In a departure from its previous approach, the UK Government has said that if it is made aware of English schools breaching a requirement to carry out a daily act of worship, they will be ‘investigated’ and ‘reminded of their duty on this matter’. Humanists UK – which has long campaigned for compulsory school worship to be replaced with inclusive assemblies – has expressed alarm at the statement, which marks a ramping up of enforcement of the archaic policy.
The statement was made by Education Minister Nick Gibb MP in response to a parliamentary question from fellow MP Sir John Hayes, who asked ‘what steps [the Department for Education] is taking to ensure that a daily act of worship is taking place in every maintained school.’
The UK is the only sovereign state in the world to impose worship in all state schools, including those without a religious character. In most of the latter, this worship is expected to be ‘broadly Christian’. Although schools with a high number of pupils from non-Christian backgrounds can apply – via a process called ‘determination’ – to have worship in line with another faith, they cannot opt-out of worship altogether. Parents may withdraw their children from this worship and sixth form pupils in England and Wales may withdraw themselves, but younger pupils may not withdraw without parental permission. And the process is often difficult with no meaningful alternative to worship offered in the strong majority of schools. This leaves parents to choose between exposing their children to religious indoctrination or isolating them from their peers with little or nothing of educational worth to do. It also leaves children who are too young to withdraw themselves forced to participate in religious acts of worship they may well not believe in.
In February, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child pressed governments across the UK to ‘to 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 observance at school.’ A prior report by the same Committee in 2016 also said the requirement should be abolished. This makes the Government’s enforcing of the law even harder to justify.
Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Dr Ruth Wareham commented:
‘Compulsory collective worship threatens the freedom of religion or belief of children and their families and is totally out of step with the kind of inclusive education we should be offering in a diverse 21st century democracy like the UK. The fact that the Government now appears to be saying it will enforce this archaic law to an extent that hasn’t been the case in over fifteen years is particularly alarming.
‘The Government should instead be taking steps to instead require inclusive assemblies that are suitable for all pupils regardless of background or belief.’
For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Dr Ruth Wareham via firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 020 7324 3000 or 07725 110 860.
Read our latest article on the UN Committee pressing the UK to repeal collective worship laws.
Read more about our work on collective worship.
Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.