Give us our daily worship?

14th August 1998 at 01:00
School assemblies have lost none of their power to capture the headlines, as this year's National Association of Head Teachers' conference illustrated. Quite right too, says John Hall , the Church of England's education spokesman. Collective worship and spiritual growth are fundamental and inextricable. Schools need their daily acts of worship to help foster the spiritual development at the heart of their work. They also need more flexibility than at present. But the law itself requires no alteration, he says.

Liz Paver , a member of the Church's General Synod and a recent president of the National Association of Head Teachers, also believes that worship is important. Unfortunately the law is an ass, she says. Impractical, discredite d and at times divisive, it is giving worship a bad name. It should be changed for the good of everyone.


SPIRITUAL development lies at the heart of our school system. It was expressed first amongst the aims of school education, in the 1944 Education Act and again in the Education Reform Act 1988. Lord Dearing has said that it includes "a sense of wonder; a sense of awe, beauty, respect for one's fellow human beings, and appreciation of courage".

I would add that it includes respect for ourselves and a grappling with questions of meaning and purpose for our own and other people's lives,the universe and everything. These are religious questions for which we all find some kind of answer. The majority of people in our society find an answer in terms of belief in God.

Where spiritual development is seen to be an effective part of the school's work, most of the evidence is found in the school's acts of worship. This is not surprising. Spiritual development should be part of the underpinning of every aspect of the school curriculum but it is most clearly focused in the act of worship. The Archbishop of Canterbury said recently: "Schools cannot require children to worship but they can and should create a context day by day in which children can experience the language and attitude of worship, can learn to worship and so learn their own infinite worth." In the context of worship, pupils' spiritual development can actually take place.

Unfortunately, not all schools take full advantage. Most secondaries, unlike their primary counterparts, are still failing to promote their pupils' spiritual development. The Office for Standards in Education's recent review of secondaries showed that the provision for pupils' spiritual development was unsatisfactory or poor in 55 per cent of schools and good or very good in only 24 per cent. Contrast pupils' spiritual development with their moral development, where 80 per cent of schools were judged very good or good and only 3 per cent unsatisfactory or poor.

However, the overwhelming majority of primaries provide a good experience of worship, which many pupils enjoy. In secondary schools, even where the daily requirement for all pupils is not fully met, there are often good examples of worship - proving that it can be done.

A wide variety of approaches and content can shelter under the canopy of worship. Consider the variety of worship in the Christian churches. The member of the Society of Friends is engaged in worship when she waits with others quietly on the Lord. The family and friends of the baby are engaged in worship when they gather at the font for a baptism.

The law as it stands is not unduly restrictive, despite the claims of its many critics. Under the 1988 Education Act, all pupils should take part in an act of worship "wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character" in some appropriate grouping at some point in the day - unless they have been withdrawn from worship by their parents.

The School Standards and Framework Act 1998, restating the 1988 wording, defines "broadly Christian" to mean "without being distinctive of any particular Christian denomination". Nor must every act of collective worship be Christian provided that "taking any school term as a whole", most are.

The problems come not with the law itself, but with the comparatively narrow interpretation of the law contained in a circular from the previous government (Circular 194). This attempts to pin down the exact proportion of Christianity required in an unhelpful way.

The definition of worship in this circular and in guidance to inspectors should be reviewed to allow a wider statement of what constitutes worship. Then, teachers should be enabled to learn from the many examples of good practice in worship and to think again about pupils' entitlement to that educational experience.

Canon John Hall is general secretary of the Church of England Board of Education and of the National Society for Promoting Religious Education


IT IS A great sadness to me that the National Association of Head Teachers and the Church of England have been drawn into such a stark conflict over the current legislation which demands a compulsory daily act of collective worship in schools. I am convinced that that they both aspire to the same goal, that of giving all pupils the opportunity to develop into self-respecting adults who live by a code of moral and ethical values, recognising a spiritual dimension in their lives.

For years the NAHT, which represents more than 30,000 heads and deputies, has received pleas from its members that something be done about an act which makes them lawbreakers. We have rehearsed, ad infinitum, the arguments around the physical difficulties in gathering large numbers of pupils together for this daily act.

There is also the inappropriateness of heads being required to lead worship, an act that they would always wish to be a meaningful and quality experience for their pupils, on a daily basis - an issue now highlighted by the inspectors.

May I remind those who would champion this position from within the Church of England to consider the requirements placed upon their own trained clergy?

A daily act of worship with all on the electoral roll the parish? No! Regular inspection of the worship in their churches with reports published and commented upon locally and nationally? No!

How long does it take the average priest to prepare for a weekly act of worship with a congregation who have chosen to attend and are already willing participants in a religious life? Imagine having to achieve that each day. It is the daily act which risks making the whole experience counter-productive.

Those who are not Christian quite rightly maintain that they are not in a position to lead worship. Even they know that they cannot compel anyone to worship.

We must endorse and support well-resourced broad and balanced religious education which gives opportunities for all pupils to explore what it is to have faith. Pupils should be given the opportunity to experience quality worship with which they can engage.

The "march in, sing, pray, listen, march out" experience will only trivialise worship in our young people's eyes and comes nowhere near what many of us know worship can and should be.

Despite a great deal of consensus it seems there is considerable fear on the part of the Church of England that any change in the law would have disastrous consequences for schools. I would like to ask Canon John Hall and the Church of England Board of Education to think again. Please do not paint us into a corner.

The NAHT would accept that in church schools, worship should be the backbone of life and work, for they form an intrinsic part of the body of Christ in this country. But many heads of church schools would argue that a daily act of collective worship has no place in county schools.

The NAHT will continue its campaign to support heads as they lead their schools - schools still acknowledged to be the most values-driven and moral institutions in our land.

The ethos of the majority of schools is not founded upon or sustained by a daily act of collective worship but upon the commitment and example of hard--working teachers who live and work by well defined moral codes and values.

Let us support our schools and not make it even more difficult to recruit the next generation of teachers and heads.

Liz Paver is the immediate past president of the NAHT and head of Intake primary school, Doncaster

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