Five saints, four kings, a knight and a bishop

3rd February 1995 at 00:00
Michael Duffy finds that even among OFSTED's 'improving' schools, the law on compulsory worship is being broken.

This week's list from the Office for Standards in Education of "improving schools" makes interesting if ambiguous reading. All of them, we are told, received "very positive" reports. Some schools will quibble. Where schools start from is important too, and there is a suggestion of affluence and continuity about the names and location of some schools on the list. With five saints, four kings, a knight and a bishop in their number, they are not exactly a cross-section of public secondary education.

They do constitute, however, a sort of official commendation, and for that we should be grateful. "These schools have particular strengths," the Chief Inspector said, "and I want publicly to recognise their success." It is a fair assumption, then, that collectively they represent something close to OFSTED's vision of good practice, for the rest to emulate. I decided to test this assumption in an area that in one school we found particularly problematic.

I had been reading Sir Rhodes Boyson's slender autobiography Speaking My Mind and had been struck by his comments on assemblies - essential, he says, to give a school "unity and to show staff and pupils that 100 per cent discipline is possible". His approach was characteristically forthright: "I took the senior assembly, standing on a gymnasium buck, and my deputy took the junior assembly. Two teachers played the piano and we sang number one hymn. We worshipped the one God, and I explained when we prayed that pupils could open or close their eyes according to the habits of their faith. I had not allowed at this stage for the small minority who prostrated themselves and knocked their neighbours over. I decided that the one God would not like anyone injured in prayer, and all were to remain standing."

Brisk, no-nonsense stuff. But how, I wondered, did the schools on the OFSTED list tackle the compulsory daily act of worship, "wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character", that Sir Rhodes and his parliamentary colleagues wrote so firmly into the 1988 and 1992 Education Acts? I contacted each on the list and asked for a copy of those sections of their inspection report that dealt with assemblies, compulsory worship and the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of their pupils.

There are 52 schools on the list. Except that the South and South-west and the North-east are thinly represented (three citations each), the geographical spread is wide. Thirty-three of the schools are LEA-maintained, 12 are grant-maintained, and seven are voluntary-aided. All but one of the maintained schools replied immediately to my request, as did nine of the GM schools. Two others apologised: they were in the middle of an emergency evacuation because of heavy snow. Among the voluntary-aided schools - possibly more sensitive to what was said in their reports about compulsory worship and religious education - four of the seven replied with the information that I needed. The total response, therefore, was 45 schools - 86 per cent of the OFSTED list.

The picture that emerged was stark but not surprising. All but five of the responding schools - all of them, presumably, models of good practice - were reported by OFSTED to be in breach of the statutory requirement for a daily act of collective worship for all their pupils. In one further case - a large Church of England school - there was a direct clash of evidence between the section 13 diocesan report ("The school ensures that all pupils . . . receive (sic) a daily Act of Worship") and the OFSTED summary, which said, "During the week of the inspection, not all pupils participated in an act of collective worship every day. This was especially true of the sixth form." Only four schools - a GM voluntary-aided comprehensive with cathedral and choir school links, a voluntary-aided convent school, an 11-16 voluntary-aided Roman Catholic school and a voluntary controlled 11-18 suburban comprehensive - were keeping to the letter of the law.

In itself, that is fairly striking. Good legislation needs to reflect what can be done as well as what ought to be done, and a law that the virtuous cannot obey is just bad law. There is certainly ample evidence in the pages sent to me of virtuous intention. Universally, assemblies were seen as the front line of provision - but effective assemblies (pace Sir Rhodes) need time and space, neither of which respondent schools possessed in sufficient measure. Halls (where they exist: at least one school on this list has none) were always utilised; so were gymnasia ("except for the 12 weeks of the examination seasons.") After that, most schools fell back optimistically on provision for house or tutor groups in registration or tutorial time. This provision was - except in the case of the convent school identified above -almost universally found wanting. At best it was "variable", at worst, "unsatisfactory". In one instance, a Thought for the Day was "pinned to the notice board, so the pupils could reflect upon it".

Yet this last school was highly praised for the quality of its provision for its pupils. "Through the pastoral system, religious education, assemblies and personal and social education the school expresses its Christian background and provides opportunities for pupils to reflect and apply Christian teaching to their own spiritual and moral development."

The paradox is far from accidental. Over and over again in the pages of these reports, the quality of assemblies that fail to meet the letter of the law is singled out for careful comment. "Assemblies take place twice a week and are stimulating and effective contributions to pupils' spiritual, moral and cultural development." "Some assemblies do provide a powerful vehicle for the act of worship." "Whole school assemblies are well supported by the staff and are used to promote the values of the school." "Assemblies provide a sense of occasion and encourage pupils to reflect on moral issues." "Care is taken to create an atmosphere conducive to worship and reflection." "Assemblies make an important contribution to the ethos of the school."

There is ample evidence of that in the reports that I received. There is evidence, too, of what all of these schools clearly have in common: a clear and effective concern for the ethos that they create and the values that they share. A typical comment, repeated in slightly different words in 20 inspectorial reports, reads: "The school is a moral community. There is a positive code of conduct, constructive and supportive attitudes and good behaviour . . . and a general respect for . . . others. Pupils are developing a reasoned set of values . . . Relationships are open and honest ." And then the caveat: "The legal requirements in relation to a collective act of worship are not being met."

Does that matter? No, most governors and heads would say: not unless the pressure to conform to the letter of the law reaches the point where we begin to sacrifice the quality of what we have achieved within its spirit; not unless the rituals of compulsion begin to erode the openness and honesty that moral and spiritual development presupposes.

The trouble is that openness and honesty do not feature largely in the Boyson assembly view, nor indeed in that of his fellow Black Paper writer Arthur Pollard. Pollard, like Sir Rhodes, has no time for "moral uplift". "All that is needed," he wrote in last week's Education, "is a hymn, a reading and a prayer. An appropriate brief address would be, of course, a bonus."

That, of course, is where we came from - there is not much evidence that it did us any good. What evidence there is, is in this list of schools - and it points the other way. What these schools are saying (and if you read the reports themselves there is a strong suggestion that the inspectors share their view) is that adherence to the letter of the law would damage their achievement. That is an interesting and sobering conclusion. Meanwhile, even in the positive and improving schools, the law is being broken. That makes neither educational nor moral nor religious sense. What Action Plan does the Government propose?

Michael Duffy is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Morpeth - one of the schools on Ofsted's list.

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