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Education Bill

Education Bill

Column Number: 427

Standing Committee G

Tuesday 15 January 2002

(Afternoon)

[Mr. Peter Pike in the Chair]

Education Bill

Clause 72

Interpretation of Part 6

4.30 pm

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): I beg to move amendment No. 470, in page 48, line 42, at end insert:

    ''''is religious education'', in relation to maintained nursery schools or the provision of funded nursery education otherwise than at a maintained school or maintained nursery school, means—

    (a) (in maintained nursery schools) such elements of the local agreed syllabus as are appropriate to its pupils' age, ability and aptitude, and

    (b) (in relation to funded nursery education otherwise than at a maintained school or maintained nursery school) such education about the religion prevalent among the pupils' receiving funded nursery education as the provider considers appropriate to those pupils' religious heritage (or, where there is no majority, the Christian religion), and to their age, ability and aptitude.''

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 471, in clause 93, page 61, line 11, at end insert:

    ''''religious education'', in relation to maintained nursery schools or the provision of funded nursery education otherwise than at a maintained school or maintained nursery school, means—

    (c) (in maintained nursery schools) such elements of the local agreed syllabus as are appropriate to its pupils age, ability and aptitude, and

    (d) (in relation to funded nursery education otherwise than at a maintained school or maintained nursery school) such education about the religion prevalent among the pupils' receiving funded nursery education as the provider considers appropriate to those pupils' religious heritage (or, where there is no majority, the Christian religion), and to their age, ability and aptitude.''

Mr. Turner: I offer a warm welcome to you, Mr. Pike. The amendments probe the Government's intentions with regard to religious education in nursery schools and in nursery settings in Wales. There appears to be no obligation for nursery education to be provided in nursery schools or nursery settings, but there is an obligation for religious education to be provided in nursery classes in primary schools. The approach is inconsistent, and the amendment would remove the inconsistency in clause 72 with regard to England and in clause 93 with regard to Wales by dealing separately with maintained nursery schools and other nursery settings. I note that the word ''is'' appears on the top line of amendment No. 470 on the amendment paper. That should not be there. The insertion should be identical to that of amendment No. 471.

I propose that we insert two separate definitions of religious education that apply to maintained nursery schools and to nursery provision. The first definition,

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which relates to maintained nursery schools, applies the local agreed syllabus as it would broadly be taught in nursery classes in primary schools according to the age, ability and aptitude of the pupils. That is uncontroversial. The second definition would make suggestions about nursery settings, which are cumbersomely called

    ''funded nursery education otherwise than at a maintained school or maintained nursery school''.

The nursery settings are not involved in the creation of the agreed syllabus. However, in some cases they are provided by religious organisations and in other cases by secular organisations. They provide for a wide range of pupils, who would be drawn in some areas from a large number of communities and in others from quite a homogeneous community. There are many settings associated with Catholic primary schools in my constituency, as there are few nursery schools but many pre-school playgroups, as they used to be called, that are associated with primary schools. One can imagine that the pupils in such a setting will be mainly Roman Catholic. It would therefore be appropriate that the religious education that is delivered in that setting should be consistent with the Roman Catholic faith. Similarly, it might be appropriate for the education provided in a setting associated with a mosque to be consistent with the Muslim faith.

In areas where the pupils are drawn from mixed communities where there is no prevalent religion or religious tradition, it would be appropriate for the Christian religion to be taught in a way that the provider believes is consistent with pupils' religious heritage and their age, ability and aptitude. The amendment is designed to discover the Government's intentions for religious education in nursery schools and nursery settings and to set out proposals appropriate for pupils of this age. I have not sought to apply the whole agreed syllabus in nursery settings because some faith groups expect their faith to be promoted and I do not want to compete with or contradict their wishes in that respect.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): I apologise for arriving slightly late to this afternoon's sitting.

I vigorously oppose both amendments and I hope that the Minister will oppose them as strongly as I do. If we start bringing religious education into early years settings, where are we going to end up? The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) argued that faiths should be promoted in such settings, but I can think of nothing worse than a state-funded system that allows children in the Welsh valleys, for example, to be indoctrinated in a particular denomination at so young an age. I hope that the Minister will vigorously oppose that.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight for tabling the amendment because it will show where the Government stand on early years religious education. As I understand it, all early years settings—whether in Wales under the aegis of the Welsh Assembly or in England under the aegis of the

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Secretary of State—receive funding for three and four-year-olds without the proviso of having to deliver any specific curriculum.

In the previous Parliament, the Secretary of State was forward-thinking in listening to the views of early years partnerships from the maintained nursery sector through to the Pre-school Learning Alliance and other voluntary groups and reaching a compromise on early learning goals, which were centred on play and socialisation rather than delivering a curriculum. I hope that the present Government will not stray into prescribing a curriculum for early years education. I trust that the Minister will not only oppose the amendments but state clearly that the Government will not support state-funded religious indoctrination in nursery schools.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): I rise in response to the substance and the principle of the amendment. I am unsympathetic to the amendment, but not on grounds of the principle outlined by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), whose concerns about religious education in schools I find disturbing. I ask him whether it is inappropriate for teachers in a nursery school celebrating Christmas to read pupils the Christmas story? Is any element of religious explanation inappropriate when Christmas or any other religious festival is being celebrated in a pre-school environment?

Mr. Willis: If the hon. Gentleman reads Hansard tomorrow, he will see that I did not say that. He should spend some time in early years settings [Interruption.] I apologise, I meant in order to gain a grasp of what goes on in those settings. Of course it is right and proper for a nursery school in Leicester, for example, to make Diwali celebrations part and parcel of what it provides, irrespective of whether a pupil is from a Christian family, of no faith or whatever. The notion of an early years school in the Rhondda valley celebrating Christmas is a wholly different issue from the state providing an RE syllabus to prescribe what should be taught. There is a difference between celebrating faith and the aim of the amendment, which is about promoting faith in early years settings.

Chris Grayling: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification, but I find his comments rather patronising. I have visited many early years settings in recent weeks and taken a close interest in the problems that they face as a result of an overbearing curriculum being imposed by the Government.

Mr. Willis: It would be even more overbearing under the amendment.

Mr. Turner: That is why my hon. Friend is criticising it.

Chris Grayling: However well intentioned, the amendment is inappropriate because I am concerned about the way in which central Government continue to impose rules, regulations and curriculum guidelines on early years settings. I hope that we will have a

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further opportunity to debate the provisions that set out curriculum requirements for early years education, which should be opposed to the hilt. In this particular case, an addition to the curriculum—already unwanted—would be undesirable. I have no problem with guidance suggesting that early years organisations should feel free to deal with religious issues, celebrate religious festivals and make young children aware of their religious context.

Will the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough assure me that his party is not seeking to remove religion from our schooling? Several of his comments gave me the greatest possible doubt about his party's level of support for religious education.

Mr. Willis: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman takes such a close interest in Liberal Democrat policy. He raises a fair point, so let me assure him that that is not my party's intention. He was not a member of the Conservative Government when they introduced post-1988 the idea of clarifying religious education. They wanted to achieve consensus about how religious education should be taught in schools and the religious syllabus. That was all positive. The dividing line comes with indoctrination. That is where we cross from educating young people about religion in its broader sense—that must be a multi-faith approach, because we live in a multi-faith society—and using the state system to indoctrinate people in a particular faith.

Those two viewpoints are fundamentally different. As a practising Christian, I do not want religious education removed from schools, but my party and I are determined to ensure that other faiths are equally celebrated, and that young people have an understanding of faiths throughout the world, and the benefits and virtues that those faiths—

 
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