Thursday 18th January 2024

(5 months, 1 week ago)

Grand Committee
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Question for Short Debate
Asked by
Lord Harries of Pentregarth Portrait Lord Harries of Pentregarth
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To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to improve the quality of religious education in schools.

Lord Harries of Pentregarth Portrait Lord Harries of Pentregarth (CB)
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My Lords, the 2023 report by Ofsted on religious education could hardly be more damning. It said that, in too many schools, RE was of “poor quality” and “not fit for purpose”. Ofsted suggested that, as a subject, RE was “undervalued” and often considered as an “afterthought” by schools. It argued that the

“lack of clarity and support”

from the Government made the schools’ job “harder”. This is not a new situation but one that has been known for many years and, despite some input by government, the situation has continued to deteriorate.

Religious education is education. It is not propaganda. It is simply basic to any understanding of what it is to be a citizen of our society in the world today. First, it is impossible to understand the literature, art, music, history or political values of this country and Europe without some basic knowledge of the Christian faith and the Hebrew scriptures on which it was built. It should be general knowledge in our culture as to why we have Christmas and Easter, for example, but polls indicate a widespread ignorance. Teachers of literature in universities are appalled at the lack of any kind of knowledge of the Christian faith that permeates so much of what students will study. Then, in our plural society in which Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism, for example, are so widely present, religious education should give people the mindset to begin to enter into the narrative of other worldviews. It goes without saying that, in a world of conflict such as ours, where religion is so often a factor, this is more important than ever.

I am delighted that a number of my humanist friends will be speaking in this debate, but I stress to them that what we are talking about is education, not propaganda. Most young people today say, apparently, that they have no religion. This makes it all the more important for them actually to know something about what it is that they say they do not believe. Religious education is therefore essential for understanding both our own society and the world in which we live. Why have successive Governments allowed it to be so marginalised for so long?

At the moment, the major responsibility for RE lies with local authorities and SACREs. Some of them take this responsibility seriously but, in others, very little has been done. In August last year, a survey of LA funding to SACREs found that five authorities declared no spending on RE at all, and a further 34—39 in all, or 31%—stated they do not spend any money supporting RE in schools. Some authorities allocated sufficient funding for a proper review of the agreed syllabus in a timely fashion, but 21 authorities had a syllabus from before 2017—over five years old.

SACREs have, on the whole, worked well as enablers of co-operation and community between the different faith communities, but they have not been able to bring about the radical improvement in RE that has been shown to be needed for many years now. The time has come for much more direction at a national level. I agree with the Religious Education Policy Unit that there should be a properly funded national plan for RE, which should include a national curriculum. A national curriculum is used as a benchmark for standards in other subjects and, if academies do not choose to follow it, they must provide a curriculum that is similarly broad and ambitious. The present situation, where responsibility lies at a local level, means that there is no standard available to the Government to challenge weak or invisible RE provision.

The present situation is lamentable. In England, schools have a statutory obligation to provide RE to their students. However, according to the school workforce data, one in five schools offers zero hours of RE in year 11; this equates to around 500 secondary schools. In the absence of a national standard, the current Government have no mechanism to challenge this.

It should also be noted that no government money has been spent on RE projects in schools over the last five years—that is, 2016 to 2021. During this time, English has received £28.5 million, music has received £387 million, maths has received £154 million and science £56 million. With the Government’s stated “firm belief” in the importance of RE in mind, there should be a national plan for RE on a par, at least, with the national plan for music. There should also be, as part of this national plan, the provision of teachers who are properly qualified to teach the subject and able to take part in continuing professional development; this is not the case at the moment. The Department for Education has missed its recruitment target for secondary RE teachers in nine out of the last 10 years. While the total number of secondary teachers in history and geography has risen by 6% and 11% respectively during that period, the number of teachers of RE has declined by almost 6% in the same time. The result is that pupils are now three times as likely to be taught RE by someone with no qualification in the subject than, for example, in history. Some 51% of RE lessons are taught by people whose qualification is in a subject other than RE, and RE often becomes the lesson that is filled by a teacher with a few spare lessons on their timetable.

