Religious Education and Worship debated in House of Lords

Amendments to the Schools Bill discussed in my recent post on Law and Religion UK were debated late on Monday 13 June in the House of Lords. For detailed analysis of these amendments see my previous post:

Humanists UK have also published a useful summary of the debate:

The debate can be read in Hansard at:

In tabling the amendments Baroness Meacher noted the need to ‘bring England up to speed with Wales’. She said that the law in Wales ‘is way ahead of England, through the recent Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Act 2021’.

The Bishop of Chichester objected to the amendments. He said that the amendment to provide ‘a meaningful alternative’ to pupils who have been opted out did not explain what this meant and did ‘not consider the resourcing implications in terms of staff and accommodation, depending on the number of pupils opting out’.

Further, he contended that reform of RE to underline that it is ‘objective, critical and pluralistic’ would require ‘fuller consensus to be achieved about the purpose and content of the RE curriculum, which is not the purpose of the Bill’. He further expressed concern about how this would be monitored and the potential conflict with trust deeds.

These points, however, underline the need for reform. The fact that the Bishop struggled to see what a meaningful alternative could be underlines the current lack of provision of such an alternative. His speech seemed to suggest that currently RE is not necessary objective, critical and pluralistic. The lack of monitoring is also a problem with the current law which has long been unworkable.

Concern about trust deeds also blunted reform in Wales – meaning that the legal framework for schools with a religious character will remain largely unchanged. Yet, if there are trust deeds that go against the provision of objective, critical and pluralistic eduction then surely these should be challenged rather than entrenched.

Baroness Fox expressed concerns that reforms to the law on collective worship would lead to ‘secular assemblies’:

‘I fear this would become a secular version of religion, with all its preaching of things I do not particularly like.’

She suggested:

‘Maybe children could go and listen to some classical music or something that would be more productive.’

Baroness Fox recalled that she had ‘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’. This ‘joke’ highlights the lack of definitional clarity found in the Welsh reforms.

Lord Shipley raised two questions to the Minister. The first was whether she agreed with his interpretation that ‘these amendments would not actually change the legal position but place existing case law into statute’. The second was ‘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?’

Baroness Wilcox agreed that there ‘is a great deal to learn from what the devolved nations are doing’. She noted that there is a need ‘to ensure that cultural education is balanced and non-exclusionary’ and that ‘the amendments and the work in Wales are a way forward to do this’.

Baroness Penn, replying to the debate, said that the Government did not support the amendments.

She noted ‘the Government view [of] collective worship as central to life in a school with a religious character’ and that the ‘right to withdrawal from collective worship is also important’. She considered that there was no need to ‘provide an alternative assembly aimed at furthering the spiritual, moral, social and cultural—SMSC for short—education’ for those opted out because 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.’

This raises the question of what the purpose of collective worship is and whether there is a need to ensure that SMSC education throughout the curriculum is objective, critical and pluralistic. It also does not answer the practical point of what is to be provided for those who have been withdrawn in the period in which collective worship takes place.

For Baroness Penn, there is no need to reform RE in academies with a religious character because ‘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’:

‘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.’

This would be less objectionable if it was always the case that the decision to send a child to a faith school was always a voluntary choice. For some parents, there are no realistic alternatives. The lack of demand argument was also used in the Welsh context. However, such an argument is not particularly convincing when it is applied to a law that we know is unworkable and not being followed to the letter by many. There is likely to be a number of parents and pupils who would not want denominational collective worship out of choice.

Baroness Penn considered the amendment to widen the scope of RE was ‘unnecessary because RE will likely already include the concept of non-religious world views’:

‘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 words ‘likely’ and ‘can’ are significant here. The Baroness is right that current provision can include the teaching of non-religious beliefs. The purpose of the amendments is to ensure that this becomes guaranteed. At the moment, statute law only refers to Christianity and other principal religions. This is not human rights compliant and if schools are already ‘likely’ to go further than this then what is the objection to putting this on a statutory footing to ensure clarity and consistency?

Referring to the two questions asked, she said she would answer them in writing. She observed that his point about Wales ‘might rather reflect the devolved nature of education in Wales rather than a different legal approach’. This might be a reference to the new Curriculum for Wales which takes a very different approach to education than that followed in England. The reforms to teaching religion in Wales do not represent a completely different legal approach. Rather, they are an improvement upon and modernisation of the previous framework that continues to apply in England. For more on the Welsh situation, see my forthcoming book:

Baroness Meacher in response said that Baroness Penn’s departmental response ‘did not deal with the inconsistencies and inadequacies in the law, and so on’. It is difficult to disagree with this assessment. The amendments were withdrawn but these issues are likely to be raised again at Report Stage.

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