Is this the end for compulsory collective worship in schools?
National Governors' Association says legal requirement for a daily "broadly Christian" act of worship should be removed.
The 1944 Education Act was one of the most significant pieces of legislation to pass through the British parliament in the 20th century, introducing universal secondary education for all children in England and Wales and thus enhancing the prospects of those who could not afford access to private schooling.
However, for all the Act's significance, it is fair to say that educational policy has moved on from the closing years of the Second World War, and the structure put in place by the Act, the "tripartite" system of secondary moderns, grammars and technical schools, has been largely consigned to history.
Yet, if the 1944 Act largely lives on in spirit rather than word, there is one clause that has endured in spite of decades of reform. Under the Act, every school, whether it was of religious character or not, was required to begin each school day with an act of religious worship. Amid the myriad changes introduced by successive governments, this clause has consistently survived – the 1998 Education Act states that "each pupil in attendance at a community, foundation or voluntary school shall on each school day take part in an act of collective worship”. In community schools (i.e. non-faith schools), the law requires that the majority of acts of worship in a school year should be “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”.
Unsurprisingly, collective worship in schools has long been the focus of secular campaigns, with organisations like the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society questioning the wisdom of a requirement for all children to engage in "broadly Christian" acts of worship, particularly an increasingly multi-religious (and non-religious) society. (It should be noted that parents can exempt their child, although this requires going to the effort of doing so, and singling out your child as different from the others.) There are also question marks over the extent to which schools actually adhere to the requirement anyway, with secondary schools in particular thought to interpret the law somewhat loosely.
The collective worship requirement, then, is clearly something that could benefit from reform, if not outright abolition, and it is therefore refreshing to note that the National Governors' Association (NGA) has released a policy statement calling for it to be scrapped. In the statement the Association, which represents more than 300,000 school governors in England, notes that collective worship in its current form is "meaningless" given the multicultural character of many schools and argues that ending collective worship in non-religious schools would not prevent them from "holding assemblies that address a whole range of topics, including faith and belief".
However, while the NGA's new policy adds a weighty voice to the campaign for ending collective worship, any proposed change would meet significant opposition from the Church of England and the Catholic Church, which are both long-term supporters of the requirement. Responding to the NGA's announcement, a Church of England spokesperson told the Telegraph that ending collective worship would “deny children the opportunity to experience something they wouldn’t experience elsewhere in their lives”.
With the Churches remaining in favour of the rule, it is unclear whether the government has any intention of ending it in the near future. The requirement for collective worship has survived since 1944, and it seems likely that it will survive for a while longer yet.