On 13th June the House of Lords continued to debate the Government’s Schools Bill in committee. The Bishop of Chichester spoke in the debate, on behalf of the Bishop of Durham, introducing and responding to a number of amendments:
The Lord Bishop of Chichester: My Lords, I speak on behalf of my colleague, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, and declare his interest as chair of the National Society.
I speak very briefly against Amendment 39C. It is well intentioned but poorly drafted. Its wording is too broad and too open to interpretation. For example, what would constitute “supportive”? How would “other considerations” be interpreted? As it stands, this amendment is unable to have meaningful impact.
Extracts from the speeches that followed:
Lord Addington (LD): I appreciate what the right reverend Prelate has said about Amendment 39C. I was going to ask the Minister whether she could give us some description of what this would mean in practice if it was implemented. I appreciate that there may be problems with it. There are a series of arguments and messages running around the place about certain smaller religious groups that are getting very worried about this. What would be the result here and what is the Government’s thinking about how smaller religious schools will fit in?
Amendment 39C not moved.
The Lord Bishop of Chichester: My Lords, I shall speak on behalf of my colleague, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, and declare his interest as chair of the National Society. I shall speak against Amendments 50 and 55. Amendment 50’s proposal to give power to local governing bodies to withdraw from a MAT may inadvertently trigger fragmentation of MATs that are growing, an erosion of strong MATs that are reliant on academies within the MAT for sustainability and, as a result, wider instability in the system. The proposal does not reflect the company structure of the MAT or the remit of a local governing body as a committee of the board. Where there are concerns about the quality of provision, or the ability of a school to flourish and grow, these things should be discussed at a strategic level with the relevant regional director and, where appropriate, religious authority, so that together we can shape and develop an educational landscape that works effectively across communities of schools.
The language used in Amendment 55 is unhelpful. It should be noted that church academy trusts are based on church model articles which have a religious object, but that does not make them religious trusts. Church model articles provide a commitment to supporting the individual ethos of the school, whether it is a designated school or not. The requirement for additional consultation would add an unnecessary level of bureaucracy.
Extracts from the speeches that followed:
Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab): My Lords, I have two points. My tendency is to support Amendment 41 but, after hearing what my noble friend just said about the direction of travel, maybe that is sufficient. I find the idea of widely dispersed academies problematic. In the White Paper that came before the Bill, in paragraph 131 on the size of trusts, the Government say:
“we will limit the proportion of schools in a local area that can be run by an individual trust.”
This is a genuine question: how does that fit together with the debate we have just had?
My second point relates to Amendment 55. I heard what my noble friend Lady Blower said, raising the issues of parents being faced with a decision about which they have not been consulted. We sort of had an answer from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester, speaking on behalf of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, but the Church needs to take a more understanding approach to this issue. We have a case in point: a group of parents were faced with the reality of their school being moved from an academy into a multi-academy trust with a Christian ethos. In principle I am against Church schools, but that is not the point here. The point here is whether those parents should have some input before that decision is reached. I find it impossible to believe that someone would argue in principle against consulting parents about this major change in the way that their school is run.
Baroness Barran (Con, Under-secretary of State – Department for Education): Amendment 49 from the noble Baronesses, Lady Chapman and Lady Wilcox, and Amendment 50 from the noble Baronesses, Lady Blower and Lady Bennett, and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, relate to an individual academy leaving its multi-academy trust. As we stated in the schools White Paper, we will consult on the exceptional circumstances in which a good school could request that the regulator agrees to the school moving to a stronger trust, but we do not want to pre-empt the outcome of that consultation by legislating now, not least as we expect the process to be administrative rather than legislative. I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester for his reflections on the risks of destabilising the system through schools moving from one trust to another. I gently reflect back to the noble Baronesses who spoke on this that it is important that this measure works for the individual school, which both of them pointed out, but it also needs to work for the multi-academy trust, which I did not hear either of them refer to directly.
Amendments 49 and 50 not moved.
Ammendment 51 moved by:
The Lord Bishop of Chichester: 51: Clause 20, page 14, line 30, at end insert—
“(1A) In the application of this section to the proprietor of a Church of England school, subsection (1) has effect as if the power to make regulations were a requirement to do so.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment ensures that regulations are made for Church of England schools in minority trusts.
My Lords, I speak on behalf my colleague, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, on his Amendment 51 and declare his interest as chair of the National Society. We tabled this amendment because, for Church of England schools, there will be occasions when schools are not in trusts where former voluntary aided schools are in the majority. For us, there needs to be the same consistency of approach in Clause 20, which is of particular importance for Roman Catholic schools, for example, as there is in Clause 19. Clause 19 sets out the requirement that the Secretary of State “must make regulations” concerning multi-academy trusts. However, as things stand, Clause 20 is only a “power” and does not guarantee regulations for trusts that do not meet the baseline voluntary aided numbers outlined in Clause 19.
