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Inclusive Assemblies Bill passes latest stage in the Lords

A Bill seeking to replace Christian worship in schools without a religious character with inclusive assemblies moved one step closer to becoming law today. It passed the committee stage in the House of Lords, the second major stage.

Humanists UK has long called for changes to the law on compulsory school worship. Today it said it was ‘extremely encouraged’ by the news. The introduction of assemblies that are suitable for all children would be ‘a major advancement for inclusive education’.

The Education (Assemblies) Bill is a Private Members’ Bill. It was tabled by All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG) Vice-Chair Baroness Burt. The Bill proposes to remove the requirement for schools without a religious character in England to hold collective worship. Instead, they will have to hold inclusive assemblies designed to be suitable for all children regardless of their religion or belief. These assemblies could include religious topics, but not in a way that presents any particular religion or belief as true. The Bill does not propose to alter the requirement that worship takes place in faith schools. However, it does specify that children who have been withdrawn from worship must be provided with a meaningful educational alternative. This alternative must be in line with the assembly provision  outside of faith schools.

The UK is the only sovereign state in the world to impose worship in all state schools, including those without a religious character. Outside of faith schools, this worship must be ‘broadly Christian’. Parents may withdraw their children from worship and sixth form pupils in England and Wales may withdraw themselves. But younger pupils may not withdraw without parental permission. What’s more, the process is often difficult and no meaningful alternative to worship is offered in the vast majority of schools.

The changes proposed by the Bill are likely to be popular with parents. In 2019, parents responding to a YouGov poll ranked religious worship last in a list of 13 possible topics that could be covered in assemblies. Just 29% thought worship was appropriate. This compares with 76% who thought ‘the environment and nature’ would be appropriate. 74% who thought ‘equality and non-discrimination’ was appropriate. And 73% who thought ‘celebration of achievements’ and ‘physical and mental health’ should feature. Polling conducted this year also shows that 60% of parents with school-age children oppose the collective worship law being enforced. Just 24% think it should be. This 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. This suggests that opposition has grown in the last decade.

In spite of this, the Bill is unlikely to become law unless it wins support from the Government. This seems unlikely. During the Bill’s second reading debate in September Government spokesperson Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen acknowledged that worship laws ‘[do] not permit the replacement of worship with a non-religious option’. But she also claimed collective worship ‘is inclusive and allows all schools to tailor their provision to suit their pupils’ spiritual needs’. On this basis, she said the Government would not support the Bill.

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Dr Ruth Wareham commented:

‘We are extremely encouraged that this landmark Bill has moved one step closer to becoming law. The replacement of mandatory worship with assemblies that are suitable for all children would be a major advancement for inclusive education. Not only that, but the evidence shows it would be popular with parents and the public at large.

‘On this basis, we urge the Government to back this Bill. It should introduce assemblies that bring school communities together by focusing on the values that unite everyone regardless of their religion or belief.’

Notes:

For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Dr Ruth Wareham via ruth@humanists.uk or phone 020 7324 3000 or 07725 110 860.

Watch the Second Reading of the Education (Assemblies Bill).

Read the Education (Assemblies) Bill.

Read our article on the Second Reading of the Bill.

Read our article on the poll finding the majority of parents don’t think the collective worship law should be enforced.

Read our 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 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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