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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Proposals to make worship optional in schools rejected by Peers

Peers in the House of Lords have 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 amendments 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, where it is conducted by the school. A further amendment would have allowed 15 year old or older pupils 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 Report Stage of the Education Bill. Moving the amendments, Lord Avebury 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 formidable 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, copious evidence of this was sent to the Education Minister by the NSS, 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.

Lord Avebury said: “By all means continue the valuable tradition that assembly is a time for considering the moral and ethical values of our civilisation. [...] Let us do that in a way that is itself inclusive and not one that requires children and teachers to participate in behaviour that excludes many of them at the beginning of the school day.”

Speaking in support of the amendments, Baroness Turner (another NSS honorary associate) said: “The law as it stands is the legacy of a society unrecognisable from the pluralistic Britain today where citizens hold a wide variety of religious beliefs—including no religious belief. This Bill presents an opportunity to reform an outdated and overly prescriptive law. The amendments, which I think are reasonable and moderate, are intended to offer greater freedom and choice in regard to worship in schools.”

Opposing the amendments, Baroness Trumpington suggested “it did not matter if pupils were bored, did not like going to chapel or were not interested in religious matters at the age of 15, 16 or perhaps even 17. That daily event gave each pupil a background to which they could return in later life. It was very important to have.”

Also opposing the amendments was The Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds. He said “We do not want to marginalise worship or spirituality within the life of our schools. [...] When the nation faces a time of crisis or indeed of joy and delight, it tends to do so in terms of prayer. Children need to know what prayer is about, and one of the best ways for that to happen is through the worship that takes place in both church schools and community schools.”

In a reminder of why disestablishment remains a key NSS objective, Baroness Butler-Sloss saidIt is important that we all remember that the Church of England is the established church of this country. That is why we have the Prayers that we have every day [in Parliament]. It is appropriate that that should be recognised in schools.”

The Lord Bishop of Chester suggested the amendments were “tarred with secularist intent.” He did however concede that there is a case for a “cool, considered look at the provisions of collective worship.” He said: “The amendments push too quickly in a particular direction. There is a case for a proper review and full consultation in due course. However, let us not be misled. Collective worship is exactly that: worship appropriate to the collection of people who are present.”

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.

“The Government believe that the experience of collective worship makes a contribution to the spiritual and moral development of young people, not just for those who attend religious schools.”

Lord Hill made reference to the British Household Survey of 2010 and said “more than 70 per cent of people said that their religion was Christian, and we think it right, therefore, that these values should underpin the ethos of our schools.”

Lord Avebury suggested that the Minister, who had completely ignored the evidence, was simply doing as he was told. He urged the Minister to “seek the views of teachers, parents and pupils” and to come back with amendments of his own at Third Reading if he found arguments to reform worship were endorsed by those who are being forced to take part in rituals they do not agree with.

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, simply to allow schools that wish not to hold worship the freedom to choose for themselves. It is perhaps an indication of the influence wielded by the Church of England that the Government weren’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 know 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”

Precise numbers for the vote are not available as the division was voided after three minutes because of a procedural error, but while those supporting Lord Avebury would not have won, there was a gratifying number of supporters in his lobby.

Read the debate in full at Hansard

Read Our collective worship campaign briefing

Using the arguments in the briefing, please contact your MP to express your objections to compulsory worship in schools.

Published Tue, 25 Oct 2011