We must ensure that there are appropriate regulations for all Church of England schools in trusts, so it is crucial that the Secretary of State must, rather than just may, make regulations in the context of the Church of England to provide legislative protection and assurance for any MATs where there are less than 50% voluntary aided schools within the trust. I would further welcome any assurance the Minister can provide that our understanding is correct that Clause 19 describes a baseline over which a trust must have majority articles but does not represent a threshold, and therefore does not prevent MATs that do not have a least 50% voluntary aided schools within the trust operating under majority articles.
Baroness Penn (Con): I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester for moving this amendment. As he said, the amendment would require the Secretary of State to make regulations under Clause 20, rather than providing the Secretary of State with a power to make regulations.
The Government entirely appreciate that the governance protections in Clause 20 are incredibly important to the Church of England and all other religious denominations. They will provide reassurance to local authority-maintained schools with a religious character that their religious character, which is maintained and developed through their governance arrangements, will continue to be protected once they become academies.
To explain why the current wording in Clause 20 is appropriate, it is useful to compare the clause with Clause 19, as there are some differences. Clause 19 relates to a very specific point regarding members and directors in certain academy trusts. The exact provision that is to be set out in the regulations is stated in the clause. It is therefore appropriate for this clause to provide that the Secretary of State must make these regulations.
In contrast, the regulation-making power in Clause 20 is much wider and the extent to which it is used will be finalised only after consultation. Clause 20 applies to all academy trusts which contain academies with a religious character. It also covers a much wider range of governance matters than the specific point in Clause 19. For example, regulations made under Clause 20 may include who can be appointed into different governance roles and the connection they must have to the relevant religious body. It may also include alterations to the articles of association, the composition of committees and the delegation of responsibilities.
Clause 20 needs to be a power for the Secretary of State to make regulations as the exact scope and content of the regulations will be informed by future consultation. However, to be clear, the Government do not intend to avoid making regulations under Clause 20. Instead, I assure the right reverend Prelate of our absolute commitment that, after consultation, the Government will make regulations under Clause 20 which apply to all academy trusts with an academy school of any religious character.
The regulations made under Clauses 19 and 20 will make clear the circumstances in which certain governance arrangements must be in place. For example, this could be when a trust must ensure that the majority of directors are appointed by the relevant religious body. However, this does not mean that similar arrangements cannot be used in other circumstances. For example, an academy trust in which fewer than half the academies are former voluntary aided Church of England schools can still adopt articles of association in which the majority of directors are appointed by the relevant religious body.
In addition, as stated in the clause, the Secretary of State will consult before the regulations are first made. This consultation will include appropriate stakeholders, including religious bodies. The right reverend Prelate can be reassured that this means we will continue to work constructively with dioceses and other religious bodies to agree the most appropriate governance arrangements for academy trusts comprising different types of academies with a religious character.
I hope this has provided some confidence to the right reverend Prelate that, after appropriate consultation, regulations under Clause 20 will be made. I hope he is therefore able to withdraw the amendment on behalf of his noble friend.
The Lord Bishop of Chichester: I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 51 withdrawn.
The Lord Bishop of Chichester: My Lords, I speak on behalf of my colleague the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and declare his interest as chair of the National Society. I speak against Amendments 53, 54 and 56 to 58.
I strongly urge noble Lords not to support the proposal set out in Amendment 53. It is framed as a mandatory requirement. However, it is unclear what would satisfy the definition of “a meaningful alternative” for pupils. Furthermore, it does not consider the resourcing implications in terms of staff and accommodation, depending on the number of pupils opting out.
Amendments 54 and 56 provide no definition of what constitutes such an “objective, critical and pluralistic” education. This would require a much fuller consensus to be achieved about the purpose and content of the RE curriculum, which is not the purpose of the Bill—although I note the helpful observations of the noble Lord, Lord Knight, on the work done by Dr John Hall. There may be some helpful work elsewhere that could be continued from that.
The wording around acts of worship and “religious observance” in Amendment 57 is open to interpretation, which is subjective. It would be very difficult to define or apply it consistently. A prohibition as proposed under this amendment would appear excessive and it is unclear how it would be monitored.
Amendment 58’s removal of provisions may conflict with church school trust deeds and governance documents that require certain staff in a church school to have particular attributes as a genuine occupational requirement; for example, fitness and competence to teach religious education because of their religious opinions, attendance at religious worship, and/or willingness to teach in accordance with religious tenets.
Baroness Meacher (Con): I thank the right reverend Prelate for giving way. I just want to make two points. First, does the right reverend Prelate really feel he should be persuading Ministers not to adopt these amendments when religious communities as well as non-religious communities support them? Secondly, he said that teachers must not be discriminated against if they have a requirement in their job, but the amendment allows for that very clearly. If there is an occupational requirement to have religious knowledge, that teacher will be expected to have religious knowledge, so I am unsure why the right reverend Prelate is arguing those points.
The Lord Bishop of Chichester: The points I am arguing reflect the experience and response, particularly that garnered by the National Society. It is on the basis of that that the rejection of these amendments is built. It presents for us a national picture from the Church of England.
