Given recent vociferous debate about whether Britain is a Christian country, it comes as a surprise to some that a daily act of collective worship is still compulsory in state schools. Yet one element of the 1944 education act that has consistently remained unchanged, amongst myriad other changes, is the requirement for a daily act of worship that is “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”.
Although surveys have shown that in practice, many schools are failing to observe this rule, it has remained a requirement. Last week the National Governor’s Association – which represents more than 300,000 school governors – called for it to be scrapped. As the New Humanist reported, they said that the daily act of worship was “meaningless” in its current form given the multicultural nature of schools.
Support for this call for reform has come from an unlikely source – the Church of England’s head of education. The Rt Reverend John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford and chair of the Church of England’s Board of Education, is responsible for Anglican schools, as well as speaking on education for the church in the House of Lords. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, he said that schools should still make time for “spiritual reflection” as assembly is frequently the only opportunity that pupils and teachers have to take a pause. But, he added, compulsory participation in collective worship was outdated and could actively put people off religion.
“I think in the 1940s when all of this was put together it was possible to say that collective worship represented the mood of the nation but I don’t think that is where we are now.
“There is a sense in which a compulsion about religion does a disservice to that which I think is most important which is keeping the good news of the Christian faith alive in our culture.
“I think in due course there needs to be a legislative response but not until there has been full discussion in the Department for Education and the educational world generally.
“At that point where society and government feel it is right I would want to go ahead with some kind of change which I think would be liberating for this very important time in the school day which I suppose has got trapped in the idea of collective worship and I would want to release it into spiritual reflection.”
He previously told the BBC that “worship is by definition a voluntary activity”. There has been no response from government on the issue, although Catholic representatives have said they see no need for a law change.