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School Worship: an Obituary – John Hull

June 18, 2015

SWThis book discusses the philosophy and practice of school worship, and argues that it should be replaced by an assembly devoted to the spiritual and moral development of the school.

The daily act of Collective Worship in schools reflects Victorian values. The Only institutions which begin with prayers are schools and prisons. (And ther Houses of Parliament). It is thought to be good for moral character.

I once applied for a job as Head of Religious Education but the organising of assemblies was part and parcel of it. The headmaster had no idea that many of us were opposed to collective worship. Our reasons? In our RE lessons we were seeking to be neutral, treating religion as an academic subject. Such neutrality is undermined if you are leading prayers.

The 1944 Education Act envisaged RI (yes, instruction) as the theory and collective worship as the practical. But this was in a world where the overwhelming majority of the population was itself as Christian.This Act was drafted by politicians who had seen the results of Nazi propaganda, whose pagan influence led to atrocity so they wanted to build moral character in nation’s youth.

You were assumed to be Christian unless your parents opted for the right to withdraw you. In practice, few dropped out – Jews and Unitarians sat in drafty corridor and felt themselves to be isolates.

There were many problems with this. Nobody was trained to lead it. Heads of year or primary heads were assumed to acquire some ability by magic. These assemblies tended to be a hymn sandwich. I remember everybody singing ‘O Jesus I have promised to serve thee to the end’, which most pupils hadn’t and the pupils behind used to give kicks in the back of knee to the ones in front in an attempt top get them to fall over. The hymn would be followed by a moral homily, often doing injustice to Bible passage e.g. Good Samaritan is about helping people; the feeding 5,000 about not dropping litter.

In the 1960s there were ready-made assembly books and heads of house would often grab one on their way to the hall. Such books were often based on heroes — mainly male explorers, who exemplified courage, self-sacrifice — muscular Christianity Men who had given their lives for the Empire.

Now they deal with such topics as pollution, war and human rights.

Much has changed since 1944. We not have a multi-faith society. In secondary schools, between 60 and 90% say they are ‘nothing’, not religious. Many teachers agnostic or atheist — how can they lead worship and keep integrity? Back in 1960s my Grammar School head atheist yet led prayers in his gown, modelling hypocrisy. One prayer he used to read asked God to help us ‘keep the ten commandments, the new commandment and whatsoever other commandment…’ (the school rules?)

While primary schools carry on assemblies, secondaries feel awkward. In primary an assembly can bring showcase a class project e.g. animals, then perhaps read passage from one of scriptures and read poem or prayer

The1988 Education Reform Act wanted assemblies to continue. House of Lords debates included words like wonder, joy, excitement, experience, awe, open-mindedness, tolerance.

How do you define ‘worship’? – bowing down, words? A doorway to deeper reality? In it inward and spiritual – not just external? You cannot compel worship.

Parents think it is a good thing. They no longer go to church but want their kids to be exposed to it.

 The 1988 act brought changes. It was still required daily but allowed smaller groups than the whole school – many large schools had no room in a hall for all. They would be done in form tutor groups but how would the opt out clause for tutors? Smaller groups did not mean different religions.

‘Collective’ suggests the school community and its shared values. Acts must be ‘mainly Christian’ i.e. more than half. OFSTED reckoned there was not enough other religions involved except at Divali, Chinese New Year.

The act had to take into account kids’ backgrounds. If the majority is to be based on the central beliefs of Christianity while liberals like me said the majority background was secular, then we could look at links with Christian beliefs e.g. created by God — so animals, wonderful things like waterfalls or planets in sky – provide talk or slides or PowerPoint – follow with silence for reflection.

The best assembly I have experienced was led by an atheist science teacher — the planets — slides and music — awe — cf. Psalm 8 ‘when I consider the works of thy hands’.