One way in which this situation can be addressed is through the provision of more bursaries for those training to teach RE in a way that is comparable to those training to teach other subjects where there is a shortage of teachers. I welcome the Government’s commitment to fund bursaries of £10,000 for trainee teachers in RE and the provision of eight-week subject enhancement courses. However, even with these measures, recruitment for this year was predicted to be 60% short of the target, and this has the further effect of putting university courses where people learn the subject under strain and creating a vicious circle of decline. Despite the sterling efforts of some schools and some SACREs, it is widely recognised that the present situation is lamentable, and it is failing to prepare pupils for understanding the key role of religion in our culture and history and its importance for good community relations in the modern world. What is happening now in RE is professionally unacceptable.

I am grateful to the Library for its briefing and to the Religious Education Policy Unit for its recommendations, which I follow, on the whole. Finally, I will press the Minister on whether she agrees that: first, we need a properly funded, clear national plan for RE and that it can no longer simply be left to SACREs, and this plan should include a budgetary provision at least comparable to other subjects that need a boost, such as music; secondly, this plan should include what is expected from the syllabus and that what happens locally should be judged by this benchmark; and thirdly, that RE should be taught by people who have qualifications in the subject and who are given regular opportunities to enhance their professional skills, and that more bursaries and more money for enhanced professional training should be made available to this end. I beg to move.

Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Portrait Lord Griffiths of Burry Port (Lab)
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My Lords, I am delighted to be part of this debate. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, is to be thanked for yet again bringing it to our attention; it is as lamentable as he has said. The two of us have contributed to “Thought for the Day” for many years, and we both know how to tailor our remarks to two and three-quarter minutes. I feel quite at odds with him in this debate where he has 10 minutes and I have three.

I have counted, throughout my time as a Methodist minister, the number of years I have spent in the governance of schools: it amounts to well over 40. These have included every kind of secondary school that you can imagine—voluntary aided, academies, state sector, comprehensives, private schools too—and the shaping of a university at Roehampton where our denominational input was of some use. Over this time where I have been involved practically in this way, the situation has become ever more dire.

Since it is required of the education that we offer to our young people that the spiritual and religious be part of what a good education is considered to be, that raises all kinds of questions. I wonder, for example, why between 2016 and 2021 no government money was spent on RE projects in schools. I hope the Minister knows why or where it has been hidden for future use. When in September 2023 a joint letter was sent by the Religious Education Council to the Secretary of State, Gillian Keegan, pointing out a shortfall in this area, within a month it was discovered that the initial teacher training bursary was to be reintroduced for September 2024 entrants. Why did it have to be reintroduced? Why was it not there in the first place?

I know that the way that we look at and feel about religion varies from person to person and that it can produce great difficulties, because people feel that those with religion want to have an angle on the educational curriculum of a school to introduce and emphasise the things that are important to them. I do not think that is the case. I am a member of the British humanist society and its APPG here for the simple reason that I, like they and all religious people, believe in the humanum and that it is our duty, wherever our values are to be found, to seek the well-being of humanity at large. I certainly do not want religion to be categorised as simply reneging on its promises or undermining its commitments.

With those brief words—my one “Thought for the Day”—I can now leave the field open for others.

Lord Storey Portrait Lord Storey (LD)
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My Lords, I have an interest in this issue as a former head of a Church of England school. Before the introduction of the national curriculum, RE was the only subject that schools had to teach by law; the rest of the curriculum was left to schools—heady days, one might think. Since then, much has changed; indeed, our society has changed too and become a very different place. We are a very successful multicultural and multifaith society, and two-thirds of young people and more than 50% of people as a whole are non-religious, and an increasing number have humanist values and beliefs.

It is important that children and young people understand different faiths and those of no faith. That has to be taught and available through our school system, with teaching of the highest quality—not the prevalent “pass the parcel” to see who will do it.

