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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Education Bill: Peers oppose proposals to make worship optional in schools

Peers in the House of Lords this week rejected moves to make collective worship in schools optional, rather than compulsory.

The law in England and Wales states that children at all publicly-funded schools “shall on each school day take part in an act of collective worship”.

One of the proposed amendments to the Education Bill would have given community schools the freedom to decide for themselves whether or not to hold acts of religious worship. A second amendment would have given pupils the right to withdraw themselves from worship. A further amendment would have allowed pupils aged 15 or older to withdraw themselves, building on the NSS success in 2006 in introducing sixth form pupils’ self-withdrawal.

The amendments were moved by NSS Honorary Associate Lord Avebury during the Report Stage of the Bill on Monday. He said: “It is time for the long-standing tradition which no longer reflects the beliefs of more than a tiny fraction of the people to be jettisoned”.

Speaking in the Chamber, Lord Avebury set out a list of reasons why requiring schools to conduct a daily act of religious worship is no longer appropriate. Not least of these were numerous references to the high rate of schools’ non-compliance with the law, showing it to be unenforceable and unpopular. Ahead of the debate, the NSS sent extensive evidence to the Education Minister at the request of the Department for Education. England and Wales are alone among Western democracies in requiring such enforced worship in community schools. The Joint (Parliamentary) Human Rights Committee endorses the proposal to bring down the age of self -withdrawal.

Speaking on behalf of the Government, Lord Hill of Oareford made it clear that the Government did not support the amendments. He said “Our starting point is that the requirement is long-standing. It is difficult to dissociate that from the history of the country and the role that the Church has played over a long period in individual schools and also collectively in society. A full account of the debate can be read here.

Stephen Evans, Campaigns Manager at the National Secular Society said “It is disappointing to hear the Government repeat the same old tired justifications for insisting on a daily act of Christian worship.

“The amendments were pragmatically drafted not to argue for an end to all worship in schools but simply to allow schools the freedom to choose for themselves whether hold it. It is perhaps an indication of the influence wielded by the Church of England that the Government wasn’t willing or able to make even the smallest concession, in the face of such reasonable amendments.

“The law requiring worship will eventually change; it is just a question of when. It is important that people make their views known to their MPs as it will clearly take a massive groundswell of public opinion to give the Government the backbone to stand up to the Church on this issue”

Sex and relationship education

Also this week, during Wednesday’s Education Bill debate NSS honorary associate Baroness Massey of Darwen issued a strong rebuke to the Christian Institute over their deceitful campaign against her amendment to ensure that the chief inspector of schools reports on the delivery of personal, social and health education including sex and relationship education.

Speaking during the debate, the Baroness said: “My amendment is about well-being and protecting children. The public have been fed dangerously misleading information. Never in the time that it has been my honour to serve in your Lordships' House have I known such a sinister and vicious campaign, which has sought to misinform others.”

Baroness Walmsley, who also put her name to the amendment, told the chamber, “we have a so-called Christian organisation telling lies and being both uncharitable and cruel.”

The amendment was not supported by the Government, who are seeking to make inspections less prescriptive and more focused, and was withdrawn.

A further amendment from NSS Honorary Associate Baroness Flather to re-introduce the duty for the Inspector to report on schools’ contribution to community cohesion went to the vote but was narrowly defeated.


Also see: Community school saved from closure by gaining academy status

You can read our full account of Monday’s collective worship debate here

You can read the full Hansard transcript of Monday’s debate here

Our collective worship briefing can be read here

You can read the full Hansard transcript of Wednesday’s debate here

Published Fri, 28 Oct 2011