2021 Census results make mockery of compulsory worship in schools

5 December, 2022

A minority Christian population in England and Wales, as demonstrated by the recently published results of the 2021 Census, makes a mockery of the archaic law requiring compulsory collective worship in schools. Humanists UK, which has long campaigned for reform, said that ‘time is up’ for collective worship.

The Census saw less than half the population (46%) of England and Wales ticking ‘Christian’. Indeed in Wales more people ticked ‘No religion’ than ‘Christian’. Despite this, a law dating back to 1944 still mandates all state schools in England and Wales hold a daily act of collective worship. And, in those without a religious character, this must be ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’.

The law is clearly not in line with modern demographics, so it is perhaps no surprise that some schools quietly ignore the requirement, and the Observer reported yesterday that some school leaders are now breaking cover to cast doubt on compulsory collective worship’s relevance:

‘Nikki McGee, lead teacher on religious education for the Inspiration trust, which runs 18 schools in Norfolk, said: “The collective worship is pretty much meaningless in schools that are not faith based. The census results show it is archaic.”’

But the UK Government has recently stated it will encourage compliance in England. This is despite the United Nations requesting that the UK repeals the law on human rights grounds.

For many years, Humanists UK has worked to promote inclusive assemblies as an alternative to collective worship. It recently worked with Baroness Burt to introduce such a Bill to the House of Lords, and also worked with other peers to amend the Government’s Schools Bill to that effect in July. The debates in both circumstances led to welcome light being shone on the inconsistency between changing demographics and statute.

Parents are not fans of the collective worship law. 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% thought ‘equality and non-discrimination’ was appropriate. And 73% thought ‘celebration of achievements’ and ‘physical and mental health’ should feature. Polling conducted last year also shows that 60% of parents with school-age children oppose the collective worship law being enforced. Just 24% think it should be.

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Robert Cann said:

‘We’ve all seen the results of the 2021 Census. It’s patently obvious: despite its history, the UK is no longer a Christian country in 2022. This is not about triumphalism, it’s about the simple reality that times change – and time is now up for compulsory Christian worship in schools. Children don’t want it, parents don’t want it, and now headteachers are saying they don’t want it either. This all makes a mockery of the law.

‘The UK is the only sovereign state in the world to mandate Christian worship in ostensibly inclusive schools. The Government must get its stubborn head out of the sand and amend the law to reflect our increasingly diverse society. As long as these archaic laws remain, we will continue to challenge them: we will be writing to the UK and Welsh Governments, and encouraging parents to do likewise.’


For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at press@humanists.uk or phone 020 7324 3072 or 020 3675 0959.

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.

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.