The figures, as we have heard, speak for themselves. Of our schools in England and Wales, 25% use teaching assistants to deliver the subject, while 20% of RE teachers have received no training and only 63% of teachers feel confident in teaching the subject—a worse situation than three years ago. In 30% of schools, RE is funded less than any other subject taught, and in 28% of schools no funding at all is provided towards the teaching of RE. One in five schools does not offer RE in the curriculum in year 7—they are breaking their statutory responsibilities, by the way—while 27.4% of academies which are not faith-based schools do not even teach RE. Is that part of academies’ right to choose their own curriculum? Perhaps the Minister could explain. Some 31% of schools spend less than the designated time teaching RE—again, a worse situation than three years ago.

Increasingly, therefore, fewer qualified teachers are teaching the subject; less money is spent on resources; less time is used to teach it; and, in many academies, it is not taught at all. Perhaps the Minister could tell us what the Government are planning to do and whether the time has come to take an honest and open-minded look at faith and non-faith education in our schools.

Let me end on a positive note. The Open University, in collaboration with a range of UK and international partners, has developed an exciting initiative in religious, civic and historical education for young people aged 13 to 18. They are encouraged to think outside the box about their own experiences of religious diversity, tolerance and intolerance. The creative process means working together and developing skills such as teamwork, empathy, curiosity and imagination, critical thinking and making “docutubes”, which are short films. Perhaps the Minister would look at this exciting project and its possible use in schools.

Lord Bishop of Durham Portrait The Lord Bishop of Durham
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My Lords, I declare my interests as in the register. Our modern society today is rich in diversity with varying cultures, religions and beliefs. Religious education gives young people an understanding of different world religions and beliefs, in a world where 70% of people affiliate themselves to a religion. It gives pupils an opportunity to explore their beliefs, enabling them to think critically and discuss belief systems in a non-offensive and non-discriminatory manner. However, RE is too often seen as inessential, with Ofsted stating, as was said earlier, that

“schools often consider RE as an afterthought”.

When current global conflicts have roots in religious histories, and with increases in faith hate crime in Britain, the provision of high-quality RE is crucial to creating a more respectful and tolerant society. Faith hate crime often comes from a lack of understanding, and it will not be eradicated when citizens lack knowledge of the beliefs of those alongside whom they live and work. I note the Government’s decision to omit RE from the English baccalaureate; will they reconsider this—it was disastrous—and include RE?

Despite the statutory requirement to teach RE at all stages, there are no clear expectations around RE provision regarding the breadth and depth of the syllabus. This results in the teaching of RE in many schools simply being inadequate. The National Content Standard for Religious Education in England, produced by the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, gives syllabus providers clarification and a benchmark for excellence in RE. Will the Government endorse the document and use it to raise the standard of RE provision across the country?

RE provision is further declining due to the lack of teachers qualified to teach the subject at a high standard. I appreciate the plans for bursaries for those training in the 2024-25 academic year, but I am concerned that these measures do not go far enough with—as already stated—51% of RE lessons in secondary schools taught by teachers who predominantly teach another subject and one in five schools reported to offer zero hours of RE teaching in year 11. How will the Government further ensure that an adequate number of teachers are qualified to teach RE well?

Religious education has the potential to be a vital component in addressing discrimination in the UK and creating a more understanding society. I urge the Government to ensure that RE is considered not as an afterthought, but as an essential part of education, equipping young people to live and engage in society today. The vision for education is to produce the best human beings possible. Surely RE has a vital part to play in that process.

Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick Portrait Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick (CB)
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I am grateful to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for making us have this debate and for the context he set out. I declare up front that I was an RE teacher between 1980 and 1986. Those were what the noble Lord, Lord Storey, called the “heady days” when we could decide exactly what we taught, and it was straightforward Christianity in my day—but in my latter years, a bit of something else was added for context.

I thoroughly enjoyed my six years of being a religious education teacher. I loved that I was able to inspire a transformation of attitudes and mindsets in a school in west London that, if Ofsted had existed, would have been closed down as a failing school; I do not mind admitting that. It was a school that did what we used to call CSEs, because the brightness level was somewhat dim there.

