A Church of England multi-academy trust has settled out of court after being threatened with High Court action over its assemblies, following claims that they breached human rights and were indoctrinating pupils.
The Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust was facing a case brought by parents who said primary pupils were made to pray and watch reenactments of Bible scenes, including the crucifixion, without being offered alternative assembles.
Parents Lee and Lizanne Harris called for a judicial review on the grounds that the trust was in breach of pupils’ right to freedom of belief under the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European Convention on Human Rights.
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In a statement, they said: “We took this case to ensure our children receive an inclusive education without the indoctrination of one enforced religion. We believe this isn’t just the right of our children, but all children.”
The parents had withdrawn their children from assemblies at Burford Primary School, in Oxfordshire, and said Christian stories had been presented as “fact”. They also raised concerns about Christianity being forced upon pupils at other events, including at past school leavers’ ceremonies held in the local church, at which all leaving students received a gift Bible as a "guide to life".
The Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust, which runs the school, has agreed to give the children access to "alternative materials", overseen by a teacher, when they are withdrawn from assembly.
The campaigning charity Humanists UK, which supported the parents, said the decision of the 33-school trust marked a “significant win” in ensuring that schools did not force religious worship on children, and said the Department for Education and other schools should now ensure that a “meaningful alternative” to religious assembles was offered.
Humanists UK chief executive Andrew Copson said: “The 75-year-old English law requiring daily religious worship is so antiquated that it has collapsed in the face of its first legal challenge, without the case being seen through to court.
“Parliament should now act to replace it with a new requirement for inclusive assemblies, in keeping with the nature of our plural society.
“This case is hugely significant, as it has established that schools have a duty to make inclusive assemblies available to all pupils who want them. Such assemblies can play a vital role in furthering the development of all pupils, regardless of religion or belief, covering topics that are educational and enjoyable for all."
In a statement, the trust said: “ODST and Burford Primary School have always acted in the best interests of children and, without accepting any liability, we have made an out-of-court agreement to ensure we safeguard public funds for the education of children and avoid a potentially expensive court case. Costs incurred in reaching this settlement will be not be met from Burford Primary School’s budget.
“We have agreed some specific arrangements for the claimants’ children when they are withdrawn from collective worship and are able to provide some appropriate resources for them. Burford Primary is a small, happy and successful school, which will continue to provide collective worship, alongside a broad, balanced and inclusive curriculum.’"
The DfE guidance is that it is for headteachers to decide how best to withdraw pupils from collective worship.