The news that schools will be investigated by the Department for Education if they’re reported as being in breach of a “requirement” to fulfil daily collective acts of worship has horrified many. And quite rightly.
I’ve taught more than my fair share of RE lessons over the past year, and one thing that children certainly aren’t pleading is, “Could we have more God, please?”
In fact, what they frequently do is petition their parents to pull them from the subject. Schools are required by law to teach religious studies, but parents also have the right to withdraw them – to study alternative subjects they’re behind in, or simply because such lessons contradict their own religious beliefs.
Occasionally, I’ve heard students say their parents don’t want them studying RE because they consider it brainwashing, so what will these parents make of their sons or daughters listening to a daily sermon? Will there be a room big enough to contain the exodus?
Collective worship: A discriminatory commandment
For the record, I believe these parents should reconsider their stance on RE lessons. An understanding of other people’s faiths helps to build a more tolerant society. Of course it does.
Additionally, the stories of the Bible work well in English lessons: to study their construction, to offer grounding in tales often quoted and referenced in the Western world.
An analysis of religion helps young minds philosophise, debate and think critically. Religion represents humanity’s first, tentative steps towards a form of science and it should not be brushed under the carpet. But neither must collective worship be foisted upon our children.
A recent suggestion that Union flags should be snapping in the frigid wind outside every school reception was bad enough, but this renewed love for a law from 1944 is unworkable in so many ways. A discriminatory commandment that compels children to venerate “a divine being” should be abolished, not enforced.
I assume this daily worship is intended to take the form I endured as a schoolboy many years ago, when we were forced to sing along to Hand Me Down My Silver Trumpet, while the sole Jehovah's witness in the school was ignominiously bundled out to practise his spellings.
But maybe, as we move towards secularism as a society (I thought we were anyway; maybe I missed a memo), there will be a rotation of services in the lingua franca of multiple religions and their many varied denominations.
The thing is, RE already serves that purpose. And with so much school time already lost to the pandemic, do we really need to spend 10 minutes every morning in an act of collective worship?
I understand that Christianity is still the predominant religion in the United Kingdom but, in all honesty, it’s a multi-faith place now – during the 2011 census, a third of the population either put “no religion” or refused to state it.
I’ve been at schools that have warned their teachers not to talk about politics, where SLT have cautioned against expressing an opinion lest it be misinterpreted as fact. And now here we are, being cheerfully told by school minister Nick Gibb that we risk investigations if found not to be adhering to laws on collective worship.
May I respectfully suggest, now churches have been allowed to reopen for their congregations, that Mr Gibb points interested students towards their doors, and leaves worship out of our precious classroom time.
Paul Read is a teacher and writer