Amendments to the Government’s Schools Bill that would reform religious education, replace compulsory collective worship with inclusive assemblies, and end religious discrimination for teachers, were debated in the House of Lords on Monday night. Humanists UK has long called for changes to the law in these areas, and worked with members and supporters of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group to see the amendments tabled. However, the Government spoke out against the amendments, leading to them being withdrawn.
The proposed improvements to the Schools Bill were as follows:
- Inclusive Religious Education:
- to 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’, and
- to require faith academies to provide an inclusive alternative to faith-based religious education (RE) for those who request it.
- Compulsory collective worship and inclusive assemblies:
- to replace the requirement for collective worship outside of faith academies with a requirement for inclusive assemblies, and
- to require faith academies to provide a meaningful alternative assembly for pupils withdrawn from collective worship.
- Teacher discrimination:
To reduce faith-based teacher discrimination, by making it clear that faith academies cannot discriminate on grounds of religion during the hiring or promotion of teaching staff unless there is a ‘genuine occupational requirement’.
Discussing the amendments on collective worship, Baroness Meacher (Crossbench) paid tribute to Humanists UK’s work. She also explained that:
‘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 [due to the collective worship law].’
APPHG member Baroness Whitaker (Labour) also rose in support of the inclusive assemblies amendments. She explained that in a diverse society such as the UK, replacing compulsory Christian worship with inclusive assemblies in schools without a religious character is important because:
‘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.’
Former Schools Minister and humanist Lord Knight (Labour), speaking in support of the amendments to make RE more inclusive of non-religious worldviews, refuted the Government’s often-used defence of the faith school system, namely that it gives parents choice:
‘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…’
Lord Shipley (Liberal Democrat) supported the amendments, and pressed the Government to give some clarity on the existing law:
‘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…’
The Labour frontbench, via Baroness Wilcox, also spoke in praise of the amendments, and referenced recent, similar changes in Wales:
‘These are admirable aims… 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’.
Responding for the Government, Baroness Penn explained that the Government was not going to support the amendments, believing them to be ‘unnecessary’ – even claiming that compulsory collective worship was a way to further the ‘spiritual, moral, social and cultural’ (SMSC) education of children. In so doing, she failed to recognise that children from non-religious backgrounds are automatically failed by such requirements.
Baroness Penn then went on to say that there was no parental demand for inclusive RE and therefore providing for it was not necessary:
‘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… we believe that it [the amendment] is unnecessary because RE will likely already include the concept of non-religious world views.
The Government’s claim that RE is already inclusive of non-religious worldviews is false: Humanists UK knows of many examples of narrowly-focused RE curriculums, and often works with parents to challenge these. Furthermore simply ‘including the concept’ of non-religious worldviews is by no means the same as affording it the ‘equal respect’ required following the 2015 Fox Case.
Baroness Penn finished her speech by making it clear that the Government had no intention to remove the discriminatory privileges afforded to faith schools in the recruitment of teachers:
‘The Government supports 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 Baroness’s response on behalf of the Government made no reference to the fact that the amendment would in fact have retained the ‘genuine occupational requirement’ (GOR) qualification – which is no more than a faith school should require if, for example, needing to recruit a religious teacher to lead a specific act of worship. Northern Ireland has recently changed the law to remove this ability to discriminate against teachers on grounds of religion if there is no GOR; the rest of the UK now lags behind.
The Schools Bill also contains measures to tackle illegal schools. Humanists UK has worked on two amendments to improve those proposals. These are likely to be debated next week.
Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Robert Cann said:
‘It was heartening to see such support in Parliament, even late on a Monday evening, for these important amendments, and we’re grateful to all peers who spoke so eloquently about religious education, inclusive assemblies, and teacher discrimination.
‘The Schools Bill is a great opportunity to improve the law around religion in schools to make our education system fit for the 21st century. While not surprising, we will use the Government’s negative response to plan our approach to the Report Stage of the Bill, and look forward to working with peers again. These issues are not going away.’
For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at email@example.com or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.
Visit the Schools Bill page on the Parliament website.
Read our article on the Queen’s Speech.
Read our exposé on illegal schools operating during lockdown.
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