The time has come to end compulsory worship in schools

Stephen Evans's picture
This September, many young children starting school will have their first encounter with religion. As part of their state education some will be compelled to put their hands together and pray to a God they have little or no concept of.

This has long been a bone of contention with parents who feel they should be the ones to decide what religious upbringing their children receive.

Christian worship has been compulsory in our state schools since 1944. The law requires all schools, even non-faith schools, to hold an act of collective worship every day, which must be ‘broadly Christian’ in character.

The law as it stands is an anachronism; the legacy of a bygone era, unrecognisable from the diverse and pluralistic Britain of today where we hold a wide variety of religious beliefs, including no religious belief. Indeed, the 2013 British Social Attitudes survey revealed that a majority of the population now claim to have no religion.

It is becoming clear that a law requiring a compulsory act of predominantly Christian worship in schools is out of date and out of step with the attitudes of the majority of the population. The unpopularity of the requirement was made clear in a ComRes survey in 2011 which found that just 30% of parents thought the law should be enforced.

And of course in many cases, it isn’t. 64% of parents said that their child does not attend a daily act of collective worship. As the National Governors' Association points out, 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.

As long ago as 2004, David Bell, the then head of Ofsted, abandoned asking inspectors to take provisions for worship into account in their reports after running into a "firestorm of protest" from schools over the issue. At the time, he claimed 76% of secondary schools were failing to provide for daily worship.

But where acts of worship are imposed, it causes genuine anger and frustration for parents who are dismayed by acts of worship being imposed on their children. Parents that do not want a Christian upbringing (or any other faith upbringing) for their children should have that choice respected. Instead, they find worship in the form of prayers and songs permeating through their children’s assemblies. They find vicars and priests lecturing their children in community schools about how 'Jesus walked on water'. Their children come home carrying bibles and relaying what they've learned in school about God making them and everything in the world in 7 days. These examples all come from genuine calls to the National Secular Society from parents, angered and exasperated by non-religious schools fulfilling their legal duties. This isn’t education, it’s evangelisation.

The legal obligation coupled with a lack of willingness from teachers to lead worship provides an ideal environment for evangelicals to exploit, and increasingly, schools are 'contracting out' their legal obligations to external evangelical Christian organisations and clergypeople who are more than willing to step in.

To be clear, removing the collective worship requirement is not a call to jettison all mention of religion from schools. Particularly in a religiously diverse society such as ours, children need to learn about and explore a variety of religious, non-religious and secular philosophies and worldviews. That's all part of education. But worship is something different. Legally imposing a daily act of worship, in which pupils by law are required to “take part”, goes beyond the legitimate function of the state and violates the human right of freedom of belief for children and young people.

It is argued that the parental right to withdraw protects fundamental religious freedoms. But in reality, very few parents exercise this right. Parents are naturally reluctant to ask for their children to be singled out and separated from their school friends. I still recall the way in which Muslim and Jehovah’s Witness pupils who were withdrawn from my school assemblies were ostracised by their peers. Few parents, myself included, would willingly subject their children to that.

Parents that do express a wish to withdraw are often treated as "difficult" by head teachers. I've spoken to parents who were told that they would have to come in and supervise their children themselves if they withdrew. In other cases, withdrawn children have been told to clean the classroom or sit outside the headmaster’s office. In one community school I'm aware of Christian prayers are said four times a day – before assembly, after assembly, before lunch and at the end of the school day – making withdrawal completely impractical.

The last opportunity to remove this obligation on schools came during the passage of the Education Act in 2011. An amendment put down by Lord Avebury, a Buddhist and National Secular Society honorary associate, would have given community schools the freedom to decide for themselves whether or not to hold acts of religious worship.

Even that modest proposal was rejected out of hand by the Government and Church of England bishops in the Lords.

The Church of England at least appears to have softened its stance. Realising how unreasonable compulsory worship is, the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Rev John Pritchard, has suggested replacing it with a legal obligation on schools to make time for "spiritual reflection" containing elements of Christianity and the other major religions. But of course, this fallback position would still provide a legal justification for those seeking to use schools, including those without a religious character, to impose their religious beliefs on others.

Those left still supporting the status quo resort to straw man arguments to make their case. They say a removal of the requirement would deprive students "opportunity for quiet" or a "period of reflection in a busy day". But of course it wouldn't. If an educational case can be made for such periods of reflection, head teachers are at liberty to make space for them. They don’t need to be legally imposed.

Schools have ample opportunities through the curriculum to promote the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of their pupils. Explicit opportunities are provided in religious education and the non-statutory framework for personal, social and health education (PSHE) and citizenship.

School assemblies can also provide the ideal time to reflect and consider moral and ethical values, but let schools do so in a way that is inclusive of the whole school community.

Political parties are busy working out their manifestos for 2015. For the sake of schools, parents and pupils, let's urge them to commit to removing the worship requirement. Whatever your beliefs, if you want a state education system with no compulsion to worship, please sign the petition at calling for an end to compulsory worship in schools.

In the words of Lord Avebury: “Sooner or later we shall get rid of the act of compulsory worship in schools, and the sooner the better.”
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Richard Maddicks's picture
Thu, 10/07/2014 - 21:13

This is a misnomer - you say it is compulsory, AND there is a parental opt-out. This smacks more of scaremongering. Parents can withdraw pupils, or talk to them about what they've heard.

Brian's picture
Thu, 10/07/2014 - 21:36

No misnomer ... it's compulsory for schools. True, parents can withdraw their children, but Stephen explains clearly above why this doesn't happen very often.

