Why things look bright and beautiful for daily worship

5th May 2006 at 01:00
Britain may be a more godless nation than ever but in our school assemblies there are clear signs of a religious renaissance. Graeme Paton reports

The number of schools holding a daily act of collective Christian worship has hit a 10-year high, new figures reveal.

In the early 1990s just 10 per cent of secondaries and 80 per cent of primaries were providing daily worship for their pupils - usually in an all-school assembly. But new figures from Ofsted show that in the last academic year more than 98 per cent of primaries held a Christian assembly every day.

Ofsted said that out of 1,838 primaries inspected, only 1.9 per cent failed to comply with the law on collective worship, compared to 3.7 per cent a year earlier.

Ofsted said fewer secondary schools offer daily religious worship, although again the proportion has grown in recent years. In 200405, 466 secondaries were inspected and 17 per cent held broadly Christian assemblies each day, compared to just 13 per cent a year earlier.

Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said: "There is huge pressure on schools from the Government and Ofsted to comply with an outdated and meaningless law.

"It is outrageous that pupils - many of whom say they have no faith - are force-fed religion and have no right to opt out. It is an abuse of their human rights."

The rise comes despite a continuing decline in church attendance across the UK and growing numbers of people describing themselves as agnostic or atheist.

But churches this week welcomed the figures, saying they reflected a growing acceptance of faith in the state sector - reinforced by more pupils taking a GCSE in religious education and the growing number of government-funded faith schools.

The new statistics come as the Churches' joint education policy committee, which represents the mainstream Christian churches, prepares to release a statement calling on the Government to strengthen the law on collective worship. At the moment, all schools are legally obliged to hold "broadly Christian" worship every day, although there are few sanctions for schools failing to do so. The churches are expected to call for better implementation of the law, coupled with a review of the Department for Education and Skills guidance on worship and better training for teachers expected to lead religious assemblies or tutor groups.

Sarah Lane, education officer for Churches Together in England, said: "We are concerned about a law that people choose to ignore. We feel that there is educational and spiritual benefit to pupils by having a daily act of collective worship and it is important that this requirement is better implemented."

Canon John Hall, chief education officer for the Church of England, said:

"The profile of religion has been raised in recent years and there is an acceptance of the important part it has to play in school life. This is reflected in the massive growth in the proportion of pupils taking RE as a GCSE subject."

Religious studies was the fastest growing A-level last year and the number of pupils choosing to take a full GCSE in the subject jumped by 6,500, to 147,000.

At Canon Slade school, an Anglican comprehensive in Bolton, daily worship plays a major role, with year groups spending a morning a week at an assembly in the chapel, one morning in the school hall and three mornings with their tutor group.

Acting head the Reverend Craig Watson, who is also a local parish priest, said: "Collective worship is something we take very seriously. It provides a context for youngsters to think about the big things in life. Often questions we deal with at school are small and focused, but it is important that young people get to think about things like: 'Why am I here?'."

Secular groups this week said that the increase in worship reflected the growing influence of churches on the Government. Since Labour came to power in 1997, there have been 112 applications by faith organisations to take over community schools and 103 - nine out of 10 - were supported.

Two years ago, Charles Clarke, then education secretary, said that he would consider scrapping the 60-year-old law on worship. A paper circulated to faith representatives asked if schools should still be required to hold an act of worship daily, although no change materialised.

Heads said this week that, although the proportion of secondaries offering religious assemblies had increased, numbers remain small and they called for the law to be relaxed.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "The concept of collective Christian worship is a nonsense and makes an ass of the law - it should have been changed long ago."

A forecast last year by Christian Research, which reports on the state of Christianity every two years, said as little as 2 per cent of Britain's population may attend church by 2040.

Letters 26

* graeme.paton@tes.co.uk

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