Hearts and minds

16th February 1996 at 00:00
COLLECTIVE WORSHIP IN SCHOOLS. By Derek Webster. Kenelm Press Pounds 5. 50.

MOMENTS OF REFLECTION. By Jean Howarth and Mike Walton Heinemenn Pounds 14.99 TIME TO THINK. By Maureen Harrison Collins Pounds 39.95 Age range 11-16

Michael Duffy reviews books which offer a rationale for collective worship

The law requires daily collective worship in our schools, specifying with striking imprecision that it should be "wholly or mainly . . . broadly Christian". OFSTED inspectors regularly report that the law is being broken. "All that is required", simplistic politicians say, "is a hymn, a reading and a prayer".

Unfortunately, that's just not true. It's very difficult indeed in schools to address the paradoxes of compulsory worship among young people who are beset with uncertainty and bombarded with conflicting values. One of the strengths of Derek Webster's excellent Collective Worship in Schools, poorly printed though it is, is that it recognises this and guides thinking schools towards an honest resolution of their dilemma.

It does this, not by providing a menu of "assemblies" - which is not its purpose - but by offering a rationale for collective worship that meets not only the requirements of the law (relatively unimportant, it suggests) but also (very important indeed) the needs of pupils.

It shows how religious, multi-faith and secular approaches can be combined into a form of provision that may, on occasion, open children's hearts and minds to a sense of spiritual realities that lie at the core of our common humanity. If you can build that ambition into your collective worship policy, he suggests, every worthwhile teacher will want to join you.

Given the physical restrictions within which secondary schools operate, that is a powerful consideration. Most schools can't begin to provide daily whole-school or even year group acts of worship, and have to fall back on what form tutors can offer.

Many teachers, of different faiths or none, will be involved, and they need both a rationale for what they are doing and resources to support them.

The two collections here, each of which stem from good practice in good, committed schools, offer a year's worth of material: 40 themes, arranged for three or four daily five-minute sessions with a single year group (in the case of Time to Think) or (for Moments of Reflection) for all groups in Years 7 to 11.

As their titles indicate, the emphasis is on worship as reflection: significantly, both of them insist, with Webster, that stillness and silence are an essential part of collective worship, just as they are of collective learning.

Both of them also, echoing Webster's comment that the spiritual dimension of life is as old as Odysseus and the sirens' song, make full use of story - though here Maureen Harrison's collection, with greater space and an A4 photocopiable format, has the edge in detail.

Inevitably, many of the themes and sources are familiar: both volumes make good use of previous collections (notably those by Anthony de Mello) and draw extensively on the insights and rituals of different religious traditions.

The choice of themes is wide, and includes the major Christian and non-Christian festivals and most of the challenges of personal and social morality. At this length, they are seldom if ever "boring". I was pleased to see that "laughter" figured in Moments of Reflection, with contributions of course from Rabbi Lionel Blue, and that the striking symbolism of salt was explored in Time to Think.

Derek Webster comments fairly that anthologies of worship "promise a good deal but usually disappoint". These collections, though, are something more than that, in that each of them contains and is built upon the conviction that structured reflection on the moral and spiritual realities of life is important for children. Call it philosophy if you like, or just your school policy on collective worship. Either way, it's likely to be an improvement on the old formalities of the reading, the hymn and the prayer.

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