On 4th February 2016 the House of Lords debated a motion from the Earl of Clancarty, “To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that children receive a balanced and rounded education in schools; and what effect the English baccalaureate requirements will have in that regard.” The Bishop of Norwich spoke in the debate, highlighting the need for RE to be considered in the English Baccalaureate and the importance of overseas visits in providing rounded education.
The Lord Bishop of Norwich: My Lords, like others, I am very grateful to the noble Earl for securing this short debate. The importance of this subject is out of all proportion to the length of our discussion.
I agree with so much that has been said but I shall concentrate on two specific issues. The first, noble Lords will not be surprised to hear, concerns the omission of religious education from the English baccalaureate. I realise that it is not the only omission—I would rather like art, music and much else to be there, too—but I believe that it is a serious mistake that is going to be deleterious to a rounded education.I believe that the previous Secretary of State, Michael Gove, thought it unnecessary to include religious education since it is a statutory subject. That is true, but it is not enough. During my secondary education 50 years ago—a frighteningly long time—religious education was statutory, although I think it was called “religious knowledge” then. That meant one lesson a week by an uninterested teacher for a form of boys who looked at the 40 minutes as time off or a time to play up. It was good life experience for a future bishop to experience such religious indifference but it was not a rounded education—although it might have been argued that it was quite a good introduction to juvenile sin, not least my own.
The impression given was that religion was a fading phenomenon that we did not really need to bother about in preparation for life. How wrong that has proved to be, for bad reasons as well as good; just as there can be bad politics, there can be bad religion, and there is a lot of it in the world. We need much greater religious literacy to understand the world in which we live and to understand the difference between good and bad religion—for instance, there is a growing danger that we regard anyone who is deeply religious as an extremist. Far more people around the world define their identity through their religion than we seem to understand in a country like ours that has a largely secular mindset, yet the huge rise in the number of students taking GCSE and A-level religious studies in recent years—it has been one of the fastest-growing subjects—indicates the interest generated in the subject among young people. It has been a subject of equal standing with others in a way that it will not be in future, and I think that the decision to exclude it will inevitably be harmful. That is what nearly every religious education teacher that I speak to thinks. So I ask the Minister, whose fairness and passion for young people I admire, either to assure me of a reconsideration or to suggest ways in which statutory religious study might avoid the marginalisation that I experienced at school.
My second point is related not to the baccalaureate at all but to international school links and their significance for a rounded education. I am still a governor of the first academy to be set up in Norfolk, where I was originally a co-sponsor. Last year I was one of a group of governors who met the Ofsted inspectors—happily, the academy got a good outcome—and we were asked the ritual question about “promoting British values”. I commented that what we were seeking to nurture was actually future citizens who had an international outlook. We have very strong links with schools in the Netherlands and the Far East—the latter more able to come here than we are able to get there—but it is quicker to get to Holland from Norwich than it is to London, especially given our train service.
We also try to take as many students as possible on overseas visits. Many who come from the estate on which the school is based and the surrounding area experience very little travel of any sort. In this setting, experience of other cultures is essential for a rounded education. Finding the financial resources is a challenge but it can be done, and I would be grateful to know from the Minister what advice, if any, the department gives schools on international links, and whether Ofsted normally makes any inquiries about such things. The inspectors I met did not seem to be familiar with investigating such things, but I believe that a rounded education needs the widest possible context.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education (Lord Nash) (Con): [extract] … The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich talked about religious education, which of course counts towards Progress 8. In 2011, 32% of pupils in state-funded schools took a GCSE in RE; the figure is now 46%. I entirely agree with the right reverend Prelate that we need to increase our pupils’ religious literacy, which is so important, particularly in the modern world we live in. I know that the Church of England does a great deal of work on this; I attended an inspiring event recently called Living Well Together, and I know that it has a great deal of plans in that regard. As regards international links, quite a lot of work is done by the British Council on this, and I would be very happy to discuss this further with the right reverend Prelate.