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In reality, all the church schools that I have had to do with in Bradford, in south London and now in the north-east of England have been local community schools. They have been distinctively Christian but they have been totally inclusive. That applies whether we are talking about first schools, primary schools, middle schools, upper schools or secondary schools. Frankly, I do not recognise Church of England schools in the way that faith schools are often talked about in the current debate.

Let me tell your Lordships about one school in particular in the city of Newcastle. It is a Church of England secondary school, the only one that the Church of England has. Four years ago, the local authority was at the end of its tether. It had two state secondary schools which were known as—I hate the description—“failed” schools. As a last resort, the authority asked the Church of England to combine the two schools into one and to take them over as a new Church of England school, albeit on one of the existing sites. Three years on, although we are not out of the wood by a long way, that school is now flourishing. Although the examination results do not necessarily say so, the value added to the lives of its young people over the past three years has been quite immense. I believe that it is highly significant that in the first year we began there were five young people in the sixth form; this year there are 90 and next year there will be even more.

It is essentially about that school building confidence, self-esteem and aspiration in the lives of young people who have precious little from their home backgrounds. It is the care, nurturing and development of our children and young people educationally and socially—and, I would say, emotionally and spiritually—that matters above all else. I believe that Church of England schools—and, indeed, Church and faith schools in general which are open and inclusive—offering both the best kind of care and the best quality of education that we can, together with, yes, daily worship and excellent

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religious education, still offer one of the very best ways of achieving what we want for all our children.

Baroness Blood: My Lords, as chair of Integrated Education in Northern Ireland, I shall resist the temptation of the opening that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, gave me and content myself by saying that I support Amendment No. 16.

The question I asked myself as I listened to the House today is: why do we have to have single faith schools? Why is the whole idea of a single faith school so important? Has Northern Ireland not shown that it does not work? It creates fear and allows some people within that community to use that fear. We have seen that in Northern Ireland. As many noble Lords know, Northern Ireland remains a very segregated place, and all the out-workings of that we all know only too well. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Baker, said, this is changing with the growth of integrated education. This is not about interfering with religion in schools. As I read the amendment, it is about trying to put a balance into the schools. There is no doubt that when a school has one single faith, it becomes a very closed community.

The world today is a much smaller place than it was when I was a child—or maybe it just seems that way—but I passionately believe that children will learn from each others’ faiths and cultures through allowing this to begin in the formative years at school. We must endeavour to let children learn and celebrate each others’ cultures and faiths instead of fearing what they do not understand.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, I am encouraged to follow the noble Baroness and to agree very much with her. I support the gallant efforts of my noble friend and others to struggle with the problem in Amendment No. 16.

I am encouraged in that by a conversation with a knowledgeable, thoughtful, Muslim friend of mine, who is a newsagent in my home town. He has two daughters, one of whom is a qualified doctor and the other is studying to be a doctor. His experience of local education at home leads him to think that the amendment would be a good idea provided that it applies to all schools. That is a very important point to make. If we are to pass a provision like this to solve the problem, it must apply to all schools and to new schools in the future. I think the noble Lord, Lord Alton, sees that point, although it presents a problem which I deeply understand from his speech and from my own knowledge of Roman Catholic schools.

Faith schools have a great deal going for them. The ethos of a school, the atmosphere—what people call the hidden curriculum of a school—is usually very strong in a faith school. My experience of Roman Catholic schools is that it is very strong there. You can tell the ethos the minute you go into a school.

I really do not believe that there can be exclusive schools in future. One needs to look no further than the past few days’ news media to see how easy it is in the name of national or religious solidarity to provoke the very conflict that we want to avoid. Young people must learn when discussing things to

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consider other people’s viewpoint, if we are going to avoid conflict. Jack Straw, in his quiet, tactful way, was wise to raise a big subject, as he did. I am not quite so sure about the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow, who six months before the Scots parliamentary election has just announced that he advocates Scottish independence. We await results, but I do not know what is going to happen after that.

What school should nowadays be about is beautifully described by Karen Armstrong in her recent book, The Great Transformation. Tracing the development of the great religions of the world from their origins in 1600 to 900 BC, she shows how from the beginning and today those religions at heart embody a shared purpose. All seek to promote sympathy and understanding between people. She makes one wonder if that is what our faith leaders must remember as we proceed into the future with our policies. In the conclusion, the author writes:

I believe that my noble friend Lord Baker’s amendment would help young people to do that.

There are many problems that will have to be overcome, because if we are to shape a future in which our young people can compete in the modern world, we cannot have exclusive schools.

Lord Sutherland of Houndwood: My Lords, gales of belief have been blowing around this Chamber tonight—the beliefs of those who are atheists and Roman Catholics and even a moderate wind from the Anglican Benches. It seems rather feeble then to say that one is an agnostic but, feeble as I am, that does not mean that I do not believe anything. It means that I share beliefs with many people.

