“The concept of compulsory worship has always been a nonsense. Schools have long wanted the government to take on the bishops in the House of Lords and change the law. School assemblies are a valuable way to reinforce the ethos of the school. They often contain the spiritual element that is missing in many children’s lives but having a law which imposes Christian collective worship is nonsense.”
This was the assessment of the legal requirement for schools to hold a daily act of collective worship ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’ by John Dunford, the general secretary of the Association of School and College leaders in 2010.
Four years later and little if anything has changed. On Monday the National Governors’ Association (NGA), which represents more than 300,000 school governors across England, announced that it will now seek the abolition of the requirement that has been in place in its current form since 1988. This was their opinion:
‘[I]f the ‘act of worship’ is not in your faith then it is meaningless as an act of worship. The view was taken that schools are not places of worship, but places of education, and expecting the worship of a religion or religions in schools without a religious character should not be a compulsory part of education in England today.’
This is just the latest episode in a long and drawn out battle over the place collective worship should, or should not, have in our schools. Britain is the only Western democracy to require worship in non-religious publicly funded schools. In some ways, given the level of opposition from some quarters, it’s remarkable that successive governments have held firm and not watered down the requirement or abolished it altogether. The National Secular Society (NSS) has described collective worship as ‘a violation of young people’s and their parents’ rights’. The British Humanist Association (BHA) is working hard to increase the number of humanists on local authority Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education (SACREs). These have the power to approve applications from schools to replace ‘broadly Christian worship’ with other more inclusive forms. Both the NSS and BHA have campaigned for years and lobbied government to end compulsory worship in schools. On its website the NSS states that it ‘will and use every possible opportunity to challenge the existing legislation’. The NGA’s statement has been another one of those opportunities.
Those who work in schools will know how much of a headache this piece of legislation is. From my own experience, both as a pupil and a teacher, I have never been in a non-faith school that has met the requirements. A Comres survey for the BBC in 2011 found that 64 per cent of the 500 parents questioned said their child did not attend daily acts of collective worship. The NGA has also said that: ‘Few schools can or do meet the current legislative requirement for a daily act of collective worship, partly because there isn’t space in most schools to gather students together, and often staff are unable or unwilling to lead a collective worship session.’
Space is an issue in secondary schools in particular, but it is perfectly acceptable for the worship to be carried out in classes rather than whole school assemblies. The biggest factor is staff resistance. I remember at my high school the leadership decided that we should have five minutes of time for personal reflection and prayer on non-assembly days. My teacher who was an atheist reluctantly complied and encouraged my class to do it with minimal enthusiasm. We managed to keep it up for a week or so until he decided he’d had enough and we never did it again after that. Since becoming a secondary school teacher it has been very rare to see staff at any level who have no personal faith show any interest in facilitating collective worship. It is mostly ignored until an Ofsted visit is expected at which point senior staff begin to panic knowing full well they will be picked up on it.
It is somewhat unfair to put all of the blame on teachers though. With the way the curriculum has expanded and increased time pressure due to bureaucratic paperwork and government and management expectations, anything non-academic is routinely relegated to the back seat. Collective worship or times of reflection in any form are just an inconvenience and a distraction from the supposedly important stuff.
The arguments over collective worship and the lack of attention it is given outside of faith schools is symptomatic of a deeper issue – is the role of schools to encourage students to develop and mature beyond just academic understanding and application? On the face of it this could be seen as a ridiculous question. Are schools now essentially factories where children are trained to jump through hoops in order to pass tests and exams? Surely there should be more to education than this? Sadly though this is not so far from the truth.
With a certain degree of irony given what the NGA has said this week, their Governing Matters magazine for July has an article on the recent Schools with Soul report – covered in a previous post here – which analyses the state of Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Education (SMSC) in schools. The article ends with this conclusion:
‘The report’s deeper message is simple: attending to the social development and personal wellbeing of students has to be a deliberate activity and must sit at the heart of school improvement and transformation strategies designed to close the gap, raise attainment and build inclusion, especially in those schools that serve our most deprived communities. Governing bodies have a key strategic role in ensuring that this is the case… by placing SMSC at the heart of their vision for the school, the learning environment and the curriculum.
‘From this perspective, SMSC is not a distraction from the ‘standards’ agenda; it is the new standard by which we should judge the success of our educational efforts – especially for learners from the most challenging backgrounds. Attainment and achievement flow from inclusion and wellbeing; they do not precede it.’
Collective worship may be a pain for many schools to implement, but the underlying point of it is incredibly significant. If we remove the importance of developing morals and values from education we do our children a massive disservice. When we talk about worship of a broadly Christian character it is not about expecting all children to be praising the Christian God that they may or may not believe in. Worship in a school context means something different to worship in a religious environment. Its aim is to provide experiences which engender self-worth and the appreciation of the uniqueness of each individual whilst giving pupils a purpose and meaning to life and a sense of belonging to a community. The Christian element at its most basic and ‘broad’ level relates to the values that should hold this form of worship together. These are the Christian values of equal worth where all are treated with mutual respect regardless of race, gender, sexuality, religious beliefs, intelligence or wealth. Jesus’ ‘Golden Rule’ of doing to others what you would want them to do to you is the foundation that holds these together. And then there is the attitude to life that putting others before ourselves and giving is more rewarding than selfishness; that we should not be greedy or envious and that we all should work to make the world a better place. Is there honestly a better place to start?
A sensible conversation about how often and in what form schools can realistically perform these acts of worship is long overdue, but there is a vast difference between understanding the importance of spiritual and moral reflection, delivering it in a form that works effectively and scrapping the whole lot in order to placate those who are unable to appreciate its worth.
At a time when there is so much talk about the need for all schools to teach and encourage their students to be responsible citizens, it would seem utterly contradictory to be suggesting that we remove one of the few remaining elements of our education system that is designed to do just that. If we consider that collective worship of a broadly Christian nature is a nonsense, what will we find to fill its shoes as a better alternative? Or do we just leave our children to work out their own morals and values themselves?