A law from 1944 that mandates Christian worship in non-religious state schools in England is coming under challenge in Parliament today, as peers debate replacing it with a requirement for inclusive assemblies for all. The law was controversial even when first agreed seven decades ago. However, it is now widely seen as unacceptable, with new polling of British parents with children aged 4-16 released today showing 60% of them oppose it being enforced.
YouGov found that most parents (65%) were not aware the collective worship law existed. But, once they were made aware of it, 60% opposed the law being enforced. Just 24% thought it should be enforced, with a further 12% saying they weren’t sure. The poll was based on questions used in a 2011 poll commissioned by the BBC. At that time, 30% of parents thought the law should be enforced, suggesting opposition has grown in the last decade. Humanists UK says the results provide yet another reason to replace compulsory worship with inclusive assemblies that are suitable for all.
In response to the poll, one parent commented:*
‘Where we live most schools are Christian. We actually had to move house so we could choose what I thought was a non-religious school for my son.
When I asked if he could be excused from a religious service in church at Christmas time, I was informed that this would mean I had to remove him from the school’s Christmas play and lessons in religious education too. The school’s attitude was that I was being unreasonable for not wanting my son to attend a church service. The school seemed to think that I didn’t want my son to learn about different religions and beliefs, but that’s not how I feel at all. Regardless of whether they come from a religious background or not, all children should be treated equally and their choices should be respected.’
Another parent said:*
‘When I asked how to go about withdrawing my children from collective worship, I felt that my questions were avoided and unwelcomed. The school described children who did not attend collective worship as not “joining in”, so I worried my son would be perceived as someone who was reluctant to integrate, and that he may feel left out and treated differently from other pupils.
‘But my family is non-religious and my son hasn’t had a chance to make up his own mind yet about the existence of god. I’m uncomfortable with him participating in sessions that promote faith and exclude the fact that many people, like us, do not believe in any god or religion. I would much prefer him to have inclusive assemblies that look at a range of different faiths and beliefs, including those of atheists and agnostics.’
Trev Simpson, whose children attend a faith school, added:
‘I removed my children from worship at their school after I witnessed the priest in charge telling fire and brimstone stories to the entire school. Now my son and daughter spend assembly time sitting in a narrow corridor doing work that I have to set for them. I don’t think it is fair that my children have to do this on a regular basis just to protect them from indoctrination. I did ask the headteacher if the worship could happen at the start or end of the assembly, to allow my daughter and son to feel included, but my request was ignored.’
The UK is the only state in the world in which a government imposes Christian worship in all state schools, including those without a religious character, as standard. Parents may withdraw their children from worship and sixth form pupils in England and Wales may withdraw themselves. But the process is often onerous and no educationally meaningful alternative is offered in the vast majority of schools. In some schools, the law is only patchily observed but, in March, the UK Government said if it is made aware of English schools breaching collective worship rules, they will be ‘investigated’ and ‘reminded of their duty on this matter’, prompting alarm among many who had hoped the law would become a dead letter.
The Education (Assemblies) Bill is being brought as a Private Members’ Bill by All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG) Vice-Chair Baroness Burt. Its second reading in the House of Lords today marks the first time such a Bill has been debated.
The Bill would remove the requirement for schools without a religious character in England to hold collective worship. Instead, it would introduce a requirement for these schools to hold inclusive assemblies designed to further pupils’ ‘spiritual, moral, social, and cultural development’ and suitable for all children regardless of their own or parents’ religion or belief. That could include religious topics, but not in a way that presents any particular religion or belief as true. The Bill leaves the requirement to carry out worship in faith schools untouched but requires children whose parents withdraw them to be provided with a meaningful educational alternative in line with the provision available in other schools.
Every year, Humanists UK is contacted by hundreds of parents, seeking advice because they object to collective worship and believe the practice is infringing on their or their children’s freedom of religion or belief. In fact, it receives more requests for assistance about this issue than any other.
Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Dr Ruth Wareham commented:
‘The findings of this poll provide yet another reason to scrap compulsory worship in favour of inclusive assemblies that are suitable for pupils from all backgrounds.
‘Assemblies can play an important role in bringing diverse communities together around shared values. But they can only do this if everyone’s beliefs are treated equally and everyone feels included. If it becomes law, Baroness Burt’s Assemblies Bill will give pupils a regular opportunity to celebrate achievements, find out about different religions and beliefs, explore moral and ethical questions, and reflect on what is happening in the world around them in a fully inclusive way. This represents a brilliant opportunity to revitalise the communal life of our diverse state schools and we strongly encourage all peers to support it.’
* To protect the identity of their children, two of the parents consulted for this article asked to remain anonymous.
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.
The Education (Assemblies) Bill is due to be debated on Friday in a session that includes the debate of two other private members’ bills. The session will start at 10.00 am, suggesting the Bill will be discussed some time after 11.00 am.
All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2056 adults , of which 309 were parents. Fieldwork was undertaken between 20th – 23rd August 2021. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of GB adults.
The 2011 BBC poll was conducted by Savanta ComRes. Total sample size was 1743 adults of which 500 were parents. The survey was carried out by telephone between 15-24 July 2011. Data were weighted to be demographically representative of all adults in England.
Read the full results of the poll.
Read the Education (Assemblies) Bill.
Read our most recent article on the Bill to replace compulsory worship with inclusive assemblies passing its first stage in the Lords.
Read our latest article on the Government saying it will ‘remind schools of their duty’ to carry out Christian collective worship.
Read our article on the UN Committee pressing the UK to repeal collective worship laws.
Read our article on children’s rights experts telling the UK to repeal compulsory collective worship laws.
Read more about our work on collective worship.
In 2019, Humanists UK launched a groundbreaking resource hub called Assemblies for All, providing hundreds of free inclusive assemblies for schools.
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