In this guest post, Dr Jonathan Chaplin, an independent scholar specialising in political theology and a member of the Divinity Faculty of Cambridge University, looks at some of the background relating to the forthcoming High Court challenge to compulsory religious assemblies in schools.
A High Court action is being launched by Lee and Lizanne Harris against Burford primary school in Oxfordshire, which their children attend. A community school, Burford joined the multi-academy Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust in 2015, linking it formally to the Church of England. The Harrises’ complaint is that the school’s practice of holding a daily Christian assembly amounts to the imposition on their children of religious beliefs they reject and that, by offering their children only the alternative of retreating to another room with no equivalent provision, the school is not treating them inclusively.
This is just the latest manifestation of the increasingly fraught debate over the place of religion in schools, on which a wide-ranging report by Charles Clarke and Linda Woodhead was published in 2018 (A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools, Westminster Faith Debates). As the first case on school worship to reach the High Court, it will train a revealing spotlight on how courts view those traces of the legacy of Christendom that still survive in an increasingly religiously plural society. It will also invite the Church of England, as well as other Christian Churches or faith groups running maintained schools, to clarify their views of a legal privilege they continue to enjoy as a result of that legacy.
The Education Act 1944 s.25(1) (which was consolidated by the Education Act 1996 and repealed) mandated all maintained schools in England and Wales to hold a daily act of “collective worship”. This was subsequently specified in the Education Reform Act 1988 s.7(1) as worship “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”. This isn’t quite as blunt an instrument as it appears. The School Standards and Framework Act 1998, which also extends to England and Wales, reaffirms the requirement, while also specifying more closely its diverse practical implications for various types of school (community, foundation, voluntary etc.). And the cumulative impact of other statutes and departmental guidance allows schools a fair degree of leeway in how they implement the requirement.
Education, of course, is a devolved matter. In Wales, the religious education provisions of the Education Act 1944, the Education Reform Act 1988 and the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 are still in force. In Northern Ireland, Articles 21-22, as amended, of the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1986 require that the school day in every grant-aided school must “include collective worship whether in one or more than one assembly”. In Scotland, however, it is not obligatory to provide school worship in all state schools: the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 s.8 provides that religious observance should be made available in all state-funded schools unless a resolution to discontinue it has been passed by the local education authority and approved by the electors in that local authority area. For a discussion of the current law in all four jurisdictions, see Peter Cumper and Alison Mawhinney (eds): Collective Worship and Religious Observance in Schools: An Evaluation of Law and Policy in the UK (Arts & Humanities Research Council, 2015).
It’s also well known that the requirement is honoured as much in the breach as in the observance, at least in non-Church schools where it is often experienced as an anachronistic burden. Ofsted stopped inspecting the collective worship duty in 2004, citing widespread noncompliance in secondary schools. Many community schools have long found creative ways to circumvent the requirements either that their assemblies be acts of “worship” or that they be “Christian” in any recognisable sense. On the other hand, thousands of such schools freely choose to partner with local churches or faith groups in providing worship in assemblies. And many schools invite representatives of other faiths to contribute to their assemblies.
But the mere presence on the statute book of a duty on schools to offer daily Christian worship is surely problematic. The UK – minus Scotland – is the only state in the world in which this applies. It is premised on the empirically questionable assumption that British society is predominantly “Christian” and on the philosophically dubious claim that it is within the power of the state to confer a legal advantage upon one faith denied to others.
The Harrises’ argument is not new. It has long been a staple of campaigns run by Humanists UK, the National Secular Society and the Accord Coalition. But it should not be seen as an exclusively secular or secularist argument. To mount it most effectively, the Harrises would be advised to concentrate on their strongest lines of attack. They are, for example, claiming that what their children experienced before they withdrew them from assemblies amounts to “indoctrination” and that Christianity was being “presented as fact.” These are complex and debatable epistemological propositions on which courts are generally, and rightly, reluctant to rule. The parents’ further claim that their children’s “religious freedom” is constrained by being subject to Christian worship might also be difficult to sustain given the availability of an option to withdraw.
The strongest argument is the inclusivity charge – that the Act’s conferral of a privilege on Christianity in school assemblies collides with the reasonable expectation of parents and wider society that children will feel equally affirmed in this formative public setting. Children are surely entitled to equal treatment, as far as practically possible, in what is an important shared moment in the school’s daily rhythm. The widely-acknowledged community-building and ethos-sustaining functions of assemblies can be maintained without tying them to a legal duty to engage in worship.
The law should be amended accordingly. But it is important to be clear exactly how. In its response to A New Settlement, the Church of England welcomed the report’s decision not to call for the “abolition” of collective worship. A reformed law should not, indeed, abolish worship in schools. That would be to mimic the restrictive aspects of French laïcité and American strict separationism, departing significantly from the cooperationist model of state-church relations that has evolved in the UK.
Nor should it impose a new legal duty on schools to hold “inclusive assemblies,” as proposed by Humanists UK. But, as A New Settlement recommends, it should abolish the current duty on schools to provide worship. Whether and how to conduct a daily assembly would then be left to the decision of schools themselves. Foundation and voluntary schools, including Church schools, would continue to be free to abide by their trust deeds, offering Christian (or other) worship if so stipulated. Probably most community schools would choose not to offer worship of any kind, but those that did would do so freely and not under legal compulsion.
Those that desired to offer worship would, of course, have to take careful account of parents’ preferences in reaching such a decision. Making worship voluntary would not solve all problems. For example, parents who objected to acts of worship would be in difficulty where the only primary school in their village was a Church school or a community school opting to offer worship. Some critics of the status quo argue that the only resolution to this kind of dilemma is simply to ban worship from all maintained schools. But that would be a draconian, one-size-fits-all solution to a difficulty that could be managed locally with an imaginative application of the principle of “reasonable accommodation”. This could, for example, include offering genuinely equitable alternatives to a religious assembly, holding voluntary worship prior to the main assembly, alternating Christian assemblies (with an opt-out) with other forms, or even building a new community school where numbers permitted.
The Church of England claims that its schools are not “confessional” schools catering only to Christians but open to those of all faiths and none. That is often the case on the ground. But to defend the collective worship duty it needs to present a principled argument as to why the state should possess the legal power to compel all schools to offer any form of worship at all. To date it has not done so; and there are weighty theological counter-arguments supporting the principle of a religiously impartial state that relates cooperatively but even-handedly to adherents of diverse religious and secular worldviews. (This is not to be confused with a morally neutral state – one which, in the language of liberal egalitarianism, is “neutral towards rival conceptions of the good”). A consistent reading of this principle rules out a school being subjected to a legal duty to provide worship of any kind.
For the “national” Christian Church to come out in favour of this principle would be an important recognition that, in managing post-Christendom pluralism, there needs to be give and take on all sides. Defenders of the status quo might see that as a “failure of nerve” on the part of the Church – perhaps a needless concession to “secularisation”. It wouldn’t be. Rather, it would be an apt recognition of the limited authority of the state over religion – a core principle of Christian political theology.
 A New Settlement proposes this formulation: “All pupils in attendance at maintained schools and academies shall take part in a regular assembly or act of collective worship in keeping with the values and ethos of the school and reflecting the diversity and character of the school community” (p.34).
[The author is grateful to Frank Cranmer for helpful comments on this article. The usual disclaimer applies.]
Cite this article as: Jonathan Chaplin, “Statutory school worship – managing post-Christendom pluralism” in Law & Religion UK, 5 August 2019,