Academy trust backs down in Collective Worship legal challenge

By agency reporter
November 22, 2019

The Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust has conceded the demands of two parents who legally challenged the extent of Christian activities and the poor alternative provision to daily Christian worship at their child’s non-faith community school, Burford Primary School, which the Trust runs. Back in July 2019 the two parents, Lee and Lizanne Harris, were granted permission to take their complaints to the High Court about the approach taken in these areas by the Oxfordshire school.

The parents exercised their legal right to withdraw their child from the assemblies where the school’s worship takes place, but complained that the school was breaching their human rights by failing to provide their child with a meaningful alternative to its worship. To date, the alternative provision the school has provided amounted to supervised access for their child to an iPad.

The parents also complained that indoctrinatory practices occur in other aspects of the school’s activities. These include a school leavers’ ceremony which is held in a church and where all leaving students receive a Bible as a gift and ‘guide to life’.

After their objections were disregarded the parents initiated legal proceedings, but the Trust has now agreed to settle with them out of court. The legal agreement between the Trust and parents has been shared today. In it the Trust has agreed to ensure Burford Primary School will:

  • arrange activities for children withdrawn from collective worship and for the activities to be normally led by a teacher
  • communicate notices and announcements outside of collective worship, so pupils who have been withdrawn do not miss them, and for worship and the promotion of religious truth claims to be confined to periods of collective worship
  • no longer organise the school leavers’ ceremony in a church or allows it to be used to distribute Bibles
  • not allow trips to places of worship to be used for proselytisation and for the school to justify using venues outside of the school on practical rather than religious grounds
  • ensure school visitors intending to talk about religious or non-religious beliefs respect and are mindful of the religious diversity at the school

In response the Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust has released a statement today seeking to downplay the agreement and stressing that it will only last as long as Lee and Lizanne Harris’s child attends the school.

Chair of the Accord Coalition for Inclusive Education, the Rev Stephen Terry, said: "It is disappointing that these parents needed to resort to legal action before the Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust would agree to better respect the autonomy and educational needs of their child. The case should set an important precedent about the need for all pupils withdrawn from collective worship to be permitted to engage in meaningful activities of an equivalent educational worth.’

"It would be better still if the outdated and very frequently disregarded laws requiring daily Christian worship in schools were replaced with guidance for schools on providing assemblies that are genuinely appropriate for people of differing religious and non-religious beliefs. The intransigent and grudging response of the Trust highlights the continuing reluctance of some school providers to acknowledge the increasing religious diversity in our society, and provides yet further evidence of the need for legislative change, to guarantee assemblies that are open, tolerant and inclusive."

All state funded schools in England and Wales are required to provide a daily act of collective worship for their pupils. The worship at faith schools must be "in accordance with the tenets and practices of the religion or religious denomination" of the school. At non-faith schools the worship should ordinarily be "wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character".

* The Accord Coalition was launched in 2008 and brings together religious and non-religious organisations who want state funded schools to be made open and suitable to all, regardless of people or their family's religious or non-religious beliefs. It campaigns to end religious discrimination in school staffing and admissions, and for all state funded schools to provide PSHE, along with assemblies and Religious Education, that boost mutual understanding between those of different beliefs and backgrounds. http://accordcoalition.org.uk/

Ekklesia is a co-founder and supporter of Accord. 

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