On a wing and a prayer

21st March 2008 at 00:00

Is collective worship becoming too secular?

THE PRIMARY ASSEMBLY FILE Issues 789 Primary File Publishing Pounds 39.50

THE SECONDARY ASSEMBLY FILE Issues 123 Primary File Publishing Pounds 49.50

FIFTY STORIES FOR ASSEMBLY By David Self Heinemann Pounds 14.99

OPENINGS By Alan and Celia Younger Hodder amp; Stoughton Pounds 9. 99

School worship and television have a lot in common. Both constantly soak up material and there is always a demand for more. Like TV, the best collective worship performances are worth repeating - and like TV, the schedulers sometimes choose repeats the pupil audience would rather not have.

Finding material for collective worship is a task that can lead to manic,last-minute dashes round the staffroom or, in secondary schools, desperate pleas to the RE staff to revert to their 1950s image and bale out worship.

The Primary Assembly File has appeared to meet this constant need for new ideas and is a ring-bound continuing series. Each section includes 20 complete scripts, with photocopiable sheets, prayer or thought lines, follow-up suggestions and a CD for background music.

Rather stark line drawings accompany some topics. Themes are random but embrace different religions, national festivals, sport, historyand school-community events, such as moving to a new class. A useful index is provided.

The Secondary File is planned on similar lines, complete with CD and garish pictures, but also a useful six-page introduction on philosophy, by which the compilers mean the rationale of the series.

The educational aims will please many and include "to offer a framework around which people with a religious faith or none can unite with both honesty and integrity" and "to respect the family, cultural or religious background of all members of the school community". Despite this, most of the themes are secular and the treatment of each is subsumed within a sort of secular liturgy in which celebration, acknowledging failures and shortcomings, thankfulness, commitment and action - all strands within the worship of many religions - are translated into a secular common denominator.

Bonhoeffer, for inst-ance, becomes a case study on moral decision-making - his Christianity is peripheral. "Muhammed" (sic) and the Buddha are presented as ethical teachers.

We have an attempt to see into Jesus's mind (page 137), which went out in theology in about 1897, and we are actually told what he was thinking. Jesus is presented as a visionary, but there is no mention of crucifixion or resurrection.

The File will provide many schools with what they want: instant material,thoroughly presented, with an emphasis on the moral rather than the spiritual. But it leaves unanswered questions.

The worry about school worship used to be that it was Christian indoctrination. Perhaps it is time to worry now about secular indoctrination in which the peripheral appearance of religions reduces them to their ethical content. "Inclusive", which is what good collective worship attempts to be and which The File affirms on page 1, is not the same as secular.

David Self's stories, suitable for older primary children, include a wide range of religious material from different faiths with a helpful introduction on the nature and use of story.

He includes as aims to nurture an awareness of the transcendent, of what it is to be religious and to create a feeling of wonder and mystery. After a brief introduction for the reader, each story appears without comment or suggestions.

Alan and Celia Younger write their own linked series of stories that address "social, moral and health concerns". There is no suggestion that they are other than PSE and they could be used in a variety of contexts with older primary children.

They are set in Bradwell, a fictitious town, and address issues such as video nasties, bullying, shoplifting, asthma and children as carers. An introduction summarises each story with brief comments on possible use.

Most teachers will find some helpful ideas in all these collections. But they left me wondering: when will primary collective-worship texts take note that there's more to Hinduism than the inevitable Rama and Sita and the occasional Holi? Why do we seem to be so happy moralising with or at children and so insecure about the spiritual? Have we really thought deeply enough about indoctrination? Or have we simply replaced the humbug of Christian indoctrination with the fudge of a secular one?

Translating the material in these books into the world of their children and avoiding both religious and secular indoctrination will be a challenge for teachers. Mercifully it means that the day of the automated assembly has not yet arrived.

Terence Copley is a senior lecturer in religious education at the University of Exeter

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today