Like all noble Lords, I believe in a tolerant society in which an attempt is made to understand the position of other people and their formal cultural influences. I believe in a society in which freedom of speech and thought and teaching children to ask awkward questions, be it about religion or science or whatever, are all tremendously important. Most of all, in tonight’s context, I believe, like all noble Lords, in an inclusive society. No one has preached the cause of exclusion, nor would I expect that in this place. The question is one of ways and means and how we capture that in our education system.

To make one point in passing, I think there has been a confusion in the debate between religious worship and religious education in schools. Government Amendment No. 79 gets it just about right on religious worship. In relation to religious education, I would resist any attempt to diminish its place in schools. Indeed, if our political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic knew more about religion—the Islamic religion and the Christian religion and the way in which extremes can show themselves in those religions—we would be in a better position now than we are in all sorts of other contexts.

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I also believe in the importance of a remark by David Hume, which I have quoted before in this place. He said:

I speak as a philosopher, noble Lords will understand—

I think we all agree with that, because we know that whatever form of religion we espouse or reject, there are dangerous extreme forms. The question is how we ensure that our school system is moving in the right direction. That is all we will do in this Bill; we will not change the situation radically forever, but we can move it continually in the right direction.

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I do not support the notion of quotas, as I do not think that they would work. The reasons for that have been given; I would repeat them but it is too late. However, I propose an alternative way in which to attempt to deal with the issue and the dangers of religion and what will be initially schools that recruit from a particular religious community—and I look to the Anglican example here. It is to use our inspection system thoroughly and radically and for Ministers to back up the judgments that will come from that inspection system.

Ofsted has the responsibility to report on the ethos of a school. These issues are all partly to do with the ethos of a school and the direction in which it moves. It has to report on the social, moral, spiritual and cultural education provided for pupils in schools. Again, all these are fundamental to the direction in which we should be moving. Of course now we have citizenship taught in schools. All that comes within these three bands. If instructions to inspectors were strengthened and made more precise so that these areas were inspected clearly and certainly in the case of all faith schools, with a punctiliousness that we would all benefit from, I would look to Ministers to be willing to support the tough judgments that will come up in some places and act on them. There will be tough judgments to make and Ministers will have to stand firm against a press campaign and a community campaign—and that applies to Christian schools as well as Muslim schools and Jewish schools. An amendment could be brought forward at Third Reading, if that were thought to be worthwhile.

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, I would like to speak to Amendment No. 79, because I have a series of amendments to that government amendment. It looks complicated, but it is not as complicated as it would appear. Amendment No. 79 is to be moved by my noble friend Lord Adonis and concerns the right of sixth-form pupils to be excused attendance at religious worship.

Currently only parents can withdraw pupils from collective worship and religious education through the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. Following his undertaking in Committee, my noble friend tabled a government amendment to allow sixth-formers to withdraw from collective worship.

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The Joint Committee on Human Rights issued a report on 13 October noting that human rights incompatibility would be reduced if older pupils were permitted to withdraw themselves from collective worship and religious education, and the criterion for ability to withdraw should be their competence to make such a decision.

The differences between my amendment and that of my noble friend are as follows. In my noble friend’s, qualifying pupils can take advantage only of part of the statutory withdrawal rights enjoyed by the parents. The amendment does not extend withdrawal to religious education for competent pupils as the law already does for parents and the JCHR suggests that it should. Why should a 15 year-old who is mature enough to have the pill or an abortion without parental knowledge not be capable of deciding whether she wants to pray or attend religious education in her state school until she is well over 16 under the government amendment?

If the withdrawal from religious education is exercisable by parents, why should it not be for parents considered adults for human rights purposes? Is there a reason why religious education withdrawal should be withheld? We do not think so. Even for schools with a religious ethos, some pupils attend at their parents’ behest, some may simply have been enrolled because there was no other suitable school and some may have changed their mind about whether they wish to attend.

Why should they be forced to attend religious education if they do not wish to? Both the Catholic Education Service and the RE Council have suggested that attendance at a religious school is some kind of package where pupils are obliged to attend worship and presumably religious education—in essence leaving their human rights behind at the school gate. It is hardly as if they will be ignorant of religious matters. They will already have had to sit through10 years of RE. Religious education is not supposed to be religious instruction. It is not a national curriculum subject so there is little national or even LEA control over the syllabus and style of teaching. Voluntary aided schools with a religious ethos are permitted very wide scope in what they teach. AtSt Luke’s Sixth Form RC College in Sidcup, religious education included compulsory attendance at certain events. Even pupils over 16 were not permitted to leave when they expressed a strong desire to do so. More than 100 of them rebelled at that time.

