queen made in her Diamond Jubilee about the vocation of the Church of England, which is not to promote itself but to promote faith, the practice of faith and respect for people of faith. The noble Baroness’s comments on religious literacy are very timely, particularly if we are taking seriously the education of our young people as they face not only a global issue in which religious literacy is of increasing importance but also, of course, as we prepare them for a pluralistic society here in England, in Britain, where, once again, religious literacy is increasingly important because of the range of places from which people come and the faiths that they bring with them. I greatly value the comments—thank you.
My Lords, I will just make a very brief contribution. I have found this a very helpful, thoughtful debate which will merit reading in Hansard tomorrow to get some of the finer points.
I want to say a word or two about Amendment 54 and Amendment 56, which my noble friend Lady Burt has signed. It is based on my understanding of what the amendments are saying. As I read them, these amendments are not aimed at diluting the approaches of faith schools or undermining their rights to maintain the faith ethos taught in them. They simply mean that students who opt out of faith-based RE and all students at non-religious schools have a more inclusive subject available to them. That is my understanding, so I would be grateful for the Minister’s confirmation.
Can I add two questions to the Minister? As I understand it, these amendments would not actually change the legal position but place existing case law into statute. In 2015, in the case of Fox v Secretary of State for Education, the High Court ruled against the DfE and in favour of three humanist parents and their children who challenged the Government’s relegation of non-religious world views in the new subject content for GCSE religious studies. The court stated that religious and non-religious world views, such as humanism, must be afforded equal respect in the RE curriculum. I have concluded that the amendments would simply ensure that equal respect becomes a statutory requirement. Does the Minister see it in the same way?
Secondly, can I build on a point made earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, in relation to recent legislation in Wales? That has not been particularly debated this evening. Maybe we should look at it in greater detail because I think it is important to consider, and I hope the Minister will be considering it in the context of this Bill. In looking more carefully at that, does the Minister think that there may be a case for legislation in England being similar to that which applies in Wales? Does she think it might be helpful to try to build on it? I am looking forward to a response from the Minister about that because I often get worried about the United Kingdom having key differences on matters of approach in law on matters such as this which seem to me would benefit from a single legal understanding.
That is two legal questions. I acknowledge that the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, pointed out that, in Amendments 54 and 56, the statement is clearly made that the religious traditions in Great Britain are, in the main, Christian. I am glad that, on behalf of my noble friend Lady Burt, who was the first signatory to the second of these amendments, that point has been fully understood.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for asking those questions about the good things that we are doing in Wales, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, for raising them initially. RE becomes RVE in Wales this September—religion, values and ethics. There is a great deal to learn from what the devolved nations are doing.
The place of religion and belief in the education system is incredibly complex—the debate this evening has demonstrated that—coming from a time when our society was much less diverse and much more religious than it is now. The amendments are targeted at ensuring that children of no faith do not miss out if they opt out of collective worship. They should not have to sit at the back of the classroom while everyone else is in assembly; they need a meaningful alternative provided for them during this time. These are admirable aims, to ensure that cultural education is balanced and non-exclusionary; in a modern and increasingly secular society, where children are exposed to all kinds of things, particularly in the online sphere, it should be a right that we promote. We should provide an excellent opportunity to discuss a variety of topics and issues. It is important to break down stigmas, and non-religious children in faith schools should not be made to feel left out if they opt out. The Government should think carefully about how to encourage this here. The amendments and the work in Wales are a way forward to do this.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for this thoughtful debate, as we reach the end of our second day in Committee. The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, rolls her eyes at me. She may have anticipated that, while I shall not quibble with the wording of her amendments, I shall disappoint her in my response. I also wanted to tell the noble Lord, Lord Knight, that he is making me increasingly jealous of the time that he spends on the Orkney Islands, and the celebrations and reflections that he gets to do there.
