Pray, should we keep this law for ever and ever? Amen

10th December 2010 at 00:00
Analysis: State schools are legally obliged to carry out a daily act of collective worship of broadly Christian character. Supporters claim it makes an important contribution to a school's ethos, but with the launch of a campaign to end the much-flouted requirement, should it go? Here, leading figures give their views

REV JANINA AINSWORTH, Chief education officer, Church of England

The CoE strongly supports the requirement for collective worship. There is plenty of flexibility in the provision to enable all pupils to benefit without compromising their faith or lack of it.

Collective worship makes a major contribution to pupils' personal development. Through their involvement in planning and delivering worship, engaging with external speakers and discussion as a whole-school community, understanding of spiritual and moral issues can be extended and enriched.

The unique contribution of worship is to involve pupils in a shared experience of reflection and silence, singing and story framed with reference to Christianity and a variety of other religious traditions.

It is part of the religious education of every child, whatever their family tradition, to think about God and other religious ideas. There is no expectation of commitment and the exposure to the range of religious traditions encourages community cohesion.

It is a parent's right to withdraw their child from worship, and the very few who take up that right demonstrates that schools have found exciting and creative ways of using collective worship to further children's spiritual and moral development.

BRIAN LIGHTMAN, General secretary, Association of School and College Leaders

ASCL is strongly in favour of school assemblies. Most heads find them really worthwhile and important for establishing the ethos of the school and communicating that to students as well as dealing with spiritual, moral, social and cultural issues.

School leaders will not want to lose the strong tradition of school assemblies. Our problem is with the current law, which requires every school to have an act of collective worship every day which is broadly Christian. That presents enormous difficulties - halls are not always available and it causes disruption to the timetable.

Many schools get around this by holding collective worship in tutor time, but you can't expect every teacher to be willing to carry out this personal job.

The law doesn't work, but that doesn't mean we want to abolish assemblies and lose our cultural heritage.

We want schools to be able to decide for themselves when they hold collective worship. A really good assembly twice a week is preferable to a poor-quality one held every day. What's important is that there is a shared experience, but we can't see why there needs to be a law which is prescriptive about where and when this takes place.

DR INDARJIT SINGH, Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations

We would like to see collective worship continue, but with due respect to other faiths. Sikh schools have daily workship, but this reflects the beliefs of other religions.

But it is important to recognise the majority of children are Christians, and that's the important religion in this country.

A daily act of worship brings the school together, it gives pupils a sense of perspective in their daily lives. It stops everyone carrying on with what they are doing in their little cubby holes and gives them a wider look at life. It's a very strong part of school life and it should be uplifting for everyone involved.

Perhaps the law could be widened so that schools are asked to hold a daily act of common reflection and take account of other religions and humanist views. It's very important that teachers use the time to emphasise the common elements of all religions - anything else causes division. This will break down barriers.

ANDREW COPSON, Chief executive, British Humanist Association

Good, inclusive school assemblies of a moral and reflective nature, which can bring the school community together to celebrate shared values, news and achievements are a proven success in maintaining a supportive and cohesive school community.

Many schools do this well and their pupils and staff benefit greatly from it. They are all breaking the law. The law requires daily acts of collective worship which should be wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character.

The continued existence of this prescriptive, coercive, educationally bankrupt and religiously chauvinist law is an affront not only to the rights of children to freedom of conscience but to the whole concept of a plural and democratic society.

It is the outdated product of a more homogenous society of six decades ago, less respectful of dissent and conscience that a liberal society of the 21st century, where all people - not just Christians - should be free to express and live by their beliefs.

FATHER TIM GARDNER, RE adviser, Catholic Education Service

The Catholic Church supports the continuation of collective worship in all schools. There are people of faith in all schools, not just those which are religious.

It's important to distinguish between collective worship and corporate worship - which is the worship of a shared common belief. Collective worship is not in any sense forcing people to adopt a creedal position which is not acceptable to them.

People of all faiths are happy to see children get regular access to worship in schools, even when it is not their religion. Parents would be very upset if religion was belittled.

Collective worship enriches the experiences of all pupils. It offers an opportunity for reflection which is not found on the academic timetable. It offers space in the day to support children's spiritual and moral development and leaves them able to look beyond the here and now.

It contributes to a sense of community and makes a school more cohesive. It recognises children's differences and celebrates them - as well as pupils' achievements.

We would like to see better-quality acts of collective worship, and more thought put into planning them. Pupils should be more involved - in no way should it just involve them listening to a pious talk. It should be something active.

AMJAD AHMED, Chairman, Association of Muslim Schools

There should be legal provision for collective worship. It should not be up to individual schools.

The law is already flexible. If parents want to withdraw from collective worship, they can. And if schools want to do this, they can apply for exemption from their local Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education. Many in my home city of Birmingham have done this.

I can't understand those who say it's not fair for children to withdraw from collective worship. In my experience it's not that difficult. Schools have a duty to provide an alternative for those children and that system is working fine. If that is not happening then parents should be asking questions.

Collective worship has a real role to play in schools. It reinforces values learnt in the home. The law is fair and we shouldn't meddle with it.

KEITH PORTEOUS WOOD, Executive director, National Secular Society

Despite a National Centre for Social Research study showing that two-thirds of 12 to 19-year-olds did not regard themselves as belonging to any religion, the law still requires (captive) pupils to "take part in" worship. This is neither a legitimate objective of the state nor is it human rights compatible.

Worship is counter-cohesive in multicultural areas, where cohesion is needed most. Rather than emphasise that which most divides us, far better surely to have a secular assembly where those of all faiths and none can participate and be valued equally.

The law allows other faith worship. Why not a secular assembly concentrating on our common humanity?

Many teachers also regard worship as an unreasonable imposition; they should not be required to conduct or observe it.

That is why we have called on the Government to demonstrate that it champions choice and (a) repeal the demeaning requirement to "take part in" worship, (b) allow a majority of a school's parents to decide whether they want worship or not, and (c) to follow Parliament's human rights committee's recommendation to make withdrawal from worship exercisable "by pupils who are old enough to make informed decisions for themselves".

Compiled by Kerra Maddern.

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