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02 August 2019

THE decision to grant Lee and Lizanne Harris a judicial review this November of the arrangements made when the couple objected to what they regard as “religious indoctrination” and withdrew their children from collective worship at Burford Primary School, an academy with the Oxford Diocesan Schools’ Trust, returns to the fore one of those aspects of educational life which have a history of being contested and not always in a reasonable atmosphere. Scrutiny by the High Court is not, therefore, inevitably to be feared by the defenders of church schools or, indeed, of the principle of religious assemblies in schools more widely.

Moreover, how far the outcome will be relevant to schools that have nothing like Burford’s recent history is a material question: Burford was a community school when the Harris children were admitted. It became an academy under the Trust in 2015, since when links have developed with a parish church of an Evangelical ethos. Without pre-empting the judges, we can say that it is not altogether surprising that a legal challenge has arisen in such a context, which mirrors something of the byzantine quality of the endlessly amended British state-education system.

Matters were simpler in 1944. Then, the legal framework was hammered out for a society that was still generally aware that the Established Church had invested in educating the mass of the nation’s children according to its own principles before pressure mounted for state-funded schools free of denominational bias. Tailored for the state system, “non-denominational” Christian worship will have been experienced by many of today’s readers of this paper (which favoured C of E schools and spent the late 19th century denouncing it). Non-denominationalism shied away from Anglican tenets unless held in common with the Free Churches, and was alien to Roman Catholics particularly, who were strenuous in seeking schools along their own lines. (The humanists opposed daily collective worship, but had no network of schools.)

Times have changed. The law on daily collective worship was the subject of radical proposals from Sir Charles Clarke and Dr Linda Woodhead a few years back. Nevertheless, a communal spirituality, the offering of praise and thanksgiving to God, stillness, moral reflection, an emphasis on mutuality, and some elements from scripture and the Christian calendar are features that survive in many schools across the state system, under various designations. The C of E’s National Society is keen to defend them against the pressures of an atomised and economically focused society; and it would be more than a pity if all spiritual and religious space-making in schools were to fall into jeopardy. It may be, however, that, besides putting Burford’s interpretation of the requirement for collective worship on trial, this legal process will result in rigorous evaluation of whatever alternative can be proposed in its stead for parents who withdraw their children on humanist or secularist grounds.

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