Schools Bill: Bishop of Durham speaks and votes on amendments at report stage

The House of Lords considered the Government’s Schools Bill at Report Stage on 12th July 2022. The Bishop of Durham spoke in the debate on numerous amendments, several of which were put to a vote. His speeches and contributions from other peers are below:

The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Storey, that there are many maintained and voluntary-aided stand-alone schools that have turned themselves around incredibly well through good leadership and high-quality teaching, so academisation is not the simple answer. Local leadership and governance undoubtedly need to be got right. I declare my interest as chair of the National Society and would like to highlight the importance here, in the church sector, of the diocesan boards of education as key local engagers. We will come to that in a later group.

Local knowledge of schools is crucial in ensuring that their flourishing is provided for. However, I am going to disappoint the noble Lord, Lord Storey, because I find the amendment overly mandatory and restrictive, giving too much power to a local body to trigger a school leaving an academy trust; I am not sure that that is right. The principle of local governance needs to be got right. I am not convinced that this amendment as proposed is quite the right way to do it. As was said in Committee, it is important to have proper local engagement, but it must not be too detailed in how it is mandated.

In relation to that, I support the proposals from the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, around local consultation in Amendments 33, 34, 37, 38 and 41, because that is critical. Also critical is Amendment 43 on geographic consultation. I share the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Storey, about multi-academy trusts that are spread out a long way. Inevitably, people based in the south-east will not know, for example, what is going on the north-east, in my patch. That geographic consultation is very important.

Amendment 45, which has not been talked about, is about the inspection of MATs. It is surely inevitable, if we move in the direction of travel that the White Paper lays out around all schools being in strong multi-academy trusts, that we are going to have to have a new system of inspection for MATs by Ofsted. I would like to highlight an example of an alternative way of doing it, which involved the diocese of Birmingham’s MAT and the diocese of Liverpool’s MAT. They have twinned to undertake mutual scrutiny and support. We heard about it at the conference last week, which the noble Baroness attended, for which I thank her. They found that the most powerful, helpful way of improving themselves and learning was by twinning with a MAT that had a similar flavour—they were both diocesan Church of England school MATs—but in different geographical settings. As we look to explore the proper inspection of MATs, let us also be imaginative about how that might be done.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Storey (LD): As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said, it is important to get this right so that schools in multi-academy trusts that are not based in that locality can relate to a local community. I hope she might provide me with the opportunity to talk to her about some of the ideas we may have. I also very much support the important amendment from the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Baroness Penn (Con): My Lords, the amendments in this group primarily relate to schools with a religious character, along with an amendment regarding religion and worldview education for academy schools without a religious character. I will speak to the amendments regarding schools with a religious character first.

I thank the right reverend Prelates the Bishops of Durham and Chichester for their support in Committee. We have listened to the concerns and suggestions raised by them and other noble Lords on schools with a religious character. These amendments adopt similar principles to the amendments proposed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham in Committee.

Baroness Meacher (CB): My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 30 in this group. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, and the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, for adding their names to the amendment, and I also thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham for our very helpful discussion on it.

The house debated Amendment 30. The Bishop of Durham Spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I rise to speak to all the amendments in this group, and in doing so declare my interest as chair of the National Society. Turning first to Amendments 26, 27, 28 and 29, I am extremely grateful to the Minister, again, for her continued work with us on these important issues. It is no comment on the noble Baroness, Lady Penn, but the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, and the team have been particularly helpful, and it has been a fruitful ongoing conversation. The partnership between the Church of England and the Department for Education is greatly valued and a significant strength in the sector of education. This is seen in the way we work at national, regional and local level and through the outworking, for example, of the 2016 memorandum of understanding between the Department for Education and the National Society—I should add that our friends and colleagues in the Roman Catholic Church express the same thanks—which is an important recognition of the need for continued partnership in order for us to serve 1 million children through Church of England schools.