I turn first to Amendment 53, in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher and Lady Whitaker. The Government view collective worship as central to life in a school with a religious character. The right to withdrawal from collective worship is also important, as it provides choice for families as to whether or not their children participate. The amendment seeks, where children are withdrawn from collective worship, to provide an alternative assembly aimed at furthering the spiritual, moral, social and cultural—SMSC for short—education of pupils in schools with a religious character. The Government do not believe that the amendment is necessary, as all state-funded schools are already required to ensure the SMSC development of their pupils. Collective worship is one way to promote SMSC education, but there are areas of the curriculum in which schools can meet this requirement, such as religious education, history and citizenship.
On Amendment 54, when children are admitted to a school with a religious designation, their parents are aware of this and expect it to be part of the school’s ethos and culture. The Government support the right of such schools to provide religious education that aligns with their religious character. We therefore believe that there is no need for the amendment. I am unaware of significant demand from parents who withdraw their children from religious education to have this replaced by education representative of a wider range of religious and non-religious beliefs. There are many examples of academies with a religious designation taking care to ensure that their provision, to some degree, reflects a diversity of religions. We also expect schools to promote fundamental British values, which includes encouraging mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs, including non-religious beliefs. While acknowledging that the intention of this amendment is to widen choice in the teaching of RE, we believe that it is unnecessary because RE will likely already include the concept of non-religious world views.
Amendment 56 relates to academy schools without a religious character. Again, the Government believe this amendment is unnecessary because RE may already include the concepts of religious and non-religious belief. On religious belief, academies without a religious designation must already teach RE, reflecting the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are, in the main, Christian, and must take account of the teachings of the other principal religions in Great Britain. On nonreligious belief, this can be covered within RE. There is no obligation for schools to give equal time to the teaching of each religion or the teaching of nonreligious worldviews.
The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, asked me two specific questions. On the point about not giving equal time to nonreligious worldviews, we are talking about the same judgment, but I shall write to him on the specific point, and on the point relating to Wales—although, if I understood him, it might rather reflect the devolved nature of education in Wales rather than a different legal approach. I shall reflect on Hansard and make sure I write.
On Amendment 57, collective worship is important in encouraging pupils to reflect on the concept of belief and its role in the traditions and values of this country. The right of withdrawal from collective worship provides families who do not want their children to participate to withdraw from it in whole or in part. As I have set out, there are already plentiful opportunities for schools to further children’s spiritual, moral, social and cultural education regardless of religion or belief. This includes holding nonreligious assemblies, so the Government do not believe that this amendment is necessary.
Amendment 58 would repeal specific sections from the Schools Standards and Framework Act 1998. This would have the effect of removing statutory freedoms and protections regarding the recruitment, promotion and remuneration of teachers by reference to their religious practice, belief or knowledge at academies with a religious character. The Government support the freedoms and protections associated with academies with a religious character, including their freedoms to continue to appoint, promote and remunerate their teachers and deal with their employment with reference to the relevant religion or religious denomination. The Government do not intend to change this position for any school with a religious character, including academies. We continue to provide equivalent protections for academies to those available to maintained schools.
As I say, I thought this was an interesting and reflective debate, but I am afraid that the Government do not agree with the amendments tabled by noble Lords. I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, will withdraw her amendment.
I thank noble Lords who have spoken in support of these amendments and I thank the Minister for her response, although it seemed to me that the departmental response, if I can call it that, did not deal with the inconsistencies and inadequacies in the law, and so on. Never mind, we can come back to that.
I will just say that “Better the devil you know” is fine if you are a Christian, but it is not what the majority of people or the majority of children in this country would want, because the devil they know is something other than Christian worship. It seems to me that the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, agreed with Amendment 57, even though she bent over backwards to say she did not, because of course we are all very happy with religious education and information; what we are talking about here is worship.
Anyway, with those few provisos, I am very grateful to everybody who is here at this late hour, especially our two Ministers, who have been here for a very long time. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 53 withdrawn.
Amendment 54 not moved.
Clause 25 agreed.
Clauses 26 and 27 agreed.
Amendments 55 to 58 not moved.
Clause 28 agreed.
Amendment 58A not moved.
House adjourned at 9.55 pm.