I remember a phrase that went round at that time, the 1980s: “Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach RE”. As an RE teacher, that made me feel that I was at the back end of the bottom of the bucket, but I loved those six years. I loved them, to be candid, because I was able to transform the energy and engagement of less academic students, so that RE became—to be honest about it—the single most pursued and sought-after subject at CSE, which was the GCSE equivalent, for 13 to 16 year-olds. The school in which I was teaching even introduced an A-level in the subject.

How was that possible? There is a distinguishing characteristic to RE that has been substantially and consistently ignored: it has to come from a living and vibrant commitment to faith. Whatever the faith, it had better be dynamic, realistic, passionate, personal and meaningful. We all know well from our school experience—we have all had it—that it is not so much the subject but the teacher that turns us on. If we could invest in bringing forward people of calibre and character, energy and enthusiasm, faith and distinction, RE would be changed.

It is not so much about pushing teachers on but about letting hearts and souls come out. When I went to that school, I was offered £400 to support 900 children in my first year. I raised £2,600 from a network of friends to support the curriculum of the whole school, because I really believed I had an important opportunity that we should pursue.

I ask the Minister, when she responds to all the fine points that have been raised in this debate so far, to tell us the extent to which the Government agree that vibrant commitment and understanding of the role of faith in today’s society—let alone understanding of the context of our troubled world, particularly areas of the Middle East—is so essential for our children that we had better get enthusiastic people in to the job.

Lord Parekh Portrait Lord Parekh (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank my good friend the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, for securing this debate and introducing it with characteristic eloquence. The three minutes I have do not really allow me to say anything significant so I will make three quick points of criticism of religious education as it is practised in our schools.

First, it is not properly thought through or carefully organised; it is taught by teachers who are not properly trained and who do not have sufficient time; and there is no careful planning or organic build-up from one year to the next. That is one simple criticism that I wanted to start with.

The two other criticisms are far more significant. It is not clear why we want to teach religious education. Is it to fill time? Is it to deal with undisciplined children? Is it to placate religious people? Why is religious education part of our curriculum? I do not think that many people who insisted on this have really given it thought.

We have not realised that it is not concerned with being a good citizen. A citizen has no religion; only human beings have. It is concerned with how to make somebody a decent human being so that his humanity inspires citizenship in all that he does and is. We want to teach religious education to give him a better grasp of civilisation, in the composition of which religion has played an important part; to make him a better human being and to get him to appreciate the countless advantages and disadvantages in being religious. Religion has been a force for evil as well as good. We have seen both. When it has been a force for good, it has been concerned with ecological issues, human brotherhood and emphasising human finitude—that human beings cannot be the lords of the universe. They are the sorts of things that religion should be teaching.

The third question is: what is taught? When you say we teach religious education, what is that? Is it teaching religions? What does that mean? Does it mean teaching the history, or the moral values? No, that is morality. What is distinctively religious about religious education? Here, many of us tend to lose sight of the fact that religion is ultimately concerned with spirituality, which is neither moral nor religious. I can be spiritual without having to believe in God—lots of people are. I can be deeply moral without being religious. In other words, spirituality has a distinct space in human life, and religious education should cultivate this and the ability to sensitively appreciate the spiritual aspect of life. Religious education, as we teach it, does not seem to do so.

Lord Warner Portrait Lord Warner (CB)
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My Lords, I declare my interest as a member of Humanists UK and a former chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on humanism.

I agree with much of what the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, said, but I believe the problems on this issue are more fundamental. The UK population’s commitment to religion has seriously changed since my teenage refusal to chant the Lord’s Prayer in school assembly. In 2021, the British Social Attitudes survey revealed that 53% of the population had no religion. Only 12% said they were Anglicans, with young people making the biggest shift to secularism: 68% of 18 to 24 year-olds belonged in no religion, with just 18% saying they were Christians. Only 0.7% were Anglicans. Church of England support among young people is in free fall, with no evidence that this shift will be reversed. The 2021 census points in the same secular direction.

