Current law and government guidance discriminates in favour of religion in requiring daily acts of ‘Collective Worship’ in schools, and in favour of Christianity in requiring that for schools without a religious character, the majority of these acts of Collective Worship should be ‘of a broadly Christian character’. Sixth form pupils and parents on behalf of younger pupils have an absolute right to withdrawal from compulsory Collective Worship.
In demanding Collective Worship in schools which will typically have pupils from a wide variety of religious backgrounds and none, the law is incoherent: a school can do many things collectively but, lacking a shared religious faith, it cannot worship collectively. It also ignores the right of children below the sixth form to freedom of belief and conscience by giving only to parents the right to have a child excused from worship or to withdraw the child from school for an alternative form of worship.
We want the requirement for Collective Worship to be repealed, and replaced by a requirement for inclusive assemblies, which forward the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of all pupils, without discriminating against any on the basis of their religion or non-religious beliefs.
You can help us improve the situation by ensuring that schools in your area have as inclusive assemblies.
Schools without a religious character can apply for exemption from the ‘broadly Christian’ requirement for some or all of their pupils. This is called a ‘determination’, and alternative worship must be provided for these pupils, although parents still have the right to have their children excused from this worship and sixth-formers still have the right to excuse themselves.
Neither the parental nor sixth-former right to excusal nor the possibility of obtaining a determination is a satisfactory means of achieving inclusiveness. Few parents avail themselves of the right to have children excused from school worship, not wishing them to be singled out or to miss the valuable elements of school assemblies: the celebration of shared values and the sharing of the school culture and ethos. Opting out is, in any case, a negation of inclusiveness. The process of obtaining a determination is often sufficiently bureaucratic and time-consuming to deter schools, apart from those with large and assertive groups of non-Christians. No schools that we are aware of seek determinations because the majority of their pupils are not religious, though surveys show that this must often be the case. In any case, the law mandates that there must be worship even if it is not Christian, so a school cannot apply not to hold any worship even in such a situation.
Very frequently schools can achieve worthwhile and inclusive assemblies only by breaking the law, sometimes with the connivance of the local Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education (SACRE). This is a far from ideal situation.
We want to see the current law requiring daily Collective Worship replaced with a requirement for inclusive school assemblies. In this we are in agreement with many religious groups and all the major education unions. Such assemblies should explore topics such as happiness, sadness, beauty and the arts; encourage kindness, sharing and creativity; consider life, love, and death; and investigate what it means to be human. These assemblies should delve into different religious and non-religious points of view. But no-one should feel that their own beliefs are being contradicted, and that they are wrong for not sharing the religious views being presented by the teacher.
What we’ve been doing
We have worked with parliamentarians to repeatedly introduce amendments to repeal the requirement for Collective Worship, most recently during the passages of the Children, Schools and Families Act in 2010 and the Education Act in 2011. We also launched an e-petition calling for its abolition, and highlighted research showing the majority of the public opposing the current legislation.
We have also been working hard to increase the number of humanists on SACREs. Currently about two-thirds of SACREs have a humanist either as a member or applying to join.
We have also provided advice for parents whose children have been victims of the existing law, both on our website and by email. Complaints of this nature remain the largest single category of complaint we receive at the BHA.
Finally, we provide ideas for inclusive assemblies for teachers and SACREs, and encourage SACREs and schools to adopt more inclusive approaches in this area.
We’re currently fundraising to keep our dedicated campaigner on ‘faith’ schools and education – the only full-time campaigner on these issues in the UK. We’ve not yet raised his salary for 2013 – you can help us do so by donating at http://www.justgiving.com/nofaithschools.
Tell the BHA if you are concerned about compulsory worship in your local school, or, if you are a teacher or governor, would like ideas for inclusive assemblies to replace worship in your school.
You could become a member of your local SACRE or a school governor, to help to ensure that children and young people in your area have as inclusive assemblies as possible within the current legislative framework. There might be a vacancy in your area; if you are interested in finding out more, then please email us. You could also proactively contact schools in your area to find out their policies on the matter.
You can email your MP and urge them to support the introduction of inclusive assemblies in place of collective worship.
You can also support the BHA by becoming a member. That helps in itself, and you can help even more by supporting our campaigns in the ways suggested above. But campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we also need financial support. You can make a donation to the BHA.