Most secondary schools are at odds with the law on Christian worship, but is confrontation the answer? Nicholas Pyke reports
The people at the Office for Standards in Education do not think much of the law on collective worship. In a scathing summary of the current position, they outline at least two major criticisms of the injunction to hold daily assemblies which are "wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character".
It is in the first place beyond the capacity of any school, they say, to perform on every single day of the academic year. Second, they believe that the Act - and the Government's interpretation of it - is restrictively Christian, leaving little room for children of other faiths or no faith. It makes no sense, they say, to encourage individual spiritual growth and then tell all pupils to believe the same thing.
Such views, needless to say, remain unpublished, and are confined to a ministerial briefing document. What remains public and irrefutable is that the great majority of secondary schools visited by the inspectors are unwilling or unable to meet the terms of the law. No amount of blustering threat from ministers is likely to change the position.
As Chris Wright from Peers School, Oxford and King's College London suggested in The TES earlier this year, there is little disagreement on the first question, that of quantity. OFSTED has found time after time that schools concentrating on one or two collective events a week do so to much greater effect than those attempting to mount five. Leading figures in the Church of England have suggested that frequency may be the enemy of quality while even some well-known Christian traditionalists have privately indicated that two or three acts of collective worship a week could be acceptable to them.
The second disagreement is more complex. This is the perception that the Government demands a narrow and restricting Christianity - a view which the Department for Education has fostered by issuing a circular attempting to pin down the essentials of Christian worship more precisely than the law itself. This is the perception central to the much-publicised statements from the headteachers' unions that schools are unwilling to co-operate.
Such a view of the law is widespread, but may not be the only one possible. Despite a debate which has revolved largely around the rights and wrongs of changing the wording of the law, another road is emerging. Increasingly it is argued that the law in fact contains within it a great deal of flexibility, and that schools should use it to develop collective spiritual acts which, in emphasising a broad spirituality, leave space for all children.
This approach already has the backing of two senior clerics in the Church of England, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, and the chairman of its Board of Education, the Bishop of Ripon. "The point is that the law can be made to work a lot better, a lot more imaginitively and a lot more positively than it is at the moment," said a spokesman in a recent statement from Lambeth Palace. The Board of Education itself is waiting to complete a consultation exercise before taking a public view.
Collective worship in schools is necessarily an unusual beast, they argue, and is not comparable with worship in Church. Pupils are not there by choice, which immediately poses the question of what is meant by worship in the first place? All three bishops draw a distinction between the wording of the 1988 Education Act, which they accept, and the circular issued in January 1994 which they think is divisive. Schools have complained in particular about the injunction to accord a special place to the person of Jesus Christ.
Chris Wright is far from a theological liberal. But he argues that the circular is not the draconian document commonly imagined, but one that even leaves a certain room for manouevre. The aim of collective worship is, for example, "to provide the opportunity for pupils to worship God," not as is commonly supposed to force them to worship. Pupils, he points out, should be free "to explore their own beliefs" according to the circular.
Now the Secondary Heads' Assocation has published a scheme for collective worship which follows this path of emphasising a broad spirituality. It is written by Bruce Douglas, principal of Branston Community College in Lincoln who is also SHA's legal secretary.
Thoughts for the Day offers topics for collective contemplation for every week of the year, and every school day within that. The subject of enemies, for example, takes the pupils from Christ's injunctions in St Matthew on Monday to Mahatma Gandhi on Friday. The following week brings the Light of the Word, while the one after that dwells on the relationship between science and truth. "Nothing in science contradicts our values and nothing in science explains them," says the booklet. "Where then do our values come from?" Later on, a quote from Pascal is offered for discussion: "We know the truth not only by reason but also by the heart."
Subtitled "A Scheme for Spiritual Reflection in Schools," it quite openly eschews the explicitly Christian framework demanded by the circular. In fact the school has received the approval of OFSTED for these assemblies - but the inspection had taken place before the circular was issued.
In the introduction, Bruce Douglas writes: "Whether the material offered here is sufficiently religious or Christian is arguable. The approach certainly is adaptable." He believes it provides a framework for both practicing Christians and others. "The starting point of our school, like that of many others, was one of almost no explicitly religious assemblies or prayers at all. Nevertheless I would argue extremely vigorously and with conviction that the Judeao-Christian Ethic and reverence for the holiness of life and the soul is almost ever present in these Thoughts. Indeed I would argue that the daily presentation of such Thoughts and the corporate silence is perfectly able to be interpreted as a modern aspect in a 20th-century school of the biblical call to repent now."
He has consciously decided to work round the law rather than confronting it. "I was on the side of those saying let's not take this head on. This Government can't afford to change the law. It can't afford to go to the back benchers saying it's retreating. I believe that every time an official report says that a school is breaking the law, it doesn't bring the school into disrepute, it brings the law into disrepute. Let us present ourselves as active and imaginative providers of moral and spiritual education."
o 'Thoughts for the Day' is available from the Secondary Heads' Association, 130 Regent Road, Leicester LE1 7PG. Pounds 4.50.