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Humanists query acts of Christian worship in non-faith schools

02 August 2019

C of E education officer: assemblies are about exploration, not indoctrination


Burford Primary School, in Burford, Oxfordshire

Burford Primary School, in Burford, Oxfordshire

OFFERING collective Christian worship at non-faith schools is not “religious indoctrination”, but a chance for children to explore and develop spirituality, the chief education officer of the Church of England, the Revd Nigel Genders, has said.

He was responding to reports on Monday that the High Court had granted a judicial review to a couple, Lee and Lizanne Harris, who withdrew their children from assemblies at Burford Primary School, in Oxfordshire, because they included acts of Christian worship.

Burford Primary became has been run by the Oxford Diocesan Schools’ Trust (ODST) since 2015, when it became an academy. It is not a faith school. In applying for a judicial review, the couple argue that the trust does not meet the needs of non-Christian children. The case will be heard on 29 November.

In a letter to The Times on Tuesday, Mr Genders wrote that children currently felt “besieged by social media” and had reported poor mental health, and that collective worship was a chance for children to explore existential questions. “Offering this in the context of authentic Christian worship is not ‘religious indoctrination’ but a chance for children of all faiths and none to develop spiritually and gain perspective in an otherwise crowded day.

“There is much evidence of the value of collective worship to children and young people, which is why thousands of community schools also have strong partnerships with local churches and faith groups. What happens in schools must be evidence-based and should not be in response to secular pressure group campaigns.”

Humanists UK, which first reported the story, alleges that the parents withdrew their children after expressing concern that, “during assemblies, stories of God and Christianity are presented to pupils as ‘fact’ and ‘truth’ and that visiting church officials express harmful views to children.” The group is petitioning the Government to end compulsory worship and to introduce a requirement that schools conduct “inclusive assemblies” that are not focused on religious or non-religious beliefs.

The parents said in a statement: “This case is about the day to day reality of what happens when our children go to school and are not in our care. We take this step very reluctantly but feel strongly that we need to try to make our children’s education as inclusive as possible.

“We also don’t think it’s acceptable that they be left to play with an iPad because we’ve withdrawn them. They should be able to participate in an inclusive assembly that is of equal educational worth and which is welcoming and respectful of all students no matter their background.”

The chief executive officer of the trust, Anne Davey, said on Wednesday that daily collective worship was a statutory requirement in all publicly funded schools in the UK. “It is required of academies like Burford Primary School, by the terms of the Secretary of State for Education’s funding agreement, that the worship must be wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character.

“ODST is confident that Burford Primary School has acted entirely appropriately. It has followed statute in ways that are similar in all primary schools. Furthermore, it has provided exactly what the law requires, which includes provision for children to be withdrawn at the request of parents.”

The ethos of Burford Primary School had not changed since 2015, she said. “It remains a community school without a specifically religious character. Changing the character of a school to become more overtly Christian simply because it is in a trust with church schools is not something that ODST would, or could, do. Preserving the individual character of each of our schools is of utmost importance to us.”

Earlier this year, the multi-academy trust (MAT) was the first in the south-east region to undergo OFSTED’s new summary evaluation, in which a whole MAT is inspected at once. It was described as permeating in all its work its “common vision for the common good” (News, 15 March).

Read more on the story in our leader comment

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