In support of amendments to the Schools Bill

In a guest post, Russell Sandberg looks at a series of amendments on religion tabled to the Schools Bill currently before the House of Lords. 

The Schools Bill is currently at Committee Stage in the House of Lords. It had its first sitting on 8 June and will sit again on 13, 15 and 22 June before reaching Report Stage in the Autumn. As I discussed in a previous post, it contains several provisions affecting religion in schools in England, mostly focusing on academy schools with a religious character and unregistered religious schools. As I suggested, legislating for such issues provides an opportunity for wider amendments concerning the law on teaching religion in schools and religious worship. This opportunity has been taken and a number of amendments have been tabled at Committee Stage. This post will explore these amendments and why they deserve to be successful.

The current law on these matters is outdated and unworkable. It dates back to compromises made in the 1940s buttressed by knee-jerk amendments made under the Thatcher Government that insists that the Religious Education syllabus must ‘reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain’ (Education Act 1996, section 375 (3)) and that schools hold a daily act of collective worship which must ‘be wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’  (School Standards and Framework Act 1998, Schedule 20). And these are the provisions that apply in relation to schools that do not have a religious character. Faith schools are permitted to go further still.

The laws on religious education have recently been reformed in Wales, which has seen an explicit reference to philosophical beliefs included, a change in name from “Religious Education” to “Religion, Values and Ethics” (RVE) and the removal of the right of parental opt-out from RVE. However, the Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Act 2021 left the position of schools with a religious character largely untouched and did not deal with worship at all. Although a significant improvement on the law that continues to operate in England, there remains some unfinished business in Wales and some areas of confusion, as I document in my forthcoming book Religion in Schools: Learning Lessons from Wales (Anthem, 2022).

In that book, I argue that reform of the law in this area should be based upon five principles:

  1. The law should ensure that the composition of decision-making bodies on religious education and worship (such as SACREs) and the content of religious education and worship reflect the full ambit of freedom of religion or belief and that a pluralistic and critical approach is adopted.
  2. There is a need to make such pluralistic teaching on religion or belief compulsory in all schools including those with a religious character. There is an argument that the syllabus of this should be agreed nationally or at school level rather than by local SACREs.
  3. The law should then enable schools with a religious character to teach denominational religious education in addition to this as a separate subject, with a right to opt out by parents and pupils who are legally competent.
  4. There is a need to reform the requirement for religious worship to require that all schools provide for the spiritual development of their learners, reflecting freedom of religion or belief (including the freedom not to hold a religion or belief) through collective assemblies which should take place at least weekly and which, as now, can include groups or ages of learners at a time rather than the whole school.
  5. The law should then permit schools with a religious character to make provision for denominational worship but this should be in addition to the requirement laid out in the fourth principle.

It is pleasing to see that many of the amendments tabled to the Schools Bill at the Committee Stage on this topic reflect some of these five principles. The following will survey these amendments and comment on why they should be supported by Peers. It will begin by looking at amendments affecting the law on collective worship before exploring amendments to the teaching of religion and finally amendments to the position of teachers. Amendments will be explored in numerical order within these categories.

Amendments on Religious Worship 

Amendment 53

This amendment, tabled by Baroness Meacher and Baroness Whitaker, would require academies with a religious character to provide pupils who have been withdrawn from collective worship with a meaningful alternative.  The school would be obliged to provide ‘an assembly of equal educational worth, which must be principally directed towards furthering the spiritual, moral, social and cultural education of the pupils’.

This goes further than the current law as currently found in section 71 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 which allows alternative religious education to be given if reasonable to those who have been opted out of religious education or religious worship. These provisions are buttressed in relation to religious education by Schedule 19, para 2 in relation to schools without a religious character and para 3 in relation to schools with a religious character.    However, the focus of the current law is on providing alternative religious education, not an alternative assembly.

This amendment also goes further than the current law schools without a religious character where collective worship rather than an inclusive Assembly is required.  This highlights the need to replace the legal requirements for collective worship with an obligation to hold assemblies to further the spiritual, moral, social and cultural education of the pupils in schools without a religious character. As we will see, this is what amendment 57 would achieve.  These amendments effectively come as a pair.  Although my preference would be for denominational worship to be in addition to inclusive assemblies for all pupils at schools with a religious character, requiring inclusive assemblies for those who have opted out of denominational worship at schools with a religious character would provide a welcome step forward.

