Ending Christian assembly: let’s open our eyes to the value of collective worship in schools

Let us pray. Open book by Sergey and Ekaterina/Shutterstock

Challenges from parents and teachers to the law requiring an act of collective worship in schools are not new. Now the National Governors’ Association has called for Christian assemblies in non-religious state schools to be scrapped.

But while the time is ripe for a re-engagement with the law, ironically, collective worship is important to the current debate about British values in education.

Collective worship can be a formative learning experience for both British and global values. It can ramify across a whole school curriculum and, when accompanied by the critical intelligence promoted by good religious education, contribute hugely to moral discernment.

“Worship” (or worthship) is all about “attributing worth to” something. An imaginative interpretation of collective worship is an opportunity for a school to gather round and explore the deepest beliefs and values which inform the communities that feed into it. That includes exposure to stories and music, anniversaries and festivals, visual imagery and performance. These may be celebrating, regretting or rebuking, but they will all be set within the horizons of a common wealth which is Christian, and secular and multi-faith.

40 years of looking for an alternative

Reistance to the requirement for collective worship surfaced in 1975 in reports from the then Schools Council and John Hull’s book School Worship: An Obituary. It was also there in discussions ahead of the 1988 Education Reform Act. But politicians were reluctant to abandon the legal requirement. This was because a minority of them believed that what happened in schools should be the same as in any local church on a Sunday. For many more politicians it was a recognition that the provision remained overwhelmingly popular according to repeated opinion polls.

There was a major attempt to arrive at an alternative arrangement in the mid-1990s. It took the form of a national consultation by the Inter Faith Network for the UK, the National Associations of Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education (SACREs), and the Religious Education Council of England and Wales. This produced large-scale consensus, but the lack of total unanimity was enough to excuse government inaction.

In 2003, Charles Clarke, when he was secretary of state for education, promised that he would pick up on this once the development of a National Framework for Religious Education was completed. It was in 2004, but by then Clarke had been moved on to the Home Office.

It is time for another rethink. What sort is a different matter and it would be wise to reflect carefully on the desirable outcomes of any changes.

The law as it stands

Contrary to impressions conveyed in the media, the current legal prescription, which was introduced in 1988 and stands to this day, is both more sophisticated and more flexible than ephemeral headlines allow. It states that:

Worship should be “collective” not “corporate” Corporate worship is an activity distinctive to a community of believers gathering to express their shared faith. Collective worship is an activity expressive of the religious beliefs of some but not all of those present. Arguably, the former might be appropriate in some “schools of a religious character”, such as faith schools, but certainly not in all other state-funded schools. There, collective worship is what is legally specified.

“Wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”. This convoluted phrase was introduced into the 1988 Education Reform Act to indicate that Christian beliefs and values are an important part of a school’s constitution, reflecting that of the nation. It was also introduced to ensure that head teachers and governors could also have the professional discretion to be attentive to other mainstream beliefs and values.

“Wholly broadly Christian” expressly ruled out any denominational loadings. “Mainly” permitted just under half to attend to other beliefs and values. This ruling sits alongside the requirement that religious education teaching must include the other principal religions of the UK as well as Christianity. More than 25 years ago the same Education Act (section 8) made it illegal to ignore Muslim traditions, as well as those of other faiths. Those faiths should deservedly include that of the humanist community – a legal change now well worth considering.

“Age, aptitude and family background”. The law prescribes that, in arriving at the form of collective worship appropriate to the school, the headteacher must give careful consideration to the family backgrounds of pupils and also to their age and aptitude. When this was introduced back in 1988, schools were then advised by local authorities that assemblies could be variable in composition – such as divided up by year group or class.

“Conscience clause” This gives parents the right to withdraw their sons and daughters from RE and collective worship on conscience grounds. But good educational practice should make this unnecessary.

Government should step up

Any re-engagement with the issue of collective worship should properly involve much more than a shift in these legal wordings. One issue is the need, confirmed by the 2011 Census, to include humanist affirmations. Another is that of how to ensure that teachers and governors have the confidence and competence to work responsibly with religious diversity.

In practice, the assembling tradition is stronger in primary than secondary schools. And legal requirements regarding provision for daily collective worship, like those for effective religious education, have for many years been commonly ignored. Once upon a time, the entire school community would have been involved (minus conscientious objectors). Now, alongisde the pupils, it is more usually only those teachers with designated responsibility.

Collective worship is neglected in initial teacher education and training, as it is in the further professional development, including that of head teachers. As with religious education, government ministers and the department of education have ignored evidence of underprovision from many quarters, even Ofsted.

But as the education community is being asked to look deep into its role in promoting religious tolerance in a multi-faith Britain, perhaps the government should be more attentive to the fundamental aim that by the completion of formal education, young people are not only literate and numerate but also religiate. That’s actually what the national religious education tradition is properly all about: the education of conscience.