Good God, will the role of Jesus be downplayed?

9th November 2012 at 00:00
Schools no longer need to focus on Him in collective worship

Teachers no longer have to "accord special status to Jesus Christ" in the acts of collective worship they are obliged to conduct after the government last week withdrew key guidance on religious observance in schools.

All community schools are required to hold daily acts of worship that are "wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character", according to current laws. But controversial guidance on how that should be interpreted - which gave prominence to Jesus Christ - can now be ignored by schools, it has emerged.

The move has raised concerns among some religious groups, including the Church of England, that the role of Jesus could be downplayed by schools.

But the decision was taken by the Department for Education after lobbying by other religious education groups, which feared that the guidance on collective worship was "outdated" and acted as a barrier to good practice.

The National Association of Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education (Nasacre), which represents the bodies determining RE in schools locally and which campaigned for the change, said it was a "significant shift". New freedoms will allow schools to interpret the law on collective worship as they see fit and better respond to the needs of pupils of different faiths, it said.

"There was a feeling for many practising in schools that the guidance was restricting their flexibility to respond to the diversity of their pupils," said Bruce Gill, chair of Nasacre. "People felt shackled by this document."

Nasacre - along with the Association of Religious Education Inspectors, Advisers and Consultants (Areiac) - have published a paper telling members across the country that they can ignore the previous guidance, so-called Circular 194.

It says that schools need to make "an imaginative interpretation" of the rules governing collective worship, which no longer need to focus on Jesus. It argues that this could amount to schools doing little more than talking about Christian values such as "love thy neighbour".

But the move has generated a hostile reaction in some quarters. Andy Yarrow, head of Chelsea Academy, a joint Church of England and local authority school, said that it was impossible to separate Jesus from Christianity, and that schools should not shy away from mentioning Christ.

"You can't separate Christianity from Christ. It's like saying 'I'm a Darwinist but I'm not going to talk about Darwin'," said Mr Yarrow. "Without Christ, Christianity loses its distinctiveness."

He said that many other religions recognised Christ as an important figure and that knowledge of the Bible was vital for understanding modern society. "We don't shy away from Christ, but it's important that it's not done in a way that's putting undue pressure on pupils," he said.

A spokeswoman for the Church of England said that the previous guidance had been "effectively interpreted by church and community schools for pupils of all faiths and none". "Given that the central figure in Christian belief and practice is Jesus Christ we would expect all schools to include in their collective worship programme stories of his life and work and impact," she added.

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, chair of the Accord Coalition, which campaigns for the reform of current collective worship laws in schools, said that dispensing with Circular 194 was an "important moment" but urged the government to go further.

"The continuing legal requirement that schools provide daily worship... still prevents schools from providing an inspiring programme of assemblies that are truly respectful and genuinely inclusive of all staff and children," he said.

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