Some concerns have been raised about the protections and guarantees given to academies with a religious character, and the Church welcomes the clarity and assurance the Government have given about the scope of regulations in this regard. It moves us from a contractual to a statutory footing better to safeguard the distinctive Christian character and ethos of our family of Church schools. Such regulations will need to secure the religious character of our schools through, for example, good models of governance, and we look forward to working with the department as those regulations are produced. The Government’s commitment to ensure the transfer of provisions for RE and collective worship currently set out in maintained legislation to the academy sector are to be commended, so I welcome this amendment, which helps to clarify the purposes for which the regulations are made and secures a duty to make those regulations. In Committee, the Minister responded to my amendment by giving assurances that regulations would be made under Clause 20, and we are grateful to her for acting in this way.

Turning to Amendment 30, it was good to be able to talk to the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, but I know that I have disappointed her in not feeling able at this stage to support it in its current form. This amendment relates to religious education in academies without a religious character—I fully accept that it has no impact at all on Church or other faith schools—which I am sure we are all agreed is an important topic if we are to enable our young people to play an active role in a world where faith and world views are so important. RE must be safeguarded in all our schools. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, pointed out, the Commission on Religious Education’s report pushed in this direction. Progress has been made since then within the RE community through the work of the Religious Education Council, which has not yet concluded. We are confident that we are moving towards a consensus about the future of the RE curriculum in all schools, and I fear that if we do not wait for that consensus, the danger is that we will pursue an amendment that fixes something unhelpful. It is purely a matter of timing that we disagree on, rather than the direction, I think. It is very important that the content of the RE curriculum in schools with a non-religious character be given attention, but I think it is better to wait for consensus about that content to be reached before mandating it in this way.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab): First, the right reverent Prelate the Bishop of Durham referred to the fact that there is still more work to be done with regard to religious education, so let us await the result of that work. Secondly, I have studied the amendment very carefully, and it is about religious education—or is it? I assume that, in England, it is still a requirement for state schools to teach religious education, so that is what they must teach.

(…)I hope the Minister will look kindly on this amendment, because it is very important. On the comments of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, if we agree the amendment, it does not prevent those discussions taking place.

Baroness Wilcox of Newport (Lab): The aim of Amendment 30 is to ensure that cultural education is balanced and non-exclusionary. In a modern society where children are exposed to all kinds of views, particularly online, it could provide an opportunity to discuss a variety of topics and issues. I recognise that a variety of opinions have been expressed, not least by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and my noble friend Lord Murphy. How can I possibly not defer to the former Secretary of State for Wales? As the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, pointed out, the laws on religious education have been reformed recently in Wales. It has seen an explicit reference to “philosophical beliefs” included and a change from “religious education” to “religion, values and ethics”, with the removal of the parental opt-out. With all that in mind, I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response on these issues.

Baroness Meacher (CB): I very much thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham for his comments and for noting the fact that our only differences are those of timing. Bearing in mind the amount of time that legislation takes, if we miss this opportunity in the Bill, it will be many years before we have another one to recognise that schools that do not teach religion and worldviews are breaching human rights.

DIVISION – the house voted to disagree with Amendment 30 of the Bill. The Bishop of Durham voted Not Content. The amendment was disagreed. Hansard

The house then moved to debate Amendment 28. The Bishop of Durham spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I shall speak to all these amendments. I declare my interest as chair of the National Society, but I should probably make it abundantly clear that, in the previous group, I was definitely speaking on behalf of the Church of England corporately, whereas I do so now in a personal capacity—though I suspect that many of my colleagues on these Benches will not disagree with me.

The proposal made by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, makes a lot of sense, but it strikes me that it probably falls under the academies regulation and commissioning review. The role of local authorities and devolving it down makes some sense.

I associate myself completely with everything the noble Lord, Lord Storey, has just said about the provision of free school meals. We all know that there are a growing number of children in households that are facing real difficulties in providing for them. Today, in the End Child Poverty report, we see that the north-east of England has the highest percentage of children in poverty of any area now, sadly overtaking London. Time and again I hear from schools that are struggling because children are arriving not having been adequately fed. They see the advantage of those on free school meals and know how much it means, and they struggle with those whose family are on universal credit but are not being given free school meals. Ideally, personally, I would go back to free school meals for all primary school children. However, I know we will not get that, so this proposal makes complete sense. Simply put it is a win that the Government can make in the public eye. We know that the situation will get worse in the coming months, and this would help enormously. I hope it will be given serious consideration.

