A call to cull collective worship in schools?

The RE syllabus has been in the news once more: in this guest post, Lee Coley of Stone King LLP muses on the linked issue of collective worship in schools.

On 13 November 2015 a report entitled Collective Worship and Religious Observance in Schools – an evaluation of Law and Policy in the UK was published by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in conjunction with the Universities of Bangor and Leicester. The report is published at a time when the provision of religious education in its widest sense is once again in the news, not least following the publication of the judgment in the case of R (Fox & Ors) v Secretary of State for Education [2015] EWHC 3404 (Admin). The applicants in that case were challenging the lawfulness of the approach adopted by the defendant, the Secretary of State for Education, to the striking of a balance between the teaching at GCSE level of religious and non-religious world-views.

In the same way that the obligation to teach religious education is in enshrined in law within the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, the obligation on schools to have a daily act of collective worship is also enshrined in law (initially within the Education Act 1944 and carried forward in subsequent legislation), currently in section 70 of the 1998 Act: in community schools, worship must be “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”, for designated voluntary aided, voluntary aided foundation schools, worship must be in accordance with the designation of the school. The perennial question, however, is whether it is appropriate for such an obligation to exist at all, or for it to be linked to worship broadly of only one faith in a pluralist society of many faiths and belief systems.

Whilst the report makes it clear that it is focusing on community schools, the underlying conclusion is that such an obligation is now inappropriate and that other models need to be put in place to accommodate twenty-first century reality. The authors of the report assert, with undoubtedly just cause, that the duty to have a daily active collective worship is only observed in the breach and, therefore, that reform is long overdue. References are made within the report to the particular world-view at the time the initial obligation in the Education Act 1944 was put in place; it was a response to the moral and spiritual crisis brought about by World War II. It is interesting to note here the reference in the report to the House of Lords debates recorded in Hansard in 1944. However, the House of Commons debates of the same period demonstrate that the priority was not solely to reinvigorate the Christian identity of the nation but, rather, recognition of the role of the Church of England in education over the years. It is interesting to note the rather selective choice of evidence to support this contention and it does, unfortunately, lend some credence to the view that the report is coming from a particular secularist perspective.

The obligation on community schools to have collective worship of a broadly Christian character has been divisive since the Education Reform Act 1988, when the requirement for collective worship to be of “a broadly Christian character” was introduced. The need to have collective worship per se has not been so controversial: it is not intended to be the equivalent to confessional worship but creative of a sense of community within the school and recognition that individuals are part of a wider collective, a part of a wider more order.

In October 2015 the Church of England Education Office published The Fruits of the Spirit, a Church of England discussion paper on character education. Whilst this very much linked in with the debate about “British Values” and what that means, the report can undoubtedly contribute to the debate about collective worship. Whilst the Church of England Education Office’s report will undoubtedly have more resonance with Church of England schools, the debate about how “character” can be taught must necessarily link in with whether or not there is a need for a coming together of a school community, even if that gathering’s purpose is to establish and reinforce moral virtues outside of any formal faith focus.

If the requirement for community schools to have collective worship of a broadly Christian character is going to be, or should be, amended, it is arguable that there should in its place be a framework for still having some form of required collective spirituality which allows for individual school context.[1] Thus, while some discretion should be given to the senior leadership team of a school as to the content (and, perhaps, form) of that gathering (bearing in mind concern under the Prevent duty to ensure that radicalism is not fostered within schools), any change would require primary legislation as well as consultation with the various stakeholders. This would undoubtedly take some time and is unlikely to be a high ministerial priority.

In the context of concern about radicalisation, it might be suggested that allowing governing bodies to determine for themselves what “collective worship” means may cause more problems than it is intended to solve. Leaving the system as it is, though unsatisfactory from a purist’s perspective, at least means – perversely – that everyone knows where they stand. A cynical commentator may view this report as a further attempt to attack the role of the Church of England in schools nationally, not just within its own church schools; and pointing to potential breaches of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the European Commission and the Human Rights Act 1998 etc, is clearly intended to increase anxiety about the lawfulness of the current approach.

But whatever the case, the focus of collective worship, in the words of former Bishop of London Dr Graham Leonard, in his speech in the House of Lords in the summer of 1988 on the Education Reform Bill, should be that it “does not break the school up into communities based on the various faiths of the parents, especially in that it makes some groups feel that they are not really part of the community being educated in the school.”[2]


[1] The term ‘collective spirituality’ is borrowed from a transcript of a lecture given by Professor John Hull: Future Progress in Religious Education: The Templeton London Lectures at the RSA (London: RSA, 1995) 27-40.

[2] See Lords Hansard 7 July 1988, cols 433-4.


Cite this article as: Lee Coley, “A call to cull collective worship in schools?” in Law & Religion UK, 4 December 2015: https://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2015/12/04/a-call-to-cull-collective-worship-in-schools/.

3 thoughts on “A call to cull collective worship in schools?

  1. Currently, all maintained schools must hold daily collective worship for pupils. Parents have the right to withdraw their children from all or part of attendance at worship and are not obliged to give a reason, while sixth-formers have the right to withdraw themselves from collective worship.

    I posted on this issue in 2012: see Religious education, collective worship and the right of withdrawal. I argued that if a girl under the age of 16 has legal capacity to consent to medical examination and treatment, including contraceptive treatment, if she has sufficient maturity and intelligence to understand the nature and implications of the proposed treatment (see Gillick v West Norfolk & Wisbech Area Health Authority [1985] UKHL 7) then it is difficult to see why a Gillick-competent child of either sex should not be allowed to withdraw from collective worship in school.

    When the Joint Committee on Human Rights discussed the issue in its Twenty-Eighth Report of Session 2005–06 in relation to the Education and Inspections Bill, it noted that Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child requires that states parties “shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child”. It concluded that that refusing to guarantee a Gillick-competent child the right to withdraw both from collective worship and from compulsory religious education was incompatible with the UK’s human rights obligations.

    That seems to me irrefutable. Perhaps my own view is coloured by the fact that I positively loathed morning assembly when I was at school in the ‘fifties and early ‘sixties: but even making allowance for personal prejudice, I cannot believe that compelling children in non-religious schools to attend worship of any kind can be compatible either with Articles 12 & 14 UN CRC or with Article 9 ECHR. The problem, it seems to me, is that the fact that children are themselves rights-holders has become blurred: society assumes that those rights must be exercised by the parents on behalf of the children – but that is not what the Conventions say.

    Of course, what happens in avowedly-religious schools is another matter.

  2. I agree entirely with Frank Cranmer’s contention that children are the repository of rights though I prefer the Kantian formulation that persons are ends in themselves. It would be odd surely to contend that something dwelling within the person could be “exercised on behalf of” that person by someone else, though the law does allow the transfer of the exercise of certain functions in some cases, e.g. mental incapacity.

    My other comment is that it seems comparably odd to talk of character being “taught” in schools rather than being developed through activity and teaching. The debates of the modern educationist take place in an intellectual vacuum undisturbed by the debates of the 19th and early 20th centuries and the light thrown by traditional culture on these subtle questions.

  3. Pingback: Law and religion round-up – 6th December | Law & Religion UK

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