Amendment 57

Also tabled by Baroness Meacher and Baroness Whitaker, this amendment would replace the requirement for a daily act of collective worship in academy schools without a religious character, an obligation that:  ‘Each pupil in attendance at an Academy school without a religious character must on each school day take part in an assembly which is principally directed towards furthering the spiritual, moral, social and cultural education of the pupils regardless of religion or belief.’ It would permit voluntary acts of religious worship where parents or pupils (if over 16) would have the right to decide to attend and provided that ‘the staff or pupils arranging the worship are not acting on behalf of the school’.

This amendment is similar to a recent unsuccessful Private Member Bill and would represent a significant improvement on the current law in England and Wales.  It is unclear from the amendment, however, whether there would be a right to opt out of such assemblies. The amendment could also benefit from the clarification found in the current law on collective worship that states that separate acts can be held for different classes or groups of pupils. It is also questionable whether a daily gathering of the sort described here would be workable in large secondary schools. Removal of the word ‘assembly’ or the requirement that it be daily would be welcome to clarify whether or not a ’thought for the day;’ reflection in form classes would meet this statutory requirement.

Overall, however, this is an excellent amendment and if passed would ensure that the legal framework for academies is more workable and human rights complaint than the general law relating to schools in both England and Wales.

Amendments on Religious Education

Amendment 54

This amendment, tabled by Baroness Burt of Solihull, Baroness Bakewell and Lord Knight of Weymouth, provides that where a pupil at an academy with a religious character opts out of denominational Religious Education then ‘the school must offer religion and worldviews education as an alternative.’

Under the current law, where a pupil at a voluntary-aided school with a religious character is withdrawn from denomination Religious Education, then parents can request that the child receives Religious Education according to the agreed syllabus instead.

This amendment, therefore, replaces the agreed syllabus Religious Education with ‘religion and worldviews education’ in relation to those who are withdrawn from denominational Religious Education at academies with a religious character.  This is similar to the position now in Wales, where Religion, Values and Ethics has replaced Religious Education at schools with a religious character and where in voluntary aided schools with a religious character, those who are withdrawn from denominational Religious Education will now receive Religion, Values and Ethics according to the agreed syllabus.

Amendment 54 follows the Welsh model in retaining the obligation that religious education must ‘reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian’.

However, it is an improvement on the Welsh legislation in five respects. First, the revised title of the subject – religion and worldviews – is clearer to understand and more aligned with the human rights jurisprudence than the name adopted in Wales – Religion, Values and Ethics. Second, while the Welsh legislation qualifies the reference to Christianity by saying that the syllabus should reflect the other principal religions and the ‘range of non-religious philosophical convictions’ that are held in Wales, amendment 54 is clearer in that it refers to ‘the teachings of the other principal religions and non-religious beliefs represented in Great Britain’.  This is easier to understand and is in line with Article 9 ECHR. Third, the amendment also adds that the teaching should take account of ‘the beliefs and practices of their adherents’, explicitly recognising that different interpretations and manifestations can be found within religions or beliefs.

Fourth, the amendment states that religion and worldviews must “be designed and taught in a manner that is objective, critical and pluralistic”.  Although the Welsh Government constantly stressed the need for Religion, Values and Ethics to be pluralistic, it resisted the inclusion of an explicit requirement in legislation on the basis that it might upset the trust deeds of faith schools. The absence of such a provision in the Welsh legislation is a key cause of confusion and will likely result in a conservative approach being taken. A further defect of the Welsh approach has been its uncritical invocation and adoption of the ECHR jurisprudence on the definition of religion or belief, assuming erroneously that it provides a clear definition.  Amendment 54 again improves on the Welsh model. The fifth improvement is that it explicitly states that ‘the reference to non-religious beliefs is to the non-religious philosophical convictions, within the meaning of Article 2 of the First Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights, that are analogous to religions’. It is the reference to being analogous that is missing from the Welsh legislation and welcome here. As documented in my forthcoming book, this language was previously used by Education Ministers in Wales but was omitted from the new legislation. Its inclusion here will add much-needed clarity.

In sum, this is an excellent amendment. Ideally, the reference to ‘the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian’ would be omitted but that is likely to be politically difficult. This amendment would improve the teaching of religion or belief in academies with a religious character for those who have opted out of denominational teaching. They would experience teaching on religion or belief similar to the new Welsh model but with some of the definitional difficulties ironed out.   This is a far superior legal framework than that regulating Religious Education in schools without a religious character in England; and in the same way as amendment 53 needs to be understood as part of a pair with amendment 57, similarly this amendment is paired with amendment 57.

Amendment 56

This amendment, also tabled by Baroness Burt of Solihull, Baroness Bakewell and  Lord Knight of Weymouth, would replace religious education in academies without a religious character with religion and worldviews education. This would bring the position of academies without a religious character in England roughly in line with schools without a religious character in Wales but this again benefits from the same five improvements on the Welsh model found in Amendment 54.

