Current law and government guidance discriminates in favour of religion in requiring daily acts of ‘collective worship’ in schools, and in favour of Christianity in requiring that for schools without a religious character, the majority of these acts of collective worship should be ‘of a broadly Christian character’. Sixth form pupils in England and Wales and parents on behalf of other pupils have an absolute right to withdrawal from compulsory collective worship.
The UK is the only sovereign state in the world to impose Christian worship in state schools. In demanding collective worship in schools which will typically have pupils from a wide variety of religious and non-religious backgrounds, the law is incoherent: a school can do many things collectively but, lacking a shared religious faith, it cannot worship collectively. It also ignores the right of children, below sixth-form age in England and Wales, and of all ages elsewhere, to freedom of belief and conscience by giving only to parents the right to have a child excused from worship or to withdraw the child from school for an alternative form of worship. In 2019 we won a legal case with parents Lee and Lizanne Harris against a school’s policy on collective worship meaning that the school now has to provide an alternative assembly of equal educational worth for all children withdrawn from collective worship. The story hit the headlines across The Guardian, BBC and other outlets with coverage reporting it was a ‘significant win’ in ensuring schools do not force religious worship on children.
Complaints about collective worship in schools remain the largest single category of complaint we receive at Humanists UK. We want the requirement for collective worship to be repealed, and replaced by a requirement for inclusive assemblies, which promote the spiritual, moral, social, and cultural development of all pupils, without discriminating against them on the basis of their religion or non-religious beliefs. We’ve been working towards this through, for example, seeking to amend relevant Government bills in Parliament, exploring the possibility of legal action, and rallying support for reform among other stakeholders and the wider public.
Schools without a religious character can apply for exemption from the ‘broadly Christian’ requirement for some or all of their pupils. This is called a ‘determination’, and alternative worship must be provided for these pupils, although parents still have the right to have their children excused from this worship and English and Welsh sixth-formers still have the right to excuse themselves.
Neither the parental nor sixth-former right to withdraw nor the possibility of obtaining a determination is a satisfactory means of achieving inclusiveness. Few parents avail themselves of the right to have children excused from school worship, not wishing them to be singled out or to miss the valuable elements of school assemblies: the celebration of shared values and the sharing of the school culture and ethos. Opting out is, in any case, a negation of inclusiveness. The process of obtaining a determination is often sufficiently bureaucratic and time-consuming to deter schools, apart from those with large and assertive groups of non-Christians. The law does not allow schools to determine to hold inclusive assemblies instead of worship, because the majority of their pupils are not religious, though surveys show that this must often be the case.
Very frequently schools can achieve worthwhile and inclusive assemblies only by breaking the law, sometimes with the connivance of the local Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education (SACRE). This is a far from ideal situation. Ofsted stopped inspecting whether English schools are providing collective worship in 2004, concluding that at that time 76% of schools were failing to comply with the law. But that meant that 24% were providing daily worship, and many of the 76% were providing at least some worship. In addition, Estyn continues to inspect Welsh schools on their collective worship provision.
And a 2019 YouGov poll commissioned by Humanists UK found that parents think religious worship is the least appropriate of 13 different topics and activities for assemblies, with just 29% saying it was appropriate. An earlier 2011 ComRes English poll for the BBC Regional Religion Unit found that 60% of the public did not think the requirement to hold a daily act of collective worship should be enforced, versus 33% who thought it should be. 30% of parents thought it should be enforced, versus 39% of those without children.
We want to see the current law requiring daily collective worship replaced with a requirement for inclusive school assemblies. In this we are in agreement with many religious groups and all the major education unions. Such assemblies should explore topics such as happiness, sadness, beauty and the arts; encourage kindness, sharing and creativity; consider life, love, and death; and investigate what it means to be human. These assemblies should delve into different religious and non-religious points of view. But no-one should feel that their own beliefs are being contradicted, and that they are wrong for not sharing the religious views being presented by the teacher.
In 1998 proposals to reform the law in line with what Humanists UK would like to see were supported by all the major teaching unions, the Local Government Association, most national RE bodies including two-thirds of the members of the RE Council, two-thirds of Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Christian Education Movement, the Buddhist Society, the Sikh Education Council, the National Council of Hindu Temples, and all responding members of the Inter Faith Network for the UK. In 2006 legislative proposals to the same end were also supported by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís, the Unitarian Church, British Muslims for Secular Democracy, and the Hindu Academy.
What we’re doing
- In 2019 we had a huge win in the case of Lee and Lizanne Harris who won in their bid to secure an alternative assembly of equal educational worth for children at their school who are withdrawn from collective worship. The parents successfully argued that compulsory prayers in assembly was against their children’s rights to freedom of religion or belief. The school conceded, agreeing to provide an alternative assembly with no Christian worship.
- We published an information pack for parents outlining their rights to request a meaningful alternative to collective worship.
- We launched a fantastic new resource hub, Assemblies for All, for schools and teachers featuring more than 200 inclusive assemblies.
- Over the years, we have worked with parliamentarians to repeatedly introduce amendments to repeal the requirement for collective worship, most recently during the passages of the Children, Schools and Families Act in 2010 and the Education Act in 2011. We also launched an e-petition calling for its abolition, and highlighted research showing the majority of the public opposing the current legislation.
- In 2014 the National Governors’ Association; the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Rev John Pritchard, who then Chaired the Church of England’s Board of Education; and the Liberal Democrats all came out in favour of scrapping collective worship.
- In 2015 a group of academics similarly advocated for reform, as did the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, led by former high court judge Elizabeth Butler-Sloss.
- In 2016, following our effort, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended ‘that the State party 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 worship at school.’
- We have also been working hard to increase the number of humanists on Standing Advisory Committees on Religious Education (SACREs). . Currently, about the vast majority of SACREs have a humanist either as a member or in the process of applying to join. However, some have refused to admit humanists as full voting members, and this is something we seek to challenge (legally where necessary) when it occurs.
- In Northern Ireland, where we operate as Northern Ireland Humanists, we have been supporting the Let Pupils Choose grassroots campaign to remove the requirement for collective worship from Northern Irish schools.
We’re currently fundraising to keep our dedicated campaigner on faith schools and education. We’ve not yet raised her salary for the year ahead – you can help us do so by donating to our crowdfunder.
Tell us if you are concerned about compulsory worship in your local school, or, if you are a teacher or governor, would like ideas for inclusive assemblies to replace worship in your school.
You could become a member of your local SACRE or a school governor, to help to ensure that children and young people in your area have as inclusive assemblies as possible within the current legislative framework. There might be a vacancy in your area; if you are interested in finding out more, then please email us. You could also proactively contact schools in your area to find out their policies on the matter.
You can email your MP and urge them to support the introduction of inclusive assemblies in place of collective worship.
You can also support Humanists UK by becoming a member. That helps in itself, and you can help even more by supporting our campaigns in the ways suggested above. But campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we also need financial support. You can make a donation to Humanists UK.