Bishop of Durham speaks in debate on the Schools Bill

On 23rd May 2022, the House of Lords debated the Schools Bill in its second reading. The Bishop of Durham spoke in the debate with regards to faith schools, teachers, and other points in the bill. The Bill was committed to a committee of the whole house.

The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I declare my specific interest as chair of the National Society. Noble Lords will know that the Church of England started mass education for the poor in England in 1811 through the work of the National Society. We built thousands of schools which have been at the heart of our commitment to the common good ever since. The state joined in this educational endeavour 50 years later. A strong mutual relationship developed, culminating in the dual system settlement in the 1944 Education Act.

Since a Labour Government introduced academies in the early 2000s, that system has been evolving but bringing complexity and fragmentation. Free schools added to this. Academies started as an innovation to bring fresh approaches to improve outcomes, especially for children in the most disadvantaged areas. There has been much success, although not in every case. Academies are now the predominant school type. As the system moves towards all schools being academies in a strong trust, it is right that we give detailed attention to ensure that academies are placed within a firm legislative context rather than rely on the largely contractual nature of the present arrangements.

One-third of our 4,700 schools are academies, but, with two-thirds still to convert, our schools need to know that the future of the partnership between Church and state, and the principles maintained since the 1944 Act, remain secure with sufficient safeguards. We welcome the comprehensive clauses relating to schools with a religious character. They set out how that settlement between Church and state continues when much of the existing maintained legislation can no longer be used as the basis for their operation.

We are very grateful for the way in which DfE Ministers and officials have engaged with us so that the areas of policy with specific relevance to the future of schools on sites that have been provided by the Churches are addressed. These include the governance, both individual and within MATs, the arrangements for worship and religious education and the question of land ownership. The Minister will understand that in Committee we will continue to test that the detail in the Bill fulfils that need, including ensuring that guarantees are in the Bill and not simply left to regulations. This may mean bringing amendments where we consider change is required.

We are not only interested though in the parts of the Bill which relate specifically to the schools provided by the Church of England, the Catholic Church and other faith communities. Our vision is for the common good and the best possible educational outcomes for every child. Church members work in all types of schools, parishes engage with all character of schools and our training is accessed by teachers and heads from schools other than our own.

We have a clear vision that education is for every child to experience life in all its fullness. It is for wisdom, not simply knowledge. This means enabling children to be creative, enjoy sport, build strong relationships, explore spirituality and learn languages, alongside equipping them with numeracy and literacy and preparing them for the world of work. When we reduce education to simply being about literacy, numeracy and the workplace, we sell children short.

We know that giving children a safe, loving environment in which to learn is essential, so knowing where children are matters. Thus, attendance and registration are important, but the collection and use of data needs careful consideration to make sure that the balance between safeguarding and freedom of choice is maintained. This will include the right to home education, which is significant for some children. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, who cannot be present today, plans to engage further in Committee on this. 

With many families struggling to juggle complex issues of poverty, additional health or special educational needs, we need the state to provide support, not simply punitive measures to enforce attendance.

Every child having a good teacher is at the heart of the Government’s strategy, but I am concerned that the current process of reaccrediting initial teacher education providers seems somewhat flawed, with many established providers being unsuccessful in the first round. This is likely to exacerbate the teacher supply crisis.

It is vital to ensure the sufficiency of teacher education provision; then those teachers need to be inspired, developed and given the maximum resources possible to deliver excellent education in every single school. The proposed changes to the funding system describe how the funding will be used and distributed. We need to ensure that such provision works for schools in areas of disadvantage and for the huge number of small schools that are at the heart of our rural communities. We cannot escape the hard reality that, with all the pressures on school budgets, the reforms and aspirations of the Government will be made possible only if we invest courageously in the education of our children. We need a big vision for our schools, and we need to ensure that this legislation is the best that it can be to effect that vision.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab): There has been much discussion here of the section on academies. As previous speakers have made clear, this represents a notable change from the current arrangements; it means a complete reversal of the original academy vision. The original focus was on school autonomy and, in itself, the proposed about-turn is hardly an endorsement of that idea of academies.

However, I do welcome the recognition of the value of families of schools. It is just that this is what was and still should be provided by local education authorities. Education has to be a partnership between devolving and democratising decisions to local educators, parents and the community more widely. Transferring power to the centre has demonstrably failed, not least during the pandemic.

Finally, I have to say something about faith schools. The issue was raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham—who is not in his place—who took us through 200 years of history, emphasising the role of the church in the development of our education system. He has every right to do so. But now we are discussing an education system for the 21st century and it is safe to say, speaking as a committed atheist, that views differ on faith schools and that history, in itself, is a poor justification for any policy. So I welcome the opportunity presented to us to discuss the role of faith schools during the passage of this Bill. I think it is going to be an interesting Committee stage.

Baroness Wilcox of Newport (Lab): Many points were raised by your Lordships. There were concerns about the opaque nature of the governance of academies, in particular the idea of an all-powerful centre and satellite schools noted by the noble Lord, Lord Storey. There was an interesting idea that young people clearly consider the environment as part of their rights and values, as indicated by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, in the amendment he proposed, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham was absolutely right to assert that we should not sell our children short, as seems to be the case throughout the Bill.

Baroness Barran (Con, Parliamentary Under-secretary – Department for Education): The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham suggested that we might be selling our children short if we focus so much on numeracy and literacy. My noble friend Lord Nash put it brilliantly as to why this is so important. Without the fundamental skills of literacy and numeracy, all the other subjects and areas of the curriculum that noble Lords have rightly raised this evening cannot be accessed, so I think we are selling them even shorter if we do not focus on those.

We are supporting teachers by providing 500,000 new teacher training opportunities by 2024. We are making sure that teachers have access to evidence-based and world-class training. We are introducing our new professional qualifications, including in relation to early years leadership, which I know is an area that this House rightly cares a great deal about. (…)

(…) I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham for his kind words in relation to the work that my colleagues in the department have done with his colleagues in relation to faith protection. We are working on the land and other issues and are happy to continue to explore those.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, raised the issues argued by the Humanist Society and others, but she will know that many faith schools have a really strong track record in delivering excellent education and our experience is that they are popular with parents, whether they belong to that faith or not. Again, I am happy to follow up the points that she raised.

On the attendance measures in the Bill, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, suggested that some of the measures on attendance could appear punitive. My noble friend Lord Lucas also spoke on these issues. Our attendance measures are underpinned by the principle of “support first”. The measures will help school absence from becoming persistent or severe by improving, at a national level, the consistency of support offered to pupils and their parents through an earlier and more targeted approach. I urge noble Lords to look at the evidence in this area, which shows a great inconsistency across the country. We hope that the measures will reduce the need for legal intervention overall, so that the existing legal interventions are primarily used where support has not been successful or families have not engaged with that support.

%d bloggers like this: