We recently visited the Beamish museum in Co Durham. This is a brilliant and highly recommended outdoor museum with many sites connected by a tramway. One of the sites features a colliery and ‘pit village’ set in the early 1900s. It contains a ‘Board School’. Such schools were set up by the 1870 Elementary Education Act. The Act required local ratepayers to organise the building and running of a new elementary school to ensure that every child should have a place in a reasonable quality school building with a certified headteacher.
Displayed In the school I found a statutory notice of a provision of the 1870 Education Act, Section 7, entitled, ‘Conscience Clause’ (above).
Section 1 appears to go further than the 1945 Education Act in prohibiting the imposition of religious observance on children and their parents as a condition of attending a school.
Section 2 states the right of parents to withdraw their children from any religious observance or instruction "without forfeiting any of the other benefits of the school".
Section 3 prohibits HMI from questioning any pupil as to their religious knowledge or understanding.
Two of our grandchildren have attended a Local Authority controlled Nursery and Infants school in a local 19th century school building. This has a plaque recording the establishment of the local School Board and the opening of the school. While we have been generally happy with the school, teaching is heavily referenced to Christianity and all children are taught to pray on all sorts of occasions in the daily life of the school, which is regarded as normal by parents, very few of whom are churchgoers. This was also true of the Leicestershire primary school attended by our own children.
This is so normal in English primary school education that I wonder if the ‘conscience clause’ was ever enforced in schools.
What I don’t know is if Section 7 of the 1870 Act also applied to ‘voluntary Church provided schools’ at that time.
What is certain is that the right of parents to have their children educated in a secular school that conforms to the 1870 ‘conscience clause’ is now far more restricted and becoming ever more so. Many parents do not have the local equivalent of an 1870 Board School and are compelled to send their children to a ‘faith school’, many of which do not comply with the ‘conscience clause’.
Present day faith schools run by Christian or Moslem groups are not known for their enthusiasm for admitting children ‘of all faiths or none’, let alone operating a ‘conscience clause’ in respect of those forced to attend. There are even examples of religious organisations taking over LA controlled schools thereby forcing parents to accede to a faith-based education of their children. This has to be seriously wrong.
The government clearly has no such concerns because despite the general population now having a majority of adults that self identify as having ‘no religion’, the DfE is openly encouraging the creation of more faith schools as well as Academy and Free Schools that are beyond the influence of elected Local Authorities.
If any reader knows more about the 1870 Education Act in relation to the ‘conscience clause’, then please comment.