Religious Education in Schools Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Religious Education in Schools

Baroness Garden of Frognal Excerpts
Thursday 18th January 2024

(6 months, 1 week ago)

Grand Committee
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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?