Yet the Church hierarchy, Parliament and educational policy-makers seem unwilling to recognise this new reality. This House still insists on starting proceedings with Anglican prayers, and we still have 26 Anglican Bishops here by right. As a House, we badly need to face up to the implications of this fundamental population shift to secularism. It calls into question both the state’s funding of religious schools and the curriculum and practices of non-religious state-funded schools. There is now no justification, in my view, for compulsory daily acts of Christian worship in the two-thirds of state schools in England and Wales that are not Church schools. There are big question marks over the way in which religious belief is taught in these schools, and curriculum change is inevitable.

I appreciate that tackling the issue of Church of England schools is difficult but, even without tackling this contentious issue, other—quite major—reforms are possible. We could and should abolish compulsory acts of Christian worship in schools, and we should move to teach an independently devised and more broadly based national education curriculum, as others have suggested, on faith and non-faith beliefs. This House might like to set an example by changing some of its own religious practices.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, we live in a period in which Jewish schools have had to ramp up security to protect their pupils, and religious symbols of Judaism are being hidden by students in fear in non-Jewish schools. My question is: given that religion and politics have got very messy, who would be an RE teacher dealing with such fraught difficulties? Over the last few days, the front pages had the story of Michaela Community School, led by Katharine Birbalsingh, whom I admire but others do not—she is certainly controversial. Of all things, the school has been taken to court by a pupil for banning Muslim prayers. The head teacher had basically said, “We shouldn’t be divided by religion. We should have no prayers”. I was fascinated that one of the things the teacher said was that some pupils were being intimidated by their peers for not being religiously pious enough, and it was a kind of bullying.

There is a poisonous atmosphere out there. Even the question of whether we live in a Christian country is rather more awkward than one would think. I loved the explanation given by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, of religion as education and knowledge, and I totally agree with him on that, but many British institutions seem embarrassed by the western Judeo-Christian tradition. Its accomplishments are more likely to be labelled as white privilege than as the repository of positive values and virtues.

Instead, in recent years the new religion is diversity and inclusion, which has incentivised faith groups to adopt politicised cultural religious identities and has proved a recipe for stirring up divisive tensions and encouraging group grievance-mongering and offence-taking. We should not forget that a schoolteacher from Batley Grammar School is still in hiding, in fear for his life, for the blasphemy of showing pupils an image of Muhammad in a religious studies class. He had no support from politicians or trade unions, was labelled Islamophobic and was told he was making a fuss about nothing, although the Parisian teacher Samuel Paty was decapitated for a similar offence of showing cartoons of Muhammad. We have to admit that this is difficult.

I shall finish with the Reverend Bernard Randall, who lost his job at a Christian school—Trent College in Derbyshire—because he delivered a sermon expressing approval of mainstream Christian teaching on marriage, biological sex and gender, and the head teacher reported him to Prevent. That bodes badly for RE teachers. I would avoid it like the plague. We have to be honest that it is more difficult than it sounds by just paying bursaries.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, I thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for tabling this Question for Short Debate. This is an incredibly important issue affecting all children, and currently it is failing. He will not be surprised that I approach this subject from the perspective of non-religious children, whose beliefs are not recognised at present in RE. When the UK was overwhelmingly religious and Christian, the treatment of RE with that focus was completely understandable. The noble Lord, Lord Warner, has described the incredible decline in faith among young people. More than two-thirds describe themselves as non-religious. If RE is to be relevant to all children—and I want spiritual teaching as well as non-spiritual teaching to be relevant to all children—the Government’s first step should be to issue guidance making it clear that RE needs to be fully inclusive of non-religious worldviews. Indeed, the subject needs to be renamed “religion and worldviews”.