Andrew Long's picture
Fri, 11/07/2014 - 07:14

Although I am an agnostic - atheist even - I have not withdrawn my kids from RE or worship assemblies as Christianity is part of the warp and weft of British culture, part of our folk culture if you like. I don't want them to be scratching their heads in puzzlement when someone uses phrases like 'Prodigal Son' or 'Good Samaritan'. I want them to understand the moral system Christianity teaches and later they can puzzle out how to adapt that to their own beliefs or lack of beliefs.The idea of purging the schools and the curriculum of every vestige of Christianity is daft.

Phil Taylor's picture
Fri, 11/07/2014 - 07:15

Many thanks for this Stephen. The reform you suggest is long overdue. The fact that we still have this absurdly anachronistic 'requirement' (which, as you say, is largely ignored - and that breach of the law is largely ignored also) thanks to unelected men in frocks in the House of 'Lords' tells us all we need to know about the state of our democracy. What kind of message are we sending to kids in schools where teachers still force them to pray?

School assemblies are very important, too important to be potentially tainted by imposed worship - a contradiction in terms if ever there was one.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 11/07/2014 - 10:57

Andrew - Stephen wasn't suggesting "purging the schools and the curriculum of every vestige of Christianity". That would, as you say, deprive children of necessary knowledge about Western culture. Even Richard Dawkins supports teaching Biblical stories because you can't understand Western art, culture and symbolism without such knowledge.

Stephen is talking about the anachronistic requirement for schools to have a daily act of collective worship. Worship implies bowing down towards a divinity which is not something that schools, especially non-faith schools, should be required to offer.

That doesn't mean schools couldn't offer collective worship if they wished to do so (and parents could still exercise their right to withdraw children). But schools shouldn't have to do so by law. Even those schools which would like to offer collective worship might only wish to do so occasionally and not daily.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 12/07/2014 - 19:03

Forcing children to 'worship' has always been absurd and deeply objectionable.

Personally I do not like ceremonies of any kind, but lots of people do, especially when it comes to church music. Lots of atheists can feel moved and get deep pleasure from such things.

My problem is with the words, the sentiments expressed and for me the sinister nature of co-ordinated chanting and responses.

The rich man in his castle
The poor man at his gate
God made them high and lowly
And ordered their estate

That sort of thing especially.

In my headship school we had a whole school assembly only once a week. Local religious leaders (vicars, RC priests etc) were invited in as regular guests to address the pupils on the basis of two clearly understood rules - No praying and no mention of God.

Our regular RC senior priest and C of E vicar had no problem with this and were always brilliant and much liked and appreciated by the pupils. They both held our school in high regard and said so regularly in public and in private and to Ofsted inspectors.

Among our worst Friday contributors were a pair of young evangelicals who did a circuit around all the local schools. I regret allowing them in. I remember one dreadful presentation on the theme of sheep and how if they do not obey their good shepherd they always have a bad outcome.

It was not our school policy to tell our pupils to behave like sheep - quite the contrary in fact.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 13/07/2014 - 07:15

Roger - you're right that forcing children (indeed anyone) to "worship" is wrong, even hypocritical. And there are plenty of warnings in the Bible about hypocrisy in worship:

"Ye hypocrites!...This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me." (Matthew 15.7-8 King James Version)

Anne Atkins, regular contributor to Radio 4's "Thought for the Day," tried to justify the mandatory collective act of worship by saying the word "worship" came from the Greek meaning "to put into words" and there was nothing wrong with that.

But she's being disingenuous: there are three words in Greek for worship and they mean "to kiss" (as in to kiss the ground or kiss someone's feet), to reverence or hold in awe and to render a religious service or homage.

This is not something that should be forced - it smacks of authoritarianism.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 13/07/2014 - 07:56

Roger: Hymn singing is part of British culture: "Abide with Me" at the Cup final; "Jerusalem" at the Last Night of the Proms (and the WI, of course), "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" at Rugby matches. The Western canon is full of glorious music praising God ("The Heavens are Telling" from Haydn's Creation; Handel's "Messiah"). God even makes it to musical theatre ("Joseph", "Jesus Christ Superstar").

These songs are an important part of culture (see this short video about pupils from Brynterion School, Bridgend, learning the words to "Calon Lan" as part of the build up to the Six Nations Rugby competition )*.

I object to enforced collective worship but it would be a sad day if children couldn't learn hymns or carols as part of music because some people say it's enforced religion.

But you don't have to believe it. I know all the verses and chorus of "The Lincolnshire Poacher" but it doesn't mean I am one.

*To hear Calon Lan in full see here. Stirring stuff - and I'm not even Welsh!

Dapplegrey's picture
Wed, 23/07/2014 - 09:02

Roger Titcombe - that verse you quote from All Things Bright and Beautiful 'The rich man in his castle etc', is, as far as I know, always left out nowadays - and has been for some time.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 23/07/2014 - 11:03

Dapplegrey - Other verses of 'All things bright and beautiful are even more daft if not quite so objectionable.

All creatures great and small
All things wise and wonderful
The Lord God made them all.

This includes all manner of nasty beasties and parasites like those that lay their eggs in the bodies of wasps and the organisms responsible for the Black Death, malaria, polio etc.

Call me a Dawkinsite if you like but I really can't see that making children sing and chant drivel can be a good thing. I have been an atheist for a very long time and even I can remember the words.

If only I had kept my school hymn book I could produce many more irrational and often objectionable sentiments. People get so used to singing them they ignore what they are chanting together. I am not knocking the music or the pleasure to be gained from communal singing that Janet points out. But the words are frequently cringeful in the extreme if you take the trouble to notice them.

Still I suppose most are not worse than the words of 'God Save the Queen' but let's not get into that.

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