This amendment would also render void any provision of an Academy agreement “so far as it is inconsistent with any provision made by or under this section”. This amendment would transform the legal framework concerning the teaching of religion or belief in schools without a religious character in England.  This would mean that the current law would only apply to schools in England that are not academies. These provisions, however, do not go as far as the Welsh model in terms of explicitly including representatives of non-religious groups in syllabus design. Indeed, the relationship between religion and worldviews education in academies and the agreed syllabus for Religious Education developed at a local authority level is unclear.

Amendments on Employment of Teachers

Amendment 58

This amendment, tabled by Baroness Meacher, would repeal particular exemptions found in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 and Equality Act 2010 for the purposes of appointment, promotion, remuneration or termination of employment of teachers in academies with a religious character.

This would remove the exception for academies from the provisions concerning the employment of teachers at independent schools with a religious character under section 124A of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. Section 124A would apply to academies with a religious character allowing preference only to be given in connection with the appointment, promotion or remuneration of teachers at the school in three scenarios: where the person’s religious opinions are in accordance with the tenets of the school; where the person attends religious worship in accordance with those tenets; or where the person gives or is willing to give, religious education at the school in accordance with those tenets. It also provides that regard may be had to conduct that it incompatible with the precepts or with the upholding of the tenets of the school in relation to the termination of the employment or engagement of any teacher at the school. Although these are more limited than the provisions currently in section 124AA, it could be argued that the first scenario, in particular, remains too broad.

The amendment would also amend the Equality Act 2010, removing the specific exception for academies with a religious character.  Presumably, academies with a religious character would still benefit from the other exceptions for educational purposes found in paragraph 4 of Schedule 22 of the Equality Act 2010.

This raises a broader point of whether such exceptions are needed, especially in schools without a religious character if there is a move towards inclusive assemblies and religion and worldviews education. In Wales, despite the move to Religion, Values and Ethics and the removal of the parental opt-out in schools without a religious character, sections 59(3) and (4) of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 have been left unaltered. These provide that teachers cannot “be required to give religious education” nor is he or she to “receive any less remu­neration or be deprived of, or disqualified for, any promotion or other advan­tage…by reason of the fact that he does or does not give religious education”. As I argue in my book, there needs to be clarity as to whether references here to “religious education” apply to Religion, Values and Ethics. If amendments 54 and 56 are passed, then similar clarity will be needed as to whether these provisions apply to religion and worldviews education and whether they should, given its pluralistic content.

Overall, amendment 58 deserves to be supported but it raises further questions about whether special provisions are needed for teachers if the legal framework on religion in schools without a religious character becomes truly pluralistic.

Concluding thoughts 

As I discussed in my previous post, while the provisions in the Schools Bill on unregistered religious schools would have a significant effect, the statement of the rules on religious education and worship in academies with a religious character largely restate the current law.  This would be unobjectionable if the current law was workable, compliant with human rights legislation and reflective of the social situation today. However, as changes in Wales have already shown, this is not the case. These amendments are therefore necessary. They would modernise and rationalise the law in relation to academies with a religious character and would go further to ensure that academies without a religious character also benefit from these changes.  There may well be a difference between the letter of the law and practice in schools but it is clear that the current legal framework is regressive. There is a need to replace it for all schools and these amendments would provide an excellent step forward.

Russell Sandberg

4 thoughts on “In support of amendments to the Schools Bill

    • Thanks. I support the removal of the opt out if the teaching of religion and belief is truly pluralistic and critical. If that is the case and it is accepted that such teaching is important in terms of creating tolerant and understanding citizens then I think this is something that should be taught to all children. Removing the opt out in such a scenario would also underscore the importance of the subject – there’s no opt out from History, for example.

      The opt out has been removed in Wales. Another reason for this in the Welsh context is the holistic approach of the new curriculum which means that schools will be able to develop their own curriculum which may integrate and fuse what is now known as Religion, Values and Ethics throughout the curriculum and so may well not teach it as a separate class.

      All that said, I can see reasons for retaining the opt out – especially in terms of compliance with human rights provisions on the rights of the parent. Though I fear that these rights are often prioritised above the Article 9 rights of children with the result that some children are denied non-denominational RE because of parental opt out or because they have gone to a particular type of faith school and their parents have not opted out. I suppose that’s the heart of my argument: the need for all children to receive pluralistic and critical teaching on freedom of religion or belief. The new Welsh system is a significant advance on the current law in achieving this but the amendments tabled to the Schools Bill will go even further again and are to be welcomed.

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