Last year’s Bowen judgment in the High Court provided legal clarity about the need for the subject to be objective and pluralistic and to include humanism within it. Indeed, since the Fox judgment of 2015, the subject has been required to be fully inclusive of humanism. In May 2023 a High Court ruling found that it was unlawful for Kent County Council to refuse to accept a humanist pupil as a member of an RE group. The Bowen judgment makes it clear not only that syllabuses must include humanism but that humanists must be included within RE. This is necessary in order for the UK to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights. That convention provides for non-religious worldviews to be read into most instances where religion is used in current law. As important as the legal requirement is the impact on children of an inclusive approach to RE. This enables children with belief to understand those who do not have a belief, and vice versa. Surely that is important for community cohesion.

I applaud the 2018 Commission on Religious Education chaired by the Very Reverend Dr John Hall, the Dean of Westminster. A core recommendation of that commission was the reform of RE to make it more inclusive. This reform is also the policy of the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education. This is the reform that the RE profession wants.

In conclusion, all faith schools should provide inclusive RE as an option on request but, most importantly, the Government need to legislate to reform the subject entirely, change its name to religion and worldviews, bring it within the national curriculum and ensure adequate funding for the subject. I support RE but want it to be broader.

Baroness Garden of Frognal Portrait Baroness Garden of Frognal (LD)
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to speak in this debate secured by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries. His contributions to “Thought for the Day” are always enlightening—as are those of the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths—and start the day in a really good way. I hold him in great admiration and affection, particularly so after he gave a moving tribute to my husband at his funeral 16 years ago. He has written any number of books on religion and ethics but also on defence, literature and the arts—a veritable polymath, but also a very senior member of the Church of England. He was a founder member of the Oxford Abrahamic Group, bringing together Christian, Muslim and Jewish scholars, so his wish to improve religious education in schools is not confined to Christianity.

As we have heard, RE is a compulsory subject in schools, but you would not always know that. It can be taught by teachers who have no religious education themselves. It can be passed from pillar to post, with no one teacher taking responsibility. This is not exactly a new issue. Many years ago, I taught French A-level at a convent where one of the set texts was Flaubert’s story of Salome and the beheading of John the Baptist. My convent-educated and bright sixth-formers had never heard of John the Baptist. When I asked what they studied in their RE lessons, they said social issues, such as drug-taking, poverty and war, but not, it appeared, the Bible. My class therefore ended up doing more RE in French A-level than they did in RE. Luckily, they had heard about Jesus and knew about Christmas and Easter and that Catholics went regularly to Mass but, even in a convent, the Bible was a mystery.

As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, has mentioned, when Damian Hinds was heading the DfE—how transitory Education Ministers have been—he initiated the £10,000 tax-free bursaries to attract teachers into RE, but the standing committee on RE reports that little progress has been made. If there are so few specialist teachers, it is scarcely surprising that the subject is woefully taught.

RE lessons should be a place for exploring the great world faiths, ensuring that students have a moral compass. I agree with the comments that they should also encompass the other aspects of humanism. Bible stories should be part of general knowledge, quite apart from the value of learning about goodness and sacrifice and understanding religious diversity, toleration and peace. There should be open, in-depth discussions of faith, so that all students, whether from faith families or not, can learn what religion means to practitioners and how important it is to be tolerant of those whose beliefs are different from one’s own.

In our own communities, we see great division through religion, so it has to be good when Christian, Jewish and Muslim places of worship open their doors and welcome all to experience their forms of worship. To know is to understand and not to fear. But this will not be helped if children start life with no knowledge of religion. Can the Minister therefore say what consideration has been given to encouraging schools to work with local churches and faith groups to find people of religion for these lessons, and what plans do the Government have to ensure—as we are all calling for—that we have qualified teachers for this compulsory subject?

