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Main text: Harvey McGavin. Pictures: Paul SalmonJez Coulson. Additional research: Sarah Jenkins. Next week: Computer games

Did you know?

* School assemblies must be 'wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character'

* Ofsted figures show that 3.7 per cent of primary and 77 per cent of secondary schools aren't complying with the law

* Parents can withdraw their children from assemblies. But only a small minority do - in the culturally mixed London borough of Newham, for example, only five children were exempted in 2001-02

* Teachers who have a moral objection to the daily act of collective worship can also ask to be excused

* In Scotland, schools are obliged to provide a time for religious observance at least once a month

How do you start your school day? The traditional way is for pupils and staff to gather in the school hall. This gathering will usually be led by the headteacher and might feature announcements, talks, stories, songs, performances and prayers. It might also be the only time in the school day when everybody is in one place. In the short term, this means assemblies are a unique opportunity to set the tone for the rest of the day. In the longer term, they can establish and reinforce a school ethos.

What is their purpose?

The dictionary says an assembly is "a number of people gathered together, especially for a formal meeting held at regular intervals". School assemblies fit this description but legally, according to DfES guidance, they are "acts of collective worship" that must be "wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character".

Their purpose is, the guidance says, "to provide the opportunity for young people to consider spiritual and moral issues, to develop community spirit and reinforce positive attitudes".

The concept of worship should be "concerned with reverence for or the veneration of a divine being or power", and to be broadly Christian it should "contain some elements that accord a special status to Jesus Christ". The collective worship itself "should be of such a nature that pupils can respond to it. Just attending is not enough, although it is recognised that some pupils may not feel able to identify with it."

Christian worship was a long-standing feature of schooling for centuries before it was formalised by the 1944 Education Act, restated by the 1988 Education Reform Act and refined by a 1994 Departmental of Education circular 941 and the School Standards and Framework Act in 1998. Within these definitions, the headteacher - in consultation with the governors - has to decide on the format and content of school assemblies. In voluntary-aided schools and foundation schools of a religious character they will follow the school's religious affiliation. But in non-denominational schools, satisfying the legal requirements while respecting the pastoral needs of a mixed intake can be a difficult balance to strike.

A class act

Canon John Hall, the Church of England's education spokesman, believes there is "a lot of misunderstanding" about the legal obligations on schools. Specifically, he says, the collective act of worship need not involve the whole school coming together at the beginning of the day in the traditional manner when a year group or even class assembly - at any time of the day - would meet the requirements. There is, he insists, plenty of flexibility within the regulations to allow schools to tailor assembly materials to suit the religious backgrounds of their students. "In religious schools the act of collective worship ought to reflect the character of the school, and the overwhelming majority of CE schools comply with the law. As far as community schools are concerned, most primaries find the law perfectly possible to follow."

In Scotland, where schools are obliged to provide a time for religious observance at least once a month, ministers are consulting schools over proposals to increase the amount of multi-faith teaching. A report last year showed that two-thirds of non-denominational schools devoted too little time to other religious viewpoints in assemblies.

Breaking the law

In reality, many schools ignore the letter of the law; they do not hold a daily assembly, or they fail to ensure its Christian content. Figures from Ofsted show that in 1998 one in 10 of the 16,000 primaries and seven out of 10 of the 3,600 secondaries in England did not comply with this requirement. The latest figures available show that between September 2001 and July 2002, Ofsted inspectors deemed that 3.7 per cent of primary and 77 per cent of secondary schools weren't complying with the law. "One of the biggest problems is that secondary schools lack the room for a daily 'act of worship' for all pupils - they may be every other day or every third day," says an Ofsted spokeswoman. "Ofsted's job is not to enforce it, just to highlight it." Any school failing to meet the requirement has to draw up an action plan just as if it were failing in any other respect.

If it's broken, fix it...

Liz Paver, head of Intake primary school in Doncaster, a member of the Church of England General Synod and past president of the National Association of Head Teachers, believes a law that is so routinely broken must be wrong and should be changed.

"My argument has always been about it being deemed an act of collective worship," she says. "Assembling on a regular basis to share aims and values is integral to any successful school. But we are expecting heads to lead worship on a daily basis - we don't ask ministers or priests to do that.

"I have no problem with there being an ethical underpinning to what we do at school; If people were not taught the basis of faith in school, many of them would not be taught it at all." She says the act of coming together as a school is "something every child needs to experience". In faith schools it is less of an issue, she says, because "everybody has already opted in".

The concept of worship - what it means, whether heads should be required to lead it and what or who should be worshipped - makes the law unworkable in community schools, she believes. Instead, schools should be measured on how they use the time they are assembled together to underpin their moral values. "You don't need to call it worship to give children a better understanding of faith."

What about non-Christians?

Any head who believes the religious and ethnic make-up of his or her school makes a "broadly Christian" act of worship inappropriate may apply to the local Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (Sacre) to have this requirement lifted, by applying for what is known as "a determination".

Sacres (pronounced sac-rays) are locally appointed bodies that oversee the provision and quality of religious education in each LEA. They report annually to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which publishes a summary of their reports each October. The number of determinations varies greatly - most Sacres did not receive a single application in 2002-03, while one had 14 in force.

Keeping it religious

Canon John Hall says there is plenty of scope within the present law. "It is humane and flexible and offers pupils their proper entitlement - that is, to learn about and experience the possibility of worship, and have a time of stillness and reflection." In fact, he says, many schools are doing "imaginative and important things" that enable children to grow spiritually. A great many of the resources available take a religious view.

One of the biggest online resources is the website run by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, which provides dozens of ready-made resources for primary school assemblies that are "Christian in outlook" but "designed for use with all children regardless of their faith or cultural background".

Losing the religion

Parents who feel uncomfortable with the religious content of assemblies may apply to withdraw their child from religious education and assemblies. But critics point out that each child exempted in this way diminishes the "collective" element of assembly. In practice, a small minority of children are withdrawn - for example, even in the culturally mixed London borough of Newham, only five children were exempted from assemblies in 2001-02.

Parents need give no reason for their decision but schools have to comply.

Teachers who have a moral objection to the daily act of collective worship can also ask to be excused. In practice, this is rare, because in non-religious schools the Christian element is less didactic and many heads like a full attendance at assemblies to foster school unity and underline the importance of the occasion.

The British Humanist Association is opposed on principle to the present regulations on acts of collective worship, which it sees as "unworkable, hypocritical, counter-productive and divisive". Instead, it wants to see inclusive assemblies with designated spaces for optional prayers as part of a reform of religious education that would include "impartial, fair and balanced teaching" about all major world views, including non-religious ones.

"By all means, have stories from other faiths, but pupils shouldn't have to pray or worship," says BHA education officer Marilyn Mason. The insistence on an element of Christian worship in schools means they are effectively biased against presenting other points of view, she says, and outlaw purely secular assemblies. "It is a pity that a practice that is workable, honest, and educationally and socially valuable remains illegal and is sometimes subject to criticism from Ofsted."

Assemblies should include religious and non-religious stories but should not involve worship or prayer, "which, by their very nature, exclude large numbers of people".

Is there a third way?

For 16 years June Auton taught at a school on a notorious estate in Hampshire where "violence, crime and drug abuse were the norm" and where discipline problems prevented many of the children from learning. Inspired by a course at Froebel College at Roehampton Institute (now University of Surrey Roehampton), Ms Auton set about devising a strategy that might get her pupils to reflect on their behaviour and morals.

She set up an after-school "human values" club, where pupils were encouraged to talk about ideas such as helpfulness, respect and compassion - what the words meant, when they had experienced them and how they could apply them in everyday life. The club became so popular she had to start a second one and she soon noticed the effect. "Within two months there was a tremendous improvement in behaviour," she says.

After retiring from full-time teaching in 1992, Ms Auton spent three years putting her ideas down on paper. Her human values education pack (see resources) centres around the five core human values of "truth, love, peace, right conduct and non-violence", which are, in turn, broken down into 86 related values, each with a song, a story and activity, such as a game or role-play, a prayer or thought for the day, and a "follow up and application in real life". More than 1,000 schools have bought her materials and she has dozens of letters of thanks and recommendation. Part of the demand has come from the new requirements for citizenship and PSHE education, but many primary schools use the materials in assemblies. "One headteacher in Bradford said to me, 'Thank goodness, something that will bring all the children together'. He had four or five assemblies going on at once in different rooms and never got them all together."

The law should seek to include this diversity rather than offer it as an opt-out clause, she says. "I don't think we should stipulate that collective worship shouldn't go on, because some schools excel at it and have a delightful way of running their assemblies. But I would like to see a choice. It's the spiritual element we have to introduce more. Religion isn't synonymous with being a good person."

Secondary concerns

Larger and with generally a more mixed intake, secondary schools have most difficulty complying with the law. Sometimes this can be because of inadequate accommodation, but heads' leaders have also questioned the emphasis on Christianity in an increasingly multi-faith society.

The Secondary Heads Association and National Association of Head Teachers have both called for the religious scope of school assemblies to be extended. They say this would promote understanding of less familiar religions, particularly in parts of Britain with few minority groups.

"Attending assemblies that focus on the Sikh, Muslim or Hindu religions would increase young people's understanding of other cultures and help raise their respect for their fellow citizens," says John Dunford of SHA.

"Assemblies are an enormously powerful way of influencing children's behaviour for the better. Schools should use them to create a more harmonious society."

Taking the stage

At some time in a teacher's life, he or she is likely to be called on to take an assembly, or lead the act of collective worship. It can be a daunting prospect. Standing up in front of 30 people is one thing, staring down at several hundred is quite another. "If you can't do it, you shouldn't be in the profession - talking to a large group of people is something you are expected to be able to do," says Ted Wragg, emeritus professor of education at Exeter University.

Outside the constraints of the national curriculum, assemblies present a creative opportunity for teachers. While class assemblies might reflect work done in class, they can also be used to celebrate national days, birthdays and anniversaries, as well as current events in school or the world at large. Conducting a class or key stage assembly can make new demands on a teacher more used to performing in the confines of a classroom. Ted Wragg advises first-timers to "bear in mind the audience and the age of the children and their attention span. You have to pitch it right. Use concrete terms and lots of analogies to explain things. I always try to make it interactive - I like to get them to put their hands up and answer questions."

Think of it as doing your bit to maintain a human tradition. "Assemblies have a long history going back to Ancient Greece and the emergence of democracy," he says. "With schools in danger of becoming bureaucratic institutions operating entirely by email and memos to staff, assembly is a human event. You look around the room and there's your community." Which, whatever your creed, is perhaps the defining characteristic and strength of assemblies.

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