On Amendment 59, I was recently in a maintained school—not a church school—where a high number of children have the pupil premium. I talked to the head about how she used it, and she was very clear that she makes sure that the pupil premium grant goes to the relevant child and is used appropriately. I asked her if it covers all the extra costs. Her answer was very simple: in most cases, no. She was happy to accept that in some cases the answer was yes, but it most cases it was no. She has to supplement the extra needs for pupils who are eligible for the pupil premium from other quarters. This proposed increase would make sense, and then to tie it to inflation. The pupil premium makes a huge difference for many children and many schools. Schools seek to use it properly for the individual children.

Amendment 60 is simply common sense and I hope it will be supported.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Shipley (LD): The cost of giving free school meals to families on universal credit is around £500 million to £550 million a year. This is a very serious issue, as my noble friend Lord Storey and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham have identified. At a cost of £550 million, it would mean that a large number of children are able to have a hot meal every day they are at school. That seems to me to be a basic need that can be fulfilled by the Government very quickly.

Baroness Chapman of Darlington (Lab): This is an urgent and widespread problem. In the north-east, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said, a third of children are already on free school meals, so I know all too well how valuable a free meal is to families. Alternative proposals have been made; for example, providing a free school meal for children in families earning less than £20,000. In Labour-run Wales, reception-age children will get a free school meal from September, with all primary schoolchildren receiving them by 2024.

The House then debated further amendments. The Bishop of Durham spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I support Amendments 114 and 115. I recognise that the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, has made some very helpful points about the danger of pathologising and the need for collaboration between education and health, although she put it rather more as an either/or while I would want to see it more as a both/and.

I particularly thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Chapman of Darlington and Lady Wilcox of Newport, for proposed new paragraph (c) in Amendment 115. The noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, and I could give the Committee a very good example of the work in local schools by the Darlington Area Churches Youth Ministry, which is outstanding when it comes to young people’s mental health and mental well-being. It is a voluntary charity that works in collaboration with schools. I am delighted that that was included.

While I acknowledge some of the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, I think these amendments are well thought through and would be of value.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Baroness Wilcox of Newport (Lab): In this context, we have therefore introduced two amendments. First, Amendment 114 would compel the Secretary of State, whoever he or she may be, to consult on the current provision in place to support children’s mental health and well-being in schools. Our second amendment, Amendment 115, would compel the Secretary of State to publish an annual report on: how the mental health of children in academies and maintained schools in England affects, and is affected by, their schooling; actions being taken by schools to improve pupil mental health; and the extent to which schools are working with local National Health Service and voluntary and community sector providers, as noted by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham.

The house debated amendment 64. The Bishop of Durham spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I spoke in favour of similar amendments in Committee and will do so again. I will ask the noble Baronesses, Lady Chapman and Lady Wilcox, the same question as last time, as I did not get an answer. Proposed new subsection (1) in Amendment 113 says “all schools”, so can I presume that means primary as well as secondary schools? I am not sure what work experience looks like over 10 days of primary school; my understanding of

“a minimum of 10 school days overall”

would be over the period of life in that primary or secondary school. There is a lack of clarity there.

The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, and I are largely in agreement on some things this evening. I am absolutely with her on imagining, dreaming and so on, but I read the clause completely the opposite way around. I think it says, “Imagine what you can be, whatever your background”. The problem at the moment is that too many children do not think they can.

I had not heard the extremely good news that the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, shared. It is very welcome, so I thank the Minister.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Baroness Chapman of Darlington (Lab): In reply to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, obviously we are talking about secondary schools. That should be in the amendment, and I am very pleased to have the opportunity to clear that up. We were not intending to suggest that there should be a minimum of 10 days’ work experience for primary school pupils, although they might have an awful lot of fun going out into the workplace.

Lord Shipley (LD): I just assure the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, that this is not about social engineering. It is not about just getting employment; it is about awakening young people’s imagination; it is about social mobility; it is about raising aspirations. There is the evidence of the North East Ambition pilot, which has been part funded by Ernst & Young’s EY Foundation. I see the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham nodding his head, because much of that has occurred in County Durham. It has an impressive record. The engagement of the teaching staff in the primary schools there has been particularly marked. It has now produced a two-year review, and it is well worth reading if Members would like to do so. It explains what it is trying to do and how it is being done with parents and carers engaged. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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