Aim of the bill

The Education (Assemblies) Bill [HL] is a private member’s bill introduced by Baroness Burt of Solihull (Liberal Democrat). Baroness Burt has described the purpose of the bill as follows:

The UK is the only sovereign state in the world to impose Christian worship in state schools as standard. Many parents are unaware that compulsory worship takes place in their children’s schools, or that they have a right to withdraw their children from it. However, there is no meaningful alternative to worship offered in the vast majority of schools, so parents are forced to choose between exposing their children to daily acts of worship or isolating them from their peers with little or nothing of educational worth to do.

My bill would be inclusive of all children and follows the recent recommendation from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to repeal collective worship in schools. It would liberate schools to instead use the valuable time gained to cover themes such as the environment and nature, physical and mental health, charity and volunteering, relationships and self-esteem, moral and ethical issues, humanitarian causes, historical events, and arts and culture, and equality and non-discrimination, while not precluding education about religions and humanism.

Baroness Burt is a vice chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group. She previously introduced an iteration of the bill during the 2019–21 session. However, the bill did not receive a second reading before the end of the parliamentary session.

What are the current requirements for collective worship?

Under section 70 of the Schools Standards and Framework Act 1998 (the 1998 act), each pupil attending a community, foundation or voluntary school in England is required to take part in an act of collective worship each school day.

Schedule 20, paragraph 3(2) of the same act requires schools without a religious character to provide collective worship that is “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”. However, schools (or groups of pupils within schools) may be exempted from this requirement. Any exemption is considered by the standing advisory council on religious education for that local authority. This body advises local authorities and schools on the provision of religious education in a local authority area.

Under section 71 of the 1998 act, a parent may request that a pupil below the age of 16 be wholly or partly excused from attending acts of religious worship. Pupils aged over 16 may excuse themselves from these acts of worship.

What would the bill do?

The Education (Assemblies) Bill [HL] is a short bill containing three clauses and one schedule. Clause 1 of the bill would amend section 70 of the 1998 act. This would remove the requirement to provide acts of collective worship in the following types of schools in England:

  • Maintained schools without a religious character
  • Non-maintained special schools
  • City technical colleges
  • Academies without a religious character

Clause 1(4) of the bill would also create a new requirement for these schools to provide assemblies which are “principally directed towards furthering the spiritual, moral, social and cultural education of the pupils regardless of religion or belief”.

Under these provisions, schools would be unable to organise acts of worship or other religious observance. However, staff or pupils of a school would be able to arrange voluntary acts of worship on school premises. Parents or guardians of children aged under 16 would be able to request that their child should not attend these acts of voluntary worship.

Clause 2 of the bill and schedule 1 would make a series of consequential amendments. Clause 3 would establish the territorial extent of the bill as England and Wales only. The bill’s provisions only affects schools in England. Clause 3 would also set the  commencement date for the legislation as the start of the first full academic year after the act is passed.

Are schools currently providing acts of collective worship?

There are no official figures for the proportion of schools without a designated religious character that meet their requirement to provide compulsory daily acts of collective worship. However, in April 2021, the Times Education Supplement reported that 53 percent of primary school teachers said their schools did not offer collective worship. This was based on an informal poll involving 2,680 respondents on Twitter.

In March 2021, Sir John Hayes (Conservative MP for South Holland and the Deepings) asked the Government what steps the Department for Education was taking to ensure daily acts of worship were being conducted in maintained schools. Nick Gibb, Minister of State at the Department for Education, responded:

Every maintained school, academy and free school is required to ensure that collective worship takes place each day. If the department is informed that a school may be in breach of this requirement, it will be investigated. Where needed, the department will remind schools of their duty on this matter and advise on how this can be met.

Humanists UK subsequently published an article criticising the Government’s response to this parliamentary question. It stated:

Compulsory collective worship threatens the freedom of religion or belief of children and their families and is totally out of step with the kind of inclusive education we should be offering in a diverse 21st century democracy like the UK. The fact that the Government now appears to be saying it will enforce this archaic law to an extent that hasn’t been the case in over fifteen years is particularly alarming.

Commentary

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has called for the repeal of legislation concerning collective worship in schools. In February 2021, the committee published a list of issues concerning the rights of children in the UK. This included a recommendation that the UK Government repeal “legal provisions for compulsory attendance at collective worship in publicly funded schools”.

Stephen Evans, the National Secular Society’s chief executive, has welcomed the Education (Assemblies) Bill [HL]. He has argued ending the requirement to hold acts of collective worship in non-faith schools would “strike a blow for children’s rights and common sense”. Humanists UK has also given its support for the bill, stating current requirements concerning collective worship were “not appropriate for the diverse, multi-belief society that the UK is today”.

However, Nigel Genders, the Church of England’s chief education officer, has argued daily acts of collective worship should be retained in schools. He described them as:

[…] a powerful tool in bringing pupils together, giving them a rare opportunity to pause and reflect in the midst of a busy day.

In its guidance to schools for collective worship, the Church of England has said that religious assemblies should be “inclusive, invitational and inspiring”. The Catholic Education Service has also stated its support of maintaining the requirement for collective worship in schools. It has argued that collective worship was essential, providing a “shared language of values to build a close-knit cohesive community” within schools.

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Cover image by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash.