Daily worship in schools should end, according to teachers and education experts who have branded the legal requirement “archaic” now that England is not predominantly Christian.
The 2021 census revealed last week that for the first time fewer than half the population in England and Wales described themselves as Christian, while 37% said they had “no religion”.
Currently, all state schools are legally required to provide an act of “collective worship” that is “broadly Christian” every day. Many heads admit privately they no longer stick to this, preferring to run less religious assemblies more relevant to their diverse student bodies.
But Nick Gibb, the schools minister, confirmed last year that his department would investigate any alleged breach of this requirement. Prof Russell Sandberg, an expert on law and religion at Cardiff University, said: “The legal framework is stuck in the 1940s. The census underlines that requiring a daily act of worship is utterly archaic and discriminatory.”
Nikki McGee, lead teacher on religious education for the Inspiration trust, which runs 18 schools in Norfolk, said: “The collective worship is pretty much meaningless in schools that are not faith based. The census results show it is archaic.”
Mark Shepstone, assistant head at Bungay high school in Suffolk, said the requirement for collective worship is “simply ignored” in a lot of schools, and called for the government to drop it completely following the census results. “In the schools I have worked in since 2007, there’s never been a daily act of collective worship,” he said. “We still do assemblies and they will often have a moral message, but they aren’t daily.”
He added that he could count on one hand the number of Christian assemblies he had seen in 15 years.
The head of a secondary school in the south-west, who asked not to be named, said most school leaders of non-faith schools fudged the law when planning assemblies. “We all dance around it, but in truth it’s not collective worship. It’s more like group pastoral messaging.”
The law on collective worship was passed in 1944, along with a requirement for all students to study religious education. Parents and sixth formers can now opt out of these, but many education experts say it is time for the government to rethink all its policies on religion in schools.
Sandberg called the census “a wake-up call” for ministers. “There is a squeamishness in Westminster about discussing it because of the historical power of religion,” he said “But the law breaches children’s human rights because they have no choice.”
He said that, because more than a third of schools are faith based, with religious schools especially prevalent at primary level, many children will be having a Christian education that they wouldn’t choose.
“If your local school is faith based, the religious ethos pervades everything and you can’t opt out,” he added.
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said there are no plans to review this law. She said: “Collective worship encourages pupils to reflect on the concept of belief and the role it plays in society. Schools are able to tailor their provision to suit their pupils’ needs.”