Daily collective worship – why is it still a legal requirement in England?

New research by the BBC indicates that the law requiring a daily act of collective worship in Britain’s state-maintained schools is widely ignored and not wanted.

England is the only country in the western world to enforce participation in daily religious worship in community schools.

Almost two-thirds (64%) of parents told a survey that their children did not attend such an activity and over two thirds (67%) of parents do not support enforcing the law.

A Church of England spokesman pointed out that most primary schools do have collective worship or a daily period of reflection, (but non-daily collective worship, and any reflection without it, falls short of the law). Naturally, the Church of England wants the law to be followed to the letter, although its spokesperson this week said it was not the Church's job — or its desire — to "enforce" the law. Senior clerics played down this draconian law, presumably to deflect calls for its reform. Their implication of it being voluntary is a long way from what the law actually says: that children will "take part in" an act of worship of a mainly Christian character.

The CofE spokesman complained that the poll did not differentiate between primary and secondary schools, yet this can easily be deduced from the data in broad terms. 57% of parents with children aged 5-10 reported no worship, and this was 60% for 11-15s and 63% for 16-18s. We suspect the Church will be surprised and disappointed that the 5-10 figure is not a great deal higher.

Following the release of these findings, National Secular Society Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood called for the law on collective daily worship to be repealed, saying it infringed pupils' human rights. "As the BBC survey confirms, the law requiring daily collective worship is being widely flouted, which shows that it is time for it to be reviewed – and, in this case, repealed," he said.

"England is the only country in the western world to enforce participation in daily worship in community schools. To do so goes beyond the legitimate function of the state and is an abuse of children's human rights, especially those who are old enough to make decisions for themselves."

The NSS was prominent in the public debates that followed the release of the poll and took part in over a dozen radio and TV shows making the point that collective worship was an abuse of children's human rights, it was divisive in the sense that some children from minority religions were exempted from the morning school assembly because of the specifically Christian nature of the worship. The NSS also pointed out that there were fewer teachers who were willing or able to conduct religious worship because, like the majority of other people in this country, they aren't religious themselves.

Terry Sanderson, President of the NSS, said: "Collective worship is an unjustifiable imposition on schools. The BBC poll confirms what previous research has found – that schools just don't want to provide collective worship and pupils don't want to take part in it. It is amazing how the religious proselytisers who have got such a stranglehold on the education system can bully the Government into retaining it against all the evidence."

At the request of the NSS, supporters in the House of Lords had already put down amendments to the Education Bill currently going through parliament calling for collective worship to become an entirely optional activity in community schools. It led to an excellent debate. We have already reported that Lord Avebury and NSS staff followed this up with a meeting with senior staff at the Department for Education. We will be raising the issue vigorously again at the next stage in Parliament.

A closer look at the poll revealed some interesting additional material. The desire to enforce daily worship moves in step with social status/"grade", with the highest desire in the D and E social grades. Non-parents are keener too (and are presumably on average older). Men were less keen but not by a great margin: 34% v. 38% for women. Only 25% and 30% of 18s to 44s (just 30% of all parents) wanted it enforced, with older people being much keener (just over half the over 65s). This age split is shown even more starkly with 51% of those aged 65 or over believing it should be enforced, but only 29% of 18- to 24-year-olds. And the young show the trend for the future.

Those in the south east were keenest on worship (40% of them), yet (as shown below) the least likely to get it. The South West andMidlandswere nearly as keen. TheNorth Westand North East (34% and 33%) were least keen.

The prevalence of worship also varies widely by region. Extraordinarily, London (38%) is an enclave in the rest of the South East (17%). Next lowest is the North East at 19%.

The survey threw up some curious variations without obvious explanations. While 32% of fathers thought that their child(ren) attended worship, only 25% of mothers did. 37% of those on social grades D and E reported their children to be receiving worship, yet only 18% of those on the adjacent grade, C2.

The BBC poll prepared by ComRes (pdf)

See also: Church of England grabs another community school