Collective Worship and school assemblies: your rights

Humanists UK view is that worship is out of place in schools and that the repeated demands of recent Education Acts for collective worship that is “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character” are unworkable, hypocritical, counter-productive and divisive.

Most religious groups, teaching unions, and the Religious Education Council are concerned about the law on collective worship. We all continue to campaign for reform, but in the meantime, teachers have to interpret and obey the law, and parents have to decide whether to exercise their right to have their child excused.

What does “collective worship” mean?

“Collective worship” is supposed to be different from “corporate worship” where everyone is committed to a particular faith, as in a church, synagogue, mosque, temple or other religious setting, but it appears to be a contradiction in terms. “Collective” is supposed to acknowledge that a school is a collection of different individuals and beliefs, and implies inclusiveness and no commitment to any particular faith. “Worship”, however, implies reverence for a divine being and thus excludes most Buddhists and Jains and certainly excludes humanists and other non-religious pupils and teachers.

Collective worship is supposed to be educational, intended to give pupils the opportunity to worship, or an experience of worship to evaluate or perhaps assimilate.

There have been attempts to use the word “worship” metaphorically (as in “worthship”) but they have not succeeded in changing the normal usage or the law.

What is the law?

The requirements for collective worship differ in different parts of the UK.  For simplicity, we refer here only to England and Wales. For advice about other parts of the UK, contact Northern Ireland Humanists or  Humanist Society Scotland.

The law in England and Wales

The most recent legal statement of the requirements for collective worship (as distinct from assembly) are contained in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. These build on similar requirements in Section 346 of the Education Act 1996, the Education Reform Act 1988, and Section 25 of the 1944 Education Act, where the law on compulsory collective worship began. Section 70 of the 1998 Act states that, subject to the parental right of excusal or other special arrangements, “…each pupil in attendance at a community, foundation or voluntary school shall on each school day take part in an act of collective worship.”

Schedule 20 to the 1998 Act gives more detailed information on the worship requirements. It notes the different practical arrangements that are allowed: “a single act of worship for all pupils or separate acts of worship for pupils in different age groups or in different school groups.” A “school group” is defined as “any group in which pupils are taught or take part in other school activities”.

In community schools the head teacher is responsible for collective worship provision, in consultation with the governors. The majority of acts of collective worship in any given school term should still be “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”. In other acts of worship, consideration should be given to “circumstances relating to the family backgrounds of the pupils which are relevant for determining the character of the collective worship which is appropriate in their case” and to the “ages and aptitudes” of the pupils.

A “broadly Christian” act of worship must contain some elements which relate to the traditions of Christian belief and which accord a special status to Jesus Christ. (Circular 1/94, paragraph 63).  Only on special occasions can the act of worship take place somewhere other than on the school premises, subject to the agreement of the head.

In foundation and voluntary schools not of religious character the daily act of worship is to be in accordance with the trust deeds of the school, and arrangements made by the governors after consulting the head teacher.

In foundation and voluntary schools with a religious character the arrangements are to be made by the governors after consulting the head teacher. Here the worship is to be “in accordance with any provisions of the trust deed relating to the school” or, where the deed does not make such provision, “in accordance with the tenets and practices of the religion or religious denomination specified under Section 69(4) [of the 1998 Act]”. This refers to the Order from the Secretary of State for a voluntary school or foundation school with a religious character, which states precisely the religion or denomination concerned.

Independent schools are not covered by Education Acts, but will usually be governed in this context by their foundation deeds, or by policies agreed by their boards of governors. In April 2010 the government released non-statutory guidance for independent schools on improving the spiritual, moral, social and cultural (SMSC) development of their pupils.

Additional guidance

The law is clarified by non-statutory guidance in the Department for Education’s Circular 1/94 (or Welsh Office Circular 10/94).

Humanists UK has received further government guidance to expand on this: “Although the collective worship … should be “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character” only a majority of acts in each term must meet that requirement. Moreover, any act of worship can contain non-Christian material.” (Letter from Cheryl Gillan MP, then Minister of State at the DfEE, November 1996, referring to guidance in paragraph 55 of Circular 1/94.)

A letter from a DfEE official in the Curriculum and Assessment Division toHumanists UK(dated 16.9.98) re-states that, “no single act [of collective worship] need contain only Christian material”, and that “secular assemblies may be held as well” [as well as broadly Christian acts of collective worship, acts broadly following other religions, or acts based around several religious traditions, on other days] – so long as the majority is broadly Christian.

Technically, this means that only 51% of school days each term need have an act of worship of a broadly Christian character.

The law is clarified by non-statutory guidance in the Department for Education’s Circular 1/94 (or Welsh Office Circular 10/94).

Some Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education (SACREs) advise schools about assemblies and worship. In recent years some SACREs, for example Brent and Suffolk, have produced useful guidance on inclusive collective worship and spiritual development.

Exemptions from collective worship

Parents have the right to have their children excused from worship in any state-funded school. However, many decide not to, fearing that their child may feel different from classmates, and may miss important elements of assembly if the worship element is not kept clearly apart from secular spiritual, moral, social and cultural aspects, and from notices.

Those who take school assemblies should keep the two elements distinct and separate, and allow time for pupils (and teachers) to leave the room when worship takes place.

These exemptions are covered by Section 71 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998.

Most pupils do not have the right to opt themselves out of collective worship. In May 2008 Humanists UK welcomed a report by Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights which called for any child of “sufficient maturity, intelligence and understanding” to be given the right to withdraw from compulsory worship. However, under Section 55 of the Education and Inspections Act, it remains the case that only pupils in sixth form education or over the age of compulsory school age (Section 55. 9) may withdraw themselves from collective worship.

Schools can apply to the local authority’s SACRE 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. These exemptions are covered by Schedule 20 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998.

In some authorities, such as the London Borough of Brent, SACREs have agreed determinations of whole schools for worship that is multi-faith rather than of a broadly Christian character. Humanists UK considers this to be a useful interim development, but not a solution.

Teachers should be able to receive advice related to their specific situations from teaching unions. Your rights and obligations are broadly as follows:

  • In community schools teachers cannot be required to attend or lead collective worship, but do not have a right to withdraw from the non-worship part of assembly (a reasonable requirement because of the need to supervise pupils)
    • teachers cannot be required to teach RE unless their contract shows they have been explicitly employed to teach it;
    • teachers cannot be disadvantaged in their employment because of their religious opinions or the fact that they do not attend religious worship;
    • Under the School Teachers’ Pay and Conditions Document, teachers are required to undertake their professional duties under the reasonable direction of the head teacher.
  • In voluntary controlled and foundation schools with a religious character up to one fifth of their teaching staff can be “reserved teachers”. These are teachers who are chosen for their competence to provide RE in accordance with the school’s religious ethos. All other staff at these schools will have the same safeguards as those in community schools (as stated above).
  • In voluntary aided religious schools with a religious character only non-teaching staff enjoy the same safeguards as all staff in community schools.