Christian teaching on the Fall — we humans have spoiled world, so pollution/environment/war.
Christian teaching on Incarnation — God lived in Jesus so humans still in image of God so look at examples of human bravery/people with a purpose e.g. Schindler and Shoah

Another definition of ‘worship’ is ‘things of worth’ but most teachers did not seem to understand that. Most acts of worship observed by OFSTED were about moral/social issues. These are beneficial to whole-school ethos but not identifiably Christian.

Good assemblies take time and use drama, music, powerpoint. Is it appropriate to limit visiting speakers to 5 minutes? They tends to be evangelicals and they provoke an increase in teachers not attending, which sends out a signal

In secondary schools, it is mainly listening to a talk – passive, followed by notices and a telling off. Line up, shut up, listen

John Patten was not happy with that and his 1994 Circular defined worship as to a deity. It was only ‘advice’ / ‘guidance’ but OFSTED based its check list on it. Inspectors almost invariably failed both church and non church secondaries on collective worship while many primaries passed. I once met a civil servant who said that there was nothing wrong with law because they had so few complaints. Maybe liberals should not have tried to make the law work but disobeyed.

I am happy with my fudge. One alternative is to reduce the number and do better quality. This is unlikely. Time would get filled with form-filling and individual pupils. The alternative is to abolish it.


The school assembly has considerable educational potential. When it is taken up with worship, something is being done which in the county school ought not to be attempted at all in that form, and in the meantime, the opportunity to do something more directly related to the tasks of the school is missed. Corporate, compulsory worship should be abandoned, and assembly then left free to relate in new ways to the curriculum. The positive gains of such assemblies will be discussed as we continue.

The objectives of school assembly will be to provide ceremonies, celebrations and other events which, while not assuming the truth of any one controversial statement, will present the issues to the pupils in a way so as:

  1. To widen the pupil’s repertoire of appropriate emotional response. An appropriate emotional response is one which in terms of the surrounding society is proportioned to the circumstances which evoke it. A person who flies into a fury if he loses his fountain pen but is unmoved by the human need in the great city around him has inappropriate emotions. A person who is not moved by the beautiful and who never feels compassion is lacking in emotional breadth. It is, of course, impossible to avoid some degree of cultural definition of what an appropriate emotional response is, but the assembly would attempt to introduce the emotions and responses of other cultures. The controlling criterion in the education of the emotions will be the ethical status of the emotion in relation to its stimulus. At no point can education evade the responsibility of making this sort of ethical judgement.
  2. To encourage a reflective approach to living, a way which transcends the immediacy of experience. Man’s capacity for reflection upon himself and his worth is part of his distinctive existence. Heidegger has pointed out that to ek-sist is to stand out, to project above. Man is self-aware being. To live immersed in one’s world instead of being in critical action and reaction with one’s world is to lose part of being human.
  3. To demonstrate the values which are not controversial and upon which democratic society depends. These values include freedom of speech, respect for the rights of minorities, the equality before the law and in education of all religious and ethnic groups, and responsibility for personal decision-making and for participation in community decision-making.
  4. To provide some experience and understanding of what worship is so that the way of worship, along with other life styles, will remain an option for anyone who wishes to follow it and so that all will have some insight into what it is like to live a religious life. But this provision will not require anyone to worship and will certainly not commit the school to corporate acts of worship.

These objectives are chosen because they are consistent with many of the functions which the assembly already has. Assembly is of course often valued by schools for reasons other than religious ones. The objectives, particularly the second and the fourth ones, offer some continuity with present school worship. The first three objectives relate to central concerns of education and the last one is a contribution from religious education. The objectives are not exhaustive. Other subjects of the curriculum will be able to add other objectives.

In relation to the tradition of worship, the tasks of these assemblies will be to select from the various aspects of worship those which

(a) are low in cognitive content and which therefore do not commit the pupil and the staff member to beliefs which they may not have, or

(b) are high in cognitive content but which can be treated in a controversial and not an affirmative manner, and finally

(c) are compatible with educational goals, e.g. can be treated in an open way, and contribute to the moral, aesthetic and religious development of the pupil in a rational, freedom-enhancing way.

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