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EDUCATION: Disassembling collective worship

19 September 2014

John Gay traces the decline of collective worship since the 1944 Education Act 

sally greenhill

MARY BERRY, Mo Farah, and Banksy - each of them is an exemplar of his or her subject in action. It is hard to imagine home economics, PE, or art being taught without a practical dimension. So, too, with other subjects, such as drama, games, or languages. A case could therefore be made that collective worship in schools is a practical aspect of religious education.

Certainly, in many primary schools, collective worship has been effectively interwoven into the fabric of the school's life. The coming together of the school community, usually at the start of the day, to celebrate achievements, to give thanks for life, and to remember and pray for those less fortunate is seen as a positive element in a child's education. Often, a link is made to what is being taught in religious education. In secondary schools, however, the position is very different.

THE current arrangements have their origins in the 1944 Education Act, which legislated for a daily act of worship in all maintained schools for all pupils, apart from those withdrawn by their parents on the presumed grounds of conscience. Church and other faith schools have always been responsible for their own collective worship, carried out according to their trust deed. This was simply reinforcing what had been customary in most schools for the previous hundred years.

The horrors of the Second World War, however, led to a concerted attempt to reinforce positive Christian values against what was seen as the evils of totalitarianism - and collective worship was to be a key plank in this endeavour. But, from the late 1960s onwards, this concord began to fragment.

The 1988 Education Reform Act enshrined a delicately balanced settlement drawn up by Kenneth Baker and the then Bishop of London, Graham Leonard. Collective worship was still to be held daily, but it did not have to be at the start of the day, and separate acts could be held for different age groups. Also, a deliberate fuzziness was introduced, including the requirement that the acts were to be "wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character". The latter was defined as reflecting "the broad traditions of Christian belief without being distinctive of any particular Christian denomination": all suitably vague, and open to a wide variety of interpretations.

In 1994, however, John Patten issued a circular which attempted to introduce a greater clarity and rigour - the main outcome of which was to raise the level of contention.


IN SECONDARY schools in particular, the requirement for a daily act of collective worship was becoming increasingly difficult to implement. Many head teachers, including committed Christians, resented both the emphasis on quantity rather than quality, and being deemed "non-compliant" by the school inspectorate for holding two high-quality acts of collective worship a week rather than five perfunctory ones.

One head asked challengingly how many clergy have to lead inspiring and relevant acts of worship five times a week, 36 weeks a year, for the same congregation of 600? Many RE teachers also resented the negative effects that collective worship was having on pupils' attitudes to RE; as a practical aspect of RE, it had become counter-productive.

In 1997, three national conferences were held in London to bring together representatives from more than 30 organisations, including teacher associations, faith communities, and government education bodies.

The outcome was a proposal for a new way forward for collective worship, which was deemed by most of the representatives to be a sensible way to square the circle. Nevertheless, the proposal was rejected by the Church of England, and there was some ambivalence within the Muslim and Roman Catholic communities. Central government therefore backed away from implementation discussions, on the grounds of the lack of unanimity. And that was the last time that there was any serious national attempt to engage with the issues.

Since then, OFSTED has ceased to report on non-compliance in individual school inspections, and there has been a growing unease and resentment simmering under the surface. Aware of all this, the National Governors' Association, and the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd John Pritchard, have recently called for a rethink.


The Revd Dr John Gay is Research Fellow at the Department of Education, in the University of Oxford, and Visiting Professor at the University of Winchester.

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