Baroness Twycross Portrait Baroness Twycross (Lab)
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My Lords, this has been a most interesting and varied debate, and I join others in commending the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for securing it. I cannot claim to have his knowledge, or the knowledge displayed by many speakers, including my noble friend Lord Griffiths, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and the noble Lord, Lord Storey, or indeed the teaching experience of the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, and the noble Baroness, Lady Garden. However, we can all agree, whatever our level of expertise, on creating an education system that delivers for all children. We can get the core subjects such as maths, English and the sciences right, with expert teachers in the classroom, but our education also needs to be broad enough to ensure that children develop the knowledge and skills that they need to succeed at school and into employment and adult life—and that includes religious education. As the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, put very succinctly, we clearly need this for an understanding of literature, and I say that as somebody who studied literature at university.

Our communities in the UK reflect the rich religious diversity of our population, but also include people without faith, such as humanists, as referenced by my noble friend Lord Griffiths, who also choose to have a value-led approach to how they live their lives. My understanding was that humanism should be included in RE in schools, and I would be grateful for clarification on that from the Minister when she sums up.

Children today are growing up in a far more diverse and increasingly secular society than the generations before them. As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, said, RE is fundamental to both a knowledge of our country’s Christian heritage and values and an understanding of other worldviews. It is hugely important that those of different faiths or no faith understand and respect each other. As many noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, said, we have an increasingly polarised society. This debate is set against the context of conflict in the Middle East and the backdrop of a rise in hate crimes targeting people of particular faiths. We must work to counter hatred, intolerance and bigotry. Good RE teaching can and does contribute to this, and I want to make sure that we do not lose sight of the excellent work done by many RE teachers.

Given that RE is compulsory to offer in schools but is not part of the national curriculum and that parents can withdraw their children from classes, having high-quality and diverse teaching is clearly key to encouraging them not to do so. It should also not be the afterthought, as mentioned by a number of noble Lords, that Ofsted has found it to be in the school timetable. Does the Minister have specific numbers relating to how many children do not take part in RE where it is offered?

What is being done to end the postcode lottery when it comes to religious education in schools? As noted by many noble Lords, some students receive far more comprehensive and specialist teacher-led religious education than others. I would welcome the Minister’s views on what more the Government can do to reverse the apparent decline in the number of specialist RE teachers and in RE teaching and on the many other questions raised in this debate.

Baroness Barran Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education (Baroness Barran) (Con)
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My Lords, I congratulate the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, on securing this important debate on religious education and in true “Thought for the Day” style on expressing his thoughts so eloquently. I also thank noble Lords around the Room for their insightful contributions throughout the debate.

As many of your Lordships have mentioned, it is vital that our children receive high-quality religious education. In a society where, according to the 2021 census—as was noted by the noble Lord, Lord Warner, and the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher—there has been a significant shift in the religious demographic in recent years, it is as important as ever for our children to gain knowledge, understanding and tolerance of a wide range of religious and non-religious beliefs.

As the noble and right reverend Lord set out, religious education is a truly unique subject which has personal, social and academic benefits. The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, asked why we teach religious education and what the point of it was. Other speakers have perhaps answered some of that already but, certainly from the Government’s perspective, when done well, religious education can develop children’s knowledge of British values and traditions, help them better understand those of other countries, and refine their ability to construct well-informed, balanced and structured arguments. It provides opportunities for pupils to engage with questions of belief, values, the meaning and purpose of life, and issues of right and wrong, and to do so—picking up on the spirit of what the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, said—in a respectful and safe environment.

Knowledge of world religions is also valuable in supporting our children to thrive in our own multicultural society as well as in terms of Britain’s relationships with other countries. It is important that we all understand the values and perspectives of those who live around us as well as of those with whom we wish to conduct business or build diplomatic relationships overseas. The Government are committed to ensuring that RE delivers on all this, which is why it remains a compulsory subject in all state-funded schools in England for each pupil up to the age of 18. As we heard powerfully from the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, we also need teachers who bring great passion to the subject. In addition to the noble Lord, I want to thank a teacher from the West Country who sent me his thoughts ahead of this debate having seen an RE teacher. I am very grateful for his views.

Teacher recruitment and retention are crucial to every curriculum subject. As we have heard, teachers who are specialists in their subject are key to maintaining standards. The department is driving an ambitious programme to transform the teacher training process. Specifically in relation to recruitment, we are focusing on how we do our marketing, support prospective trainees and use more real-time data and insight from our new application process to boost recruitment where it is needed most.