It is interesting to see precisely what the JCHR said as it is very important for this discussion. It stated:

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The document continues:

This is a sensible amendment to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. I and my supporters believe that the way forward is to accept the principle involved in Amendment No. 79, but to make these amendments, which would bring it in line with the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, it is a pity that the Minister’s amendment was not grouped separately so that we could have a discussion on these matters without becoming involved in all the other weighty discussions which have preceded it. The amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, is distinct from all the others in that it is concerned with a fundamental issue of human rights, whereas whether you have 25 per cent of the places at a faith school allocated to people who do not belong to that religion is a matter of expediency. However, I agree with all those who have said that we need to consider very carefully how to avoid the divisiveness that may arise in our society through exclusive attendance at faith schools of only members of that religion. However, that is another argument. We are concerned here with the human rights of pupils on whether to attend acts of collective worship or lessons of religious education.

I am delighted to see the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth back with us, although I, too, beg to differ with him on this matter. I say to him that it is not a question of having no religious education at all. That is not what the amendment says. It is proposed that only when the child reaches 16, or attains the sixth form, should he or she have a right to opt out of religious education. My youngest son took his GCSEs at 15. He took religious education as part of that course. If this amendment had been in force at the time, it would have made no difference whatever to his appreciation of the religious education which that school offered because he would already have received, in his opinion, all that was necessary of such education by the time he took his GCSEs. He did not go on to study RE at A-level, which was his absolute right. It should be the right of any child, as the noble Baroness said.

The noble Baroness is to be particularly congratulated on her deployment of the case to which the JCHR alerted us only at the end of last week. That in turn involved some very rapid footwork by

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the committee working during the Recess to pick up the fact that the Government’s amendment, giving a sixth-form pupil the right to be excused attendance at religious worship, is only a quarter of a human rights loaf, as the noble Baroness has explained.

Following amendments by my noble friend Lady Walmsley in Committee, the Government sent out a consultation document on 10 August asking recipients to respond by 25 August, breaking the normal rule of consultations that six weeks are allowed for reply. An explanation should have been given for the shorter timescale, but was not, although I understand from the Government that this was not a normal consultation at all but simply a request for views to be expressed by those immediately concerned. I should like to know who was immediately concerned. On the previous amendment my noble friend mentioned the right of children to express opinions. Did the Minister obtain the opinions of any children, or of organisations representing children? We should hear what they had to say.

It was even more unfortunate that although the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said in response to my noble friend in Committee on 18 July that he would encapsulate “most of the spirit” of my noble friend’s amendments in the amendment that he would propose, the consultation document referred only to half of it, limiting itself to the question of attendance at collective acts of worship and leaving out altogether any reference to religious education. The noble Lord’s explanation for that in a letter to the executive director of the National Secular Society was,

He did not go on to explain the difference in the nature of those two activities. Even if there is such a distinction, as the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, has explained, the rights of parents to opt out of both on behalf of their children are the same, or they are similar if not identical. If there is a proper distinction to be drawn in this legislation, would it not have been right to explain in the consultation document how the Government saw it and get the views of the consultees rather than giving the impression that only the attendance at religious worship had been entered into in Committee, and that there had been no reference to the question of attendance at RE lessons?

8 pm

I think that the Government were at fault in not expanding the consultation to include all the matters dealt with in the amendments in that group in Committee. The Minister’s excuse for not doing so was that my noble friend did not actually refer to this issue in Committee. That is disingenuous. As my noble friend explained, that was a monster group of amendments, and she would have been unpopular if she had spoken to every single one.

In tabling their amendments, the Government concede that a sixth-form pupil of whatever age is competent to decide whether to attend collective worship. As the noble Baroness has explained, the

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JCHR says that it is a denial of the rights of the child under both the ECHR and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to say that she can withdraw from collective worship but not from compulsory RE if she is of sufficient maturity, intelligence and understanding. If she is accepted as having reached that standard for the first, it follows that she is for the second purpose as well. The Government’s position is illogical in arguing that the parents ought to step aside on worship but to continue to decide for the child on RE. The two must go together, and the test for both must be the same.

The JCHR suggests that schools should apply the Gillick test, under which the High Court ruled that a girl of whatever age had the legal capacity to consent to medical examination and treatment, including contraceptives, if she had sufficient maturity and intelligence to understand the nature and implications of the proposed treatment. It says that schools are familiar with this concept and could be provided with guidance on how to apply it in the case of religious worship and RE. However, to avoid what I see as being unnecessary bureaucracy, and because the attainment of the age of 16 and reaching sixth form are objective tests that the Government recognise in their own amendment, it is appropriate to apply them in this context but with the difference that if either of them is satisfied the exercise of choice is triggered. Otherwise, 16 year-olds will be divided into sheep and goats; those who go to a decent school will qualify because they have reached sixth form by that time, while the 44 per cent of pupils who do not achieve five good GCSEs by age 16, as the noble Lord writes in an article in today’s Guardian, will be disqualified.

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