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Collective Worship and Religious Observance in Schools: An Evaluation of Law and Policy in the UK ed. Dr Alison Mawhinney (Bangor University) and Professor Peter Cumper

January 22, 2016


AHRCThis was the result of a two-year Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded research network project, which has examined the law and policy governing collective worship.

It asked: Is there a place for ‘collective worship’ or ‘religious observance’ in schools? What is its purpose? What are the legitimate interests of the state in such matters? Given that education is a devolved matter, are there variations in how the different administrations treat collective worship/religious observance? Do significant differences exist in the way that collective worship/religious observance is provided in practice in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales? How should schools take account of the rights of children, parents and teachers when organising such acts? And to what extent do these acts contribute to the development of shared values and the encouragement of cohesive and inclusive school communities in an increasingly plural and multi-cultural society?

If the status quo is maintained, they are concerned about non-compliance. In terms of parental and children’s rights some schools fail; to provide sufficient information about the nature of acts of collective worship/religious observance so as to enable an informed exercise of the right to withdrawal where it exists; advise parents (and, where legislation permits, relevant pupils) of the right to withdraw and may not have clear procedures for the exercise of this right; offer an alternative that satisfies the wishes of parents (and, where permitted, relevant pupils)

A second option is to remove the duty to provide worship and allow schools to decide what to do, if anything, instead. However, in a sensitive and complicated area such as moral, social and spiritual development, wider concerns surrounding the effectiveness of governors as a governance mechanism in schools (unrepresentative nature of boards, many unfilled positions, a heavy workload, a lack of relevant skills) may be exacerbated. These concerns point to a need for explicit Government guidance in setting out clear parameters and in offering an extensive range of good practice models.

A third option is to reform the current law.’ Time for reflection’ is favoured. “The term ‘spiritual development’ was first used in the 1944 Education Act where it was seen as a more inclusive term than ‘religious’. Indeed, the case for a duty that promotes spiritual development in education is strengthened by the fact that it sits neatly alongside a broad range of contemporary pedagogical values, such as ‘pupil voice’, space for reflection, enquiry, creativity and experiential learning, with a special emphasis on holistic education and the whole child. “

But there are “concerns that a Time for Reflection risks undermining the distinctiveness of collective worship, emphasizes individual development at the expense of communal development, and, it might potentially have a negative impact on religious literacy.”

They urge the Government to set up a working group to explore all this but I suspect they won’t because of the hornets’ nest that it will stir up.

It quotes Circular 1/94 and rightly points out that is ‘guidance’ only.

In Scotland: The guidance recognises that for some schools a term such as ‘Time for Reflection’ might be a more appropriate description of the activities carried out in

fulfilment of the requirement of religious observance…. In non-denominational schools, religious observance is encouraged to draw upon the ‘rich resources’ of

Scotland’s Christian heritage. However, the guidance notes that: ‘many school communities contain pupils and staff from faiths other than Christianity or with

no faith commitment, and this must be taken fully into account in supporting spiritual development. It is of central importance that all pupils and staff can participate with integrity in forms of religious observance without compromise to their personal faith’ (emphasis included in original).Every school should provide opportunities for religious observance at least six times in a school year and preferably more often than this.

In Wales: Schools may provide some acts of worship that are not ‘Christian’ if there are circumstances relating to the ages, aptitudes and family backgrounds of the pupils which are relevant for determining the character of the collective worship. However, the majority of acts during a school term must nevertheless be entirely or mainly ‘Christian’ in nature.

Back in 2005, a House of Lords committee suggested that the right to opt out should be provided for 6th formers. However, the RE Counciul wrote to the committee to say thast it was out of touch:

Legally the term Religious Instruction was abolished by the 1988 Education Reform Act. This was to ensure that the words use din law matched reality. Even in 1944 when the term Religious Instruction was used no indoctrinatory connotation was in tended, but precisely because that interpretation was commonly perceived in the lingering legal usage it was changed. In practice it had not been widely used since the 1960s and most Agreed Syllabuses had for long been using ‘RE’ to describe their subject matter. More worryingly, the Committee appeared to show no recognition of the vital contribution which RE makes in the education of young people. In equipping tem for living as national and global citizens, a school’s focus on beliefs and values is critical . Students of all ages need the opportunity to clarify and understand the meaning and implications of different sources of belief and value surrounding them in the contemporary world. They also deserve assistance in openly developing their own sense of purpose and faith to live by.

Collective Worship’ itself is different from ‘Corporate Worship’ (particular to a singular faith community), in that it is intended as an open educational experience (“sensitive to age, aptitude and family background” according to the 1988 ERA).

Far from being a daily occurrence in 11-18 schools, even a weekly pattern of provision is rare for the 6th formers, and even more so in other 16-19 establishments.

The report is online here.

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