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Bishops continue to move amendments to Schools Bill

24 June 2022

Parliament TV

The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, speaks to his amendments to the Schools Bill in the House of Lords, on Monday evening

The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, speaks to his amendments to the Schools Bill in the House of Lords, on Monday evening

A FURTHER raft of bishops’ amendments to the Schools Bill were withdrawn or not moved in the House of Lords this week as the Bill continued to pass scrutiny during the Committee Stage (News, 17 June).

On Monday night, the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, brought six “probing” amendments to sections in the Bill concerning school register reforms. This included removing the requirement to record how a child was being educated, “something that ought to be discretionary on the parents”, and confining the proposed power of local authorities to contain “any other information that may be prescribed” within the register — which Dr Smith described as “broad and open to abuse” — to instances where the safeguarding of the child was a concern.

The wide-ranging power for local authorities to collect any other data that they considered appropriate was another “highly undefined power that could be used to target individuals with protected characteristics”, and should be more clearly defined, he told the House. His three other amendments sought to keep parents informed and to safeguard data collection.

Responding for the Government, Baroness Barran said that the amendments raised an important issue of data protection, however. “The Bill already allows for regulations to make provision about the format and keeping of registers, as well as about access to and publication of the register. It is the Government’s intention to use this power to stipulate how local authorities must keep the information on their registers up to date and whether and how information is to be published.”

Regulation is different from legislation, as it can be more easily changed by the government of the day (Features, 10 June).

Earlier on Monday, a former Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd Lord Harries, brought forward his planned amendment to expand the teaching of “fundamental British values” (News, 27 May), which had been introduced in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015. These values were currently “lopsided and strangely missing in certain fundamental matters of our society”, he said.

“That law says that democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect, and tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs have to be taught. It may be obvious to everybody that there is one fundamental gap in that list: the equal respect to be accorded to every person in our society.”

He proposed that this be added, alongside “a government that is accountable to Parliament” and an expansion of the definition of freedom to include that of “thought, conscience, and religion . . . freedom of expression, and . . . freedom of assembly and association”.

Lord Harries also proposed that the Schools Bill ensure that these amended values were taught as part of citizenship in the four key stages rather than solely in assemblies.

The amendment gained widespread support from peers, including the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, who was back from holiday. He was “utterly behind it”, but “would have liked to have seen something on the social responsibility that flows from the five areas outlined. Freedom, respect for persons, and care for the environment require social responsibility.”

Responding to the debate on behalf of the Government, Baroness Barran said that these values were decided by individual schools, “already part of the OFSTED inspection framework”, and therefore not detailed in the national curriculum. “However, the key principles of the amendment — democracy, law, freedom, respect and sustainability, and climate change — are already covered across the citizenship, science, and geography curricula.”

Baroness Barran requested that the amendment not be moved.

On Wednesday of last week, the Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, moved a series of amendments on behalf of Bishop Butler, who was away. The first sought “to ensure consistency of language used throughout the legislation relating to maintained schools in a church context”, but was later withdrawn after Baroness Penn, on behalf of the Government, said that the existing wording already covered this.

The second amendment would require a school under the religious authority of a diocesan board of education (DBE) to seek the board’s consent before applying for an academy order. This was, Dr Warner explained, “an important step to retain the cohesion that they already help to promote, and to ensure that the governance of schools with a religious character is maintained by the religious authority. DBEs will also be increasingly important as the education system nationalises.”

The six consequential amendments that followed were to “reflect the position of the churches as partners in state education” and “the expectations of each religious authority before applying the power and accounts for schools with a religious character that do not have a religious authority. This would enable the religious authority, or appropriate religious body, to apply for an academy order in respect of its schools, in line with a strategic plan to enable a fully trust-led system.”

This was important, he continued, because “the Churches and other religious authorities have a strategic role in the development of the educational landscape. The move towards all schools’ being in a strong academy trust is not something that can be allowed to happen in an ad hoc or piecemeal way, but requires strategic planning and the development of a system that works for all schools concerned. It requires the religious authority to be able to propose strategic change to ensure that none of its schools is isolated or left behind.

“This will be particularly important as we consider the large number of small schools, often in isolated rural communities, many of which, as we have already heard in previous discussions, are church schools.”

Responding, Baroness Penn said that, while she understood the ambition behind it, “as drafted, the amendment captures only the diocesan authorities, and not religious bodies for other faiths, and the position should be fair for all religious bodies.”

On the following amendments, she said that the Government was “sympathetic to the principle”. but that “further consideration is needed to establish the scope of the religious bodies that could apply for an academy order and the types of maintained school to which it should apply.

“As drafted, the amendment may not adequately capture all the religious bodies involved in maintained schools with a religious character. It may also inadvertently include bodies which are responsible for schools without a religious character.”

None of the amendments was moved.

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