Government asked to end compulsory collective worship in schools

By staff writers
November 22, 2010

Teaching unions, educationists, religious bodies and the British Humanist Association (BHA) have issued a joint call to the government to end compulsory worship in schools.

The appeal has been made to the Secretary of State for Education the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP and reported in the Times Educational Supplement and teaching news sources.

The signatories come from organisers the BHA, the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, the National Union of Teachers, the Association of School and College Leaders, the chair of the Accord Coalition and minister of Maidenhead Synagogue, Muslims for Secular Democracy, and the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches.

In England, all state-maintained schools are required by law to provide daily collective worship for all their pupils "wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character". In faith schools the act of worship is provided in accordance with the school's trust deed or the tenets and practices of the religion or religious denomination of the school.

The joint letter emphasises that the requirement on schools to provide daily acts of worship places obligations on teachers which is bureaucratic and unnecessary. It also makes the point that the current legal requirement can prevent schools from holding inclusive, educational assemblies and that compulsory worship infringes on children’s rights to freedom of conscience, religion or belief.

The signatories say that the current law contravenes the European Convention of Human Rights, that a parental 'opt out' is insufficient, still leaving pupils isolated and bereft of choice.

The removal of the compulsory nature of collective worship would not prevent faith schools from holding assemblies which reflect their religious character, the signatories state. "It would simply mean that schools could decide for themselves what kind of assembly is best for their pupils."

Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, said: "The notions of compulsion and worship are mutually exclusive, and seeking to enforce prayers by law is offensive to the non-conformist Christian conscience, as well as to many of other faith traditions and to non-believers.

"Authentic acts of spiritual devotion are freely offered and freely entered into expressions of commitment. Making them a civic requirement is inappropriate and unhelpful, confusing the different responsibilities of specifically religious bodies on the one hand, and publicly-funded educational bodies open to people of all faiths and none on the other."

He added: "The issue here is not about whether you are a believer or a non-believer of a certain kind. It is a matter of common commitment to freedom of belief. It should not be the role of the state to enforce or prohibit worship."

Cambridge Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert has tabled an Early Day Motion (EDM) in Parliament which “calls on the Government to repeal the requirement for compulsory worship in schools and to encourage schools to hold educational assemblies that will include all children.”

The issue has also been raised as a civil liberties one and at the All Party Parliamentary Group on Human Rights in the past.

BHA chief executive Andrew Copson said: "There is no good argument for retaining a law which compels schools to hold daily acts of worship; a law which is outdated, discriminatory and most schools do not observe in any case."

He added: "If this restrictive law is scrapped, schools will be free to hold inclusive educational assemblies which can build shared values and a sense of community. If the government really is serious about abolishing unfair and unnecessary laws, and about ‘freeing’ schools, then the law on school worship should be near the top of the government’s list."

The letter in full reads as follows:

Dear Mr Gove

We welcome your commitment to reducing bureaucracy in schools and scrapping unnecessary obligations on hard-pressed teachers. One such obligation, placed on all maintained schools in England, is to provide a daily act of ‘broadly Christian’ collective worship for their pupils.

This law impedes schools’ ability to provide good inclusive assemblies and in practice the vast majority do not hold daily acts of collective worship, both because they lack space physically and in the timetable and because there are more effective ways of instilling shared values and a strong ethos in pupils.

Assemblies have a vital educational role – they can bring a school together in celebration of common values, and can assist pupils in exploring questions of purpose, value and meaning together. Teachers can and do deliver assemblies which are accessible, inspirational, and linked to the curriculum. These aims, however, are not best served by a law that forces schools to hold acts of ‘reverence or veneration paid to a divine being or power’.

In addition, this law is a clear infringement of the right to freedom of belief as set out in the European Convention of Human Rights, forcing pupils to take part in worship regardless of what they personally believe. The parental right of withdrawal is not a satisfactory solution - most pupils cannot opt themselves out and children who are withdrawn may miss important aspects of the assembly or feel isolated from their classmates. Teachers too are often put in an invidious position, having to lead acts of worship which may not reflect their own beliefs. In addition the law is at odds with the new Equality Act, which includes religion and belief as a protected characteristic.

The removal of the compulsory nature of collective worship would not prevent faith schools from holding assemblies which reflect their religious character. It would simply mean that schools could decide for themselves what kind of assembly is best for their pupils, an approach which is entirely in keeping with the coalition government’s stated principle of freedom for schools.

Teachers, parents and pupils – both religious and non-religious - have consistently opposed compulsory collective worship. We were not surprised that the idea of repealing the law quickly became one the most popular suggestions when the ‘Your Freedom’ site launched earlier this year.

If the government wishes to repeal laws which needlessly restrict personal and professional freedom, then it is difficult to see why compulsory collective worship should not be one of the first to go. The forthcoming education bill provides a perfect opportunity to abolish this impractical and discriminatory law.

Yours sincerely

Simon Barrow
Co-director, Ekklesia

Jonathan Bartley
Co-director, Ekklesia

Christine Blower
General Secretary, National Union of Teachers

Andrew Copson
Chief Executive, British Humanist Association

Brian Lightman
General Secretary, Association of School and College Leaders

Tehmina Kazi
Director, British Muslims for Secular Democracy

Neville Kenyon
President, General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain MBE
Chair, Accord Coalition and minister of Maidenhead Synagogue

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.