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 (in England and Wales younger) pupils have an absolute right to withdrawal from compulsory Collective Worship.
The UK is the only country in the world to impose Christian worship in state schools. 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 in England and Wales and of all ages elsewhere, 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We want the requirement for Collective Worship to be repealed, and replaced by a requirement for inclusive assemblies, which forward the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of all pupils, without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. We’ve been working towards this through, for example, seeking to amend relevant Government bills in Parliament, and drumming up support for reform among other stakeholders and the wider public.
You can help us improve the situation by ensuring that schools in your area have 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 English and Welsh 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. The law does not allow schools to determine to hold inclusive assemblies instead of worship, because the majority of their pupils are not religious, though surveys show that this must often be the case.
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. Ofsted stopped inspecting whether English schools are providing Collective Worship in 2004, concluding that at that time 76% of schools were failing to comply with the law. But that meant that 24% were providing daily worship, and many of the 76% were providing at least some worship. In addition, Estyn continues to inspect Welsh schools on their collective worship provision.
A 2011 ComRes English poll for the BBC Regional Religion Unit found that 60% of the public did not think the requirement to hold a daily act of collective worship should be enforced, versus 33% who thought it should be. 30% of parents thought it should be enforced, versus 39% of those without children.
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’re 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.
In 2014 the National Governors’ Association; the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Rev John Pritchard, who then Chaired the Church of England’s Board of Education; and the Liberal Democrats all came out in favour of scrapping Collective Worship. In 2015 a group of academics similarly advocated for reform. And in 2016, following Humanists UK effort, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended ‘that the State party repeal legal provisions for compulsory attendance at collective worship in publicly funded schools and ensure that children can independently exercise the right to withdraw from religious worship at school.’
We have also been working hard to increase the number of humanists on SACREs. Currently about six-sevenths of SACREs have a humanist either as a member or applying to join.
In Northern Ireland, where Humanists UK operates as Northern Ireland Humanists, we have been supporting a grassroots campaign led by by Scott Moore to remove the requirement for collective worship from Northern Irish schools. In 2016, the Let Schools Choose campaign became part of Northern Ireland Humanists, and was renamed ‘Let Pupils Choose‘ in 2017.
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 Humanists UK.
Finally, we provide ideas for inclusive assemblies for teachers and SACREs, and encourage SACREs and schools to adopt more inclusive approaches in this area.
Tell Humanists UK 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 Humanists UK 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 Humanists UK .