In a guest post, Russell Sandberg comments on the Education (Assemblies) Bill, which is due to have its Third Reading debate in the Lords tomorrow.
The Education (Assemblies) Bill will receive its Third Reading in the House of Lords on 8 December and would provide a welcome modernisation of an area of law that is badly outdated. The current law on religious worship is out of date and there have long been concerns that the letter of the law is not followed in many schools.
The Current Law
The School Standards and Framework Act 1998 provides that State schools without a religious character in England and Wales are required to provide a daily act of collective worship. This need not be at the beginning of the day and separate acts of worship may be provided for pupils in different ages or school groups.
The Act states that “the required collective worship shall be wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”. Collective worship is of a broadly Christian character “if it reflects the broad traditions of Christian belief without being distinctive of any particular Christian denomination”. Not every required act of collective worship needs to be of broadly Christian character, “provided that, taking any school term as a whole, most such acts which take place in the school do comply”.
Parents have a right to withdraw their children and sixth formers have a right to withdraw themselves from daily worship. The same rules that allow pupils withdrawn from Religious Education to exceptionally receive Religious Education elsewhere also apply in relation to pupils withdrawn from religious worship. Similar rights for teachers apply as to worship as to religious education. Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education (SACREs) have the power to disapply the requirement in prescribed schools, for particular classes or for descriptions of pupils, that daily worship should be mainly Christian.
In schools with a religious character, the daily act of collective worship must be in accordance with the trust deed or with the tenets of the religion or religious denomination specified in relation to the school.
For further discussion of the requirements under the current law see this letter from Baroness Chisholm.
The Education (Assemblies) Bill would provide that schools in England without a religious character would hold assemblies rather than acts of collective worship but they would still be daily – which would raise some of the same practical problems as found in the current law. It provides:
“Each pupil in attendance at a school to which this section applies must on each school day take part in an assembly which is principally directed towards furthering the spiritual, moral, social and cultural education of the pupils regardless of religion or belief.”
The fact that these assemblies would continue to be daily is likely to cause logistical problems in schools. This is especially true since, on my reading, there is no replacement for para 2(2) of Schedule 20 to the 1998 Act in the new Bill. That provision states that:
“The arrangements for the required collective worship may, in respect of each school day, provide for a single act of worship for all pupils or for separate acts of worship for pupils in different age groups or in different school groups.”
This clarification that acts of daily worship can be separate for different age or school groups would not apply to assemblies.
Acts of worship could be organised by staff or students in such schools but they would be voluntary. The existing opt-outs would apply to them but not the daily assemblies.
The current law would continue to apply to schools with a religious character. The opt-outs in schools with a religious character and to acts of voluntary worship in schools without a religious character would be strengthened so that, in the words of the Explanatory Notes, there would be provision
“for pupils who have been withdrawn from faith-based collective worship in faith schools to receive an alternative assembly of equal educational worth directed towards furthering their spiritual, moral, social, and cultural education regardless of their particular religion or belief”.
The Welsh Dimension
The Bill does not apply to Wales – where education is a devolved matter. The law on religious education in schools in Wales has recently been reformed through the Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Act 2021. That Act took a similar approach to what is being proposed here in that it makes the provision in schools without a religious character pluralistic and pupil-focused and therefore removes the right to opt out while retaining the denominational status quo in schools with a religious character and retaining the opt out there.
If the Bill were passed, then there would be a need to change the position in Wales too. Indeed, the current law on worship seems even more outmoded in Wales now that the law on religious education has been reformed.
As I argue in my forthcoming book Religion in Schools: Learning Lessons from Wales, the law on religion in schools in England and Wales is the result of historical compromises with the explicit reference to Christianity being a relatively modern addition: a product of the Thatcher years.
The Education (Assemblies) Bill is to be welcomed as a necessary modernisation of the law to bring it into line with the social realities. The Bill delicately perseveres the autonomy of schools with a religious character – indeed, it may be argued that it is too deferential in this respect. However, it will bring the law more into line with the practice in relation to schools in England without a religious character – though the daily requirement may well mean that schools will continue to struggle to completely implement the law. The Bill also underscores how archaic and problematic the current English law on religious education is. There is a need for England to follow the example set by Wales in this regard. Again, however, there is a need to be bolder and to be less deferential towards schools with a religious character and SACREs than the Welsh legislation has managed to do.
The Education (Assemblies) Bill, then, has much in common with the Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Act 2021. Both are long overdue acts of modernisation which, arguably, do not go far enough but this may well be the price worth paying to gather widespread support. If it becomes law (and we are a long way off that still), then we will have the curious situation where in England the law on religious worship in schools is modernised but not the law on religious education, while – conversely – in Wales the law on religious education is reformed but not the law on religious worship.
The Education (Assemblies) Bill should be supported but we need a twenty-first-century law on both religious worship and religious education in schools in both England and Wales.