A number of noble Lords, including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, questioned the level of recruitment to RE teaching posts. As your Lordships set out, in the academic year 2023-24, 44% of the recruitment target for RE was reached. This is lower when compared with recent years, although it should be noted that the target increased by more than 45% to 655. There is work to be done here and the Government recognise that initial teacher training recruitment remains challenging due to the competitive graduate labour market. Therefore, we were pleased to announce that the department will again be offering a £10,000 bursary for RE trainee teachers starting initial teacher training in 2024-25, which we hope will incentivise greater numbers to apply.

We also continue to offer eight-week subject knowledge enhancement courses, or SKEs. Currently, in the 2023-24 academic year, a subject knowledge enhancement course is available for candidates who have the potential to become an outstanding teacher but need to increase their subject knowledge. Those courses are available in nine secondary subjects and primary maths. They include an eight-week course in religious education. All these courses can be undertaken on a full-time or part-time basis but they must be completed before qualified teacher status can be recommended and awarded. Eligible candidates may be entitled to a bursary of £175 per week to support them financially while completing their course.

The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, highlighted some of the pressures that RE teachers in particular face. Of course, once recruited, teachers should feel supported in their role. By its very nature, religious education can contain contentious and sensitive content, not least in the context of current world events, and pupils’ curiosity can rightly lead to challenging questions and comments. That links back to the fact that teachers who are teaching RE need to feel confident in their knowledge and their ability to deal with these challenges and that they are supported by a great curriculum and appropriate and accurate materials.

The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, asked whether non-religious world views are being included in the RE curriculum. She referred to the recent court rulings which have made it clear that religious education should include the teaching of non-religious world views. Non-religious world views are already an integral part of the department’s religious studies GCSE and A-level subject content specification.

The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and other noble Lords stressed the importance of having a strong curriculum. To assist in this, Oak National Academy is in the process of procuring curriculum resources for religious education which will mean that high-quality lessons are available nationwide, benefitting teachers and pupils where schools opt to use them. They will begin to be available from autumn this year and will be fully available by September 2025.

The noble and right reverend Lord also asked whether the Government intended to introduce a particular national plan for religious education. We currently have no plans to do this nor to revisit the recommendations made by the Commission on Religious Education. Our policy remains that curricula should be determined locally, whether through locally agreed syllabuses or by individual schools. Obviously the Oak resources I referred to will be available to all.

Having said that, the Government also welcome the work that the Religious Education Council has done to assist curriculum developers by publishing its National Content Standard for Religious Education in England. This is not a curriculum in itself but, without specifying precisely the content that schools should teach, it provides a non-statutory benchmark against which syllabus providers and others can choose to inform or evaluate their work.

That links to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, about dedicated expenditure on religious education in schools. The Government’s stance remains that we trust schools to judge how to use the funding that we give them. We trust their judgment and we give them autonomy to decide how to use that funding. On the question from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham about whether we are planning to include religious education in the EBacc, I think he knows the answer: there are no current plans to do so.

The noble Lord, Lord Storey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, both talked about the number of schools failing to comply with their duty to teach religious education. As your Lordships pointed out, schools that are not teaching RE are acting unlawfully or are in breach of their academy funding agreements. In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, we do not monitor each school’s compliance with the duty to teach RE any more than we do for English, maths or any other subject. If there are concerns that a school is not teaching RE, they can be raised via the school’s complaints procedure. If they are not resolved, they can be escalated to the department.

In concluding, I restate the Government’s commitment to ensure that every school is fulfilling its statutory duty to deliver RE. It is mandatory now and there are no plans to change this. It is the right of every child to receive a well-rounded, comprehensive and high-quality religious education. We recognise some of the challenges that your Lordships have pointed out, but I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, about the importance of “humanum”, of developing the human, which all our schools strive to do, every day.

Sitting suspended.