House of Lords Vote Down Changes to Religious Education

On 12th July, during the Report Stage of the Schools Bill the House of Lords considered the following amendment which would have insisted that Religion and Worldviews be taught in academies without a religious character:

Amendment 30

The Lords voted down this amendment with 82 peers content and 145 not content.

The full Hansard debate can be found at: https://hansard.parliament.uk/lords/2022-07-12/debates/AE96C493-35D3-4E00-871C-73DDD0A90152/SchoolsBill(HL)

Baroness Meacher argued that this was in line with what the RE profession wanted, fulfilled obligations the Government and has signed up to and reflected recent cases that had ‘concluded that a narrow RE curriculum breaches the human rights of the non-religious’:

‘All this amendment is doing is to ensure that education law in England is in line with the two legal cases and developments in Wales; surely, we do not want to be left behind by Wales.’

The Bishop of Durham argued against the amendment on the basis that ‘the work of the Religious Education Council, which has not yet concluded’.

Baroness Penn, responding for the Government, opposed the amendment on the basis that it went against the aim that the ‘the first set of standards regulations [will] largely to consolidate existing requirements on academies, not place more burdens on them or interfere with their freedoms’.

She reiterated that ‘worldviews can already be taught as part of religious education’. And that the Government believes that academies ‘should be free to determine their own approach to the teaching of RE’.

It is that word ‘can’ that is the crux of the issue here, however. The absence of an explicit statutory obligation means that schools in practice are more likely to be in breach of human rights provisions by adopting a narrow understanding of RE.

However, Baroness Penn concluded that the Government’s intention was for the new standards for academies

‘to replicate in the first instance existing standards, which would not then change RE by widening it explicitly to include worldviews—although that is already provided for. It would also not specify the nature of how RE should be taught, which we think is best determined at the local level.’

Hopefully similar amendments will be considered via Private Members Bills or if this Bill continues to the Commons. It seems that for now, however, the law on RE in England will continue to lag behind Wales.

For more on the history of the law and the Welsh developments, see my latest book: https://anthempress.com/religion-in-schools-learning-lessons-from-wales-pb

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