Extracts from the speeches that followed:
Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non Afl): My Lords, it is very useful to have the right reverend Prelate raise a religious voice against these amendments and raise some concerns. Maybe I could raise a non-religious voice with some concerns I share against these amendments.
I am particularly worried about Amendments 53 and 57 and the idea of alternative assemblies
“directed towards furthering the spiritual, moral, social and cultural education of the pupils”.
I fear this would become a secular version of religion, with all its preaching of things I do not particularly like. It was interesting that the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, mentioned what is happening in Wales, where I am from. I 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. What would the content of these things be?
While I am not religious and consider myself a humanist, I feel queasy because we have a problem in this country of religious illiteracy. I think we want a secular society that understands religion and shows some regard for religion and its tradition.
The Lord Bishop of Chichester: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, for her comments. There are two things. I am very aware of the important statement that the Queen made in her Diamond Jubilee about the vocation of the Church of England, which is not to promote itself but to promote faith, the practice of faith and respect for people of faith. The noble Baroness’s comments on religious literacy are very timely, particularly if we are taking seriously the education of our young people as they face not only a global issue in which religious literacy is of increasing importance but also, of course, as we prepare them for a pluralistic society here in England, in Britain, where, once again, religious literacy is increasingly important because of the range of places from which people come and the faiths that they bring with them. I greatly value the comments—thank you.
Baroness Penn (Con): My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for this thoughtful debate, as we reach the end of our second day in Committee. The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, rolls her eyes at me. She may have anticipated that, while I shall not quibble with the wording of her amendments, I shall disappoint her in my response. I also wanted to tell the noble Lord, Lord Knight, that he is making me increasingly jealous of the time that he spends on the Orkney Islands, and the celebrations and reflections that he gets to do there.
I turn first to Amendment 53, in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher and Lady Whitaker. The Government view collective worship as central to life in a school with a religious character. The right to withdrawal from collective worship is also important, as it provides choice for families as to whether or not their children participate. The amendment seeks, where children are withdrawn from collective worship, to provide an alternative assembly aimed at furthering the spiritual, moral, social and cultural—SMSC for short—education of pupils in schools with a religious character. The Government do not believe that the amendment is necessary, as 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.
On Amendment 54, 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. The Government support the right of such schools to provide religious education that aligns with their religious character. We therefore believe that there is no need for the amendment. 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. There are many examples of academies with a religious designation taking care to ensure that their provision, to some degree, reflects a diversity of religions. We also expect schools to promote fundamental British values, which includes encouraging mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs, including non-religious beliefs. While acknowledging that the intention of this amendment is to widen choice in the teaching of RE, we believe that it is unnecessary because RE will likely already include the concept of non-religious world views.
Amendment 56 relates to academy schools without a religious character. Again, the Government believe this amendment is unnecessary because RE may already include the concepts of religious and non-religious belief. 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 noble Lord, Lord Shipley, asked me two specific questions. On the point about not giving equal time to nonreligious worldviews, we are talking about the same judgment, but I shall write to him on the specific point, and on the point relating to Wales—although, if I understood him, it might rather reflect the devolved nature of education in Wales rather than a different legal approach. I shall reflect on Hansard and make sure I write.
On Amendment 57, collective worship is important in encouraging pupils to reflect on the concept of belief and its role in the traditions and values of this country. The right of withdrawal from collective worship provides families who do not want their children to participate to withdraw from it in whole or in part. As I have set out, there are already plentiful opportunities for schools to further children’s spiritual, moral, social and cultural education regardless of religion or belief. This includes holding nonreligious assemblies, so the Government do not believe that this amendment is necessary.
Amendment 58 would repeal specific sections from the Schools Standards and Framework Act 1998. This would have the effect of removing statutory freedoms and protections regarding the recruitment, promotion and remuneration of teachers by reference to their religious practice, belief or knowledge at academies with a religious character. The Government support 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 Government do not intend to change this position for any school with a religious character, including academies. We continue to provide equivalent protections for academies to those available to maintained schools.
As I say, I thought this was an interesting and reflective debate, but I am afraid that the Government do not agree with the amendments tabled by noble Lords. I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, will withdraw her amendment.
Baroness Meacher (CB): I thank noble Lords who have spoken in support of these amendments and I thank the Minister for her response, although it seemed to me that the departmental response, if I can call it that, did not deal with the inconsistencies and inadequacies in the law, and so on. Never mind, we can come back to that.
I will just say that “Better the devil you know” is fine if you are a Christian, but it is not what the majority of people or the majority of children in this country would want, because the devil they know is something other than Christian worship. It seems to me that the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, agreed with Amendment 57, even though she bent over backwards to say she did not, because of course we are all very happy with religious education and information; what we are talking about here is worship.
Anyway, with those few provisos, I am very grateful to everybody who is here at this late hour, especially our two Ministers, who have been here for a very long time. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 53 withdrawn.
Amendment 54 not moved.
Clause 25 agreed.
Clauses 26 and 27 agreed.
Amendments 55 to 58 not moved.
Clause 28 agreed.
Amendment 58A not moved.