The Education Bill was debated in the House of Lords yesterday, and humanist peers argued for abolishing English state schools’ requirement to hold a daily act of collective worship of a broadly Christian character, and for ending the ability of English ‘faith’ schools to discriminate in admissions. However, concerns were dismissed by the Government, who on collective worship argued that the current system was ‘sufficiently flexible’ and referred to the country’s ‘Christian heritage’; and that ‘faith schools should be able to teach according to the tenets of their faith and to have admissions policies that reflect that ethos.’
Currently, all state-funded schools are required to hold a daily act of collective worship. This is usually of a broadly Christian character, though could be of some other faith. Members of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG) argued that collective worship should be abolished and replaced with inclusive assemblies, which aim to provide “spiritual, moral, social and cultural education”. Furthermore, if collective worship is to continue, then it should be the right of pupils to be able to opt themselves out of collective worship, instead the right of their parents.
- BHA Distinguished Supporter Lord Avebury, who tabled three amendments on this subject, highlighted how ‘a school can apply for a determination that the requirement for Christian collective worship is not to apply but then it has to conduct an act of collective worship in accordance with the tenets of some other faith… Whatever the decision may be, it is almost certain to be contrary to the beliefs and practices of the majority of the population served by the school in today’s multicultural society.’
- APPHG Secretary Baroness Massey of Darwen, who also tabled an amendment, argued that ‘The law impedes a school’s ability to provide assemblies that are not Christian but may be based on moral and ethical precepts. Some of the best assemblies that I have taken part in or witnessed have been based on such moral and ethical themes… The law also violates the human right of freedom of belief for children… Assemblies should take account of the many faiths, religions and beliefs in one school. If the law were to be changed, shared values found in different religious beliefs, including humanism, could be explored and be based on our common ground of humanity.’
- APPHG Vice Chair Baroness Flather said ‘The time has come to widen the remit and allow schools to focus on the needs of all the children in the school, because I do not believe in children withdrawing from a morning assembly. If you start to do that and the parents start to withdraw their children, you do not have a group spirit.’
- APPHG member Baroness Turner of Camden pointed out that ‘Although it is true that parents have the right to withdraw their child from collective worship, for many parents this is very unsatisfactory because it means that the child may feel excluded and separated from their classmates, and this can have a very damaging effect, particularly on very young children… Much better in my view is the kind of assembly envisaged by my noble friend Lady Massey, which is available for everybody. People can attend irrespective of their religion or no religion.’
- APPHG member Lord Peston commented, ‘the whole point of the gathering is that people meet together for the sake of producing a decent spirit in the school in which religion should have no part to play, other than that people should be aware of other people’s multiplicity of opinions and views… The important thing is the gathering at the beginning of the school day which unites the school and does not divide it.’
- APPHG Vice President Baroness Whitaker said, ‘The problem is that, if it is a Christian act, quite a lot of children are not Christian and some are not of that particular sect of Christianity. Those children are deprived. When I went to school, the children who were withdrawn sat outside, as has been said, and I do not think that that is what school is about.’
About 2/3 of state-funded ‘faith’ schools, or 20% of all state schools, can religiously discriminate in admissions policies in favour of pupils whose parents share the faith of the school. Baroness Massey of Darwen moved three amendments to remove this right from our schools, or at least to ensure that when voluntary controlled ‘faith’ schools (most of which can’t discriminate in this way) convert to Academies, they cannot increase the religious selection in their admissions.
Baroness Massey argued, ‘Discrimination by faith schools can cause segregation along both religious and socio-economic lines…faith schools that are their own admission authorities are 10 times more likely to be highly unrepresentative of their surrounding area than faith schools where the local authority is the admission authority. Separating children by religion, class and ethnicity is totally opposed to the aim of social cohesion. In addition, voluntary aided faith schools have, on average, 50 per cent fewer pupils requiring free school meals than community schools. Pupils starting at faith schools are also, on average, more academically able than pupils starting at inclusive schools. That is because faith schools’ selection criteria mean that they usually-not always, but usually-take fewer deprived children and more than their fair share of children of ambitious and wealthier parents.’
BHA Faith Schools Campaigns Officer Richy Thompson commented, ‘Collective worship and ‘faith’-based admissions criteria are two of the most important areas of our schools-related work. We receive letters from parents every day, concerned about the affect of ‘faith’ school admissions on their choice of schools, or weighing up the negative psychological impact of collective worship on their children versus the negative social impact of opting their children out.
‘We believe collective worship is one of the least disputable examples of discrimination against the non-religious, which is why we campaigned earlier this year to get the law repealed. And religious admissions are one of the worst, having a major impact on the lives of children who find themselves the victims of England’s unfair system. We intend to bring fresh amendments on both these areas when the Education Bill reaches its Report Stage.’
For further comment or information, please contact Richy Thompson on 020 7462 4993.
Read the BHA’s briefing for the Lords Committee Stage of the Education Bill.
Read the House of Lords debate, Education Bill Committee (Day 7).
Read more about the BHA’s campaigns work on ‘faith’ schools and on Collective Worship.
The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of ethically concerned, non-religious people in the UK. It is the largest organisation in the UK campaigning for an end to religious privilege and to discrimination based on religion or belief, and for a secular state.