Mandatory Christian worship has no place in modern education

The recent High Court ruling upholding Michaela Community School’s decision to restrict Muslim students’ prayer rituals brings into question the legal obligation on all schools to provide Christian worship.

The law requiring all English state funded schools to hold daily collective acts of ‘broadly Christian’ worship have been on the statute books for 80 years. Similar laws exist in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

It should by now be obvious to all that these archaic laws need to be scrapped.

Those responsible for running schools would certainly like to see the law abolished. New polling commissioned by the National Secular Society has revealed that more than two in three senior leaders in state schools do not support a law which requires daily acts of collective worship in school. A remarkable 70% of senior leaders disagree with a law they are obliged to uphold.

This probably accounts for the high rate of non-compliance. In a separate 2022 Teacher Tapp poll of over 7,600 teachers in state funded schools in England, 66% said they did not hold daily acts of collective worship. Among nonreligious schools, this figure rises to 79%, and to 84% among secondary schools.

Non-compliance is nothing new. In 1994, the then Education Secretary John Patten lamented ‘as a matter of deep concern’ that worship was not taking place ‘with the frequency required’. He issued guidance to remedy the situation, which he described as being a potential ‘turning point on the spiritual life of the country’.

The guidance defined worship as being ‘concerned with reverence or veneration paid to a divine being or power’ and clarified the legal position that worship should be ‘broadly Christian’. It said ‘simply passive attendance’ was not enough; the law says children must ‘take part’.

This borderline theocratic guidance, which remains in place, was controversial at the time. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers asked why guidance was ‘being used to promulgate Ministers’ personal predilections’. The NASUWT union accused the government of ‘ramming Christianity down all pupils’ throats’.

John Patten’s prediction of a ‘spiritual turning point’ proved to be mere wishful thinking. Christian belief and practice continued to dwindle. Christianity is now a minority religion, with just 0.9% of the population showing up to Anglican services on the average Sunday. Against this backdrop, the law looks more absurd than ever.

Where worship is imposed, parental rights are usurped and children’s freedom to develop their own beliefs is undermined.

The Equality Act should have ended the imposition of worship in 2010. But instead of the Act protecting children from being pressured to pray or participate in religious activities, churches won legal exemptions, allowing the worship to carry on.

The UN children’s rights committee began calling on the UK to abolish compulsory worship in schools in 2016. But as so often happens when religion and children’s rights clash, the Government has decided that children’s rights are secondary to vested religious interests.

For a country that likes to regard itself as a beacon of freedom of religion or belief, laws mandating worship are a serious blind spot.

Secularists who have raised this issue with government officials over many years have been met with complete intransigence. Most recently, the minister responsible for faith schools responded to our evidence of non-compliance by saying: ‘Despite the survey results, I maintain that collective worship is an important part of school life’. It’s like dealing the pet shop owner in Monty Python’s dead parrot sketch.

Successive education ministers have insisted the law is flexible, but schools wishing to replace collective worship with secular assemblies have been told they can’t. Schools can apply for determinations to change the nature of the worship, and they increasingly are, but the Government says it is ‘not permissible for an exemption to be granted’ to replace collective worship with “non-religious assemblies”.

There is a parental right of withdrawal, but few parents wish to exercise a right that embarrasses their children by marking them out as different. Only pupils over the age of 16 can withdraw themselves.

The next government needs to get its head out of the sand and seriously consider how our schools can better promote social cohesion and a vision of equal and shared citizenship in a liberal democracy. A secular and inclusive model of education is the fairest and most appropriate for a religiously diverse population.

Legal obligations on schools to provide worship certainly don’t belong in the 21st century.

Gathering the school community together for regular assemblies can be useful in transmitting shared societal values and consider moral issues. But compelling schools to hold acts of religious worship is neither helpful nor desirable in achieving these aims.

This fossilised law has no moral or educational basis. Teachers don’t support it and many schools flout it. It’s time legislators recognised the dead letter nature of this obsolete legislation and repealed it.

This piece was originally posted on CapX.

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