Daily school worship – “collective” or “corporate” but compulsory

An important aim of setting up this site was to extend our knowledge of education and how that relates to Brentwood’s schools. A comment on our last post provided just that opportunity for me as it touched on an area upon which I was largely ignorant.

Commenting on my reference to the emphasis Becket Keys free school will be putting on its religious content, Christine Seymour observed “you write as though the daily act of worship will not be happening in the secular schools. In fact it’s a legal requirement.” And, strictly speaking, she is right.

I left school a (very) long time ago but don’t remember having to have what I think of as collective worship on a daily basis, certainly at secondary school, so I was initially dubious. The Department for Education (DfE) website does appear to confirm this however:

http://www.education.gov.uk/a0064979/collective-worship

While acknowledging a parent’s right to withdraw their child, it states “all maintained schools in England must provide a daily act of collective worship. This must reflect the traditions of this country which are, in the main, broadly Christian.” So how do schools meet this requirement?

“Non-statutory” guidance provided by the DfE is still via a circular dating from January 1994 entitled “Religious Education and Collective Worship” which is available via the same link. We are advised that the RE guidance is out of date but that the collective worship advice is still the most current. So what is its stated purpose nearly twenty years on?

“Collective worship in schools should aim to provide the opportunity for pupils to worship God, to consider spiritual and moral issues and to explore their own beliefs; to encourage participation and response, whether through active involvement in the presentation of worship or through listening to and joining in the worship offered; and to develop community spirit, promote a common ethos and shared values, and reinforce positive attitudes.”

My confusion is not really helped by this statement as it is far from prescriptive. Reading on the document advises that collective worship is “intended to be appropriate for and to include all pupils”, it may take place at any time in the day, in one group or in small groups. However the exact form that it takes is never clearly stated within the document. The flexibility at the heart of this advice is understandable at a time when so much emphasis is currently placed on exam results and league tables but it begs the question, given the lack of clarity, as to why it is needed at all.

Having consulted former and current members of the teaching profession it appears that, outside of church schools, the requirement is normally met within school time in teacher led discussions of news items or moral issues. Sometimes there will be a theme, or “thought for the week” that tutor groups may cover outside of lesson time. The position of religious groups on these matters is covered as part of the discussion.

It appears to me that the term “worship” is the problem here, the DfE circular attempts to explain as follows:

“Worship’ is not defined in the legislation and in the absence of any such definition it should be taken to have its natural and ordinary meaning. That is, it must in some sense reflect something special or separate from ordinary school activities and it should be concerned with reverence or veneration paid to a divine being or power. However, worship in schools will necessarily be of a different character from worship amongst a group with beliefs in common. The legislation reflects this difference in referring to ‘collective worship’ rather than ‘corporate worship’.

From this I conclude that “collective worship” is intended to allow the airing of “spiritual and moral issues” and the place of religion in addressing them. “Corporate worship” in this instance would be the formal gatherings that would be more familiar to churchgoers and those attending church schools. It is this approach that Becket Keys outline on this dedicated section of their website:

http://www.becketkeys.org/worship.php

The British Humanist Association has their own take on this confusion of terms and state on their website:

“Collective worship” is supposed to be different from “corporate worship” where everyone is committed to a particular faith, as in a church, synagogue, mosque, temple or other religious setting, but it appears to be a contradiction in terms. “Collective” is supposed to acknowledge that a school is a collection of different individuals and beliefs, and implies inclusiveness and no commitment to any particular faith. “Worship”, however, implies reverence for a divine being and thus excludes most Buddhists and Jains and certainly excludes humanists and other non-religious pupils and teachers.”

Given the much touted freedom that academies and free schools are supposed to have, I was surprised to learn that they are not exempt from this legislation. I am also intrigued to know how (or if) Ofsted check that the requirement is met and that it is “broadly Christian” in nature. The requirement, stated in the terms it is, appears to be an anachronism to me but I have no objection to the discussion of moral or ethical issues in the manner that has been described to me by teachers. I am also happy that schools offer religious clubs for those who wish to attend and that local Christian schools charities, such as this town’s Brentwood Schools Christian Worker Trust, are welcomed to visit maintained schools and engage students. My original point on the amount of formal worship that I require for my children in the school day still stands.

Stephen Mayo

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Comments

  1. Each LEA is required to have a “SACRE” (Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education). The SACRE is the body which is supposed to do the checking up on whether/how the act of worship is being done in each school. Of course many secondary schools have given up trying to do it because pupils don’t want it and neither do the staff. Teachers are allowed to opt out if they don’t believe in it.
    Schools which have mainly non-Christian pupils can apply for a “determination” and provide worship in a different faith.
    SACRE meetings are open to the public; perhaps you should go and listen to one some time. They are a fairly obscure part of our unwritten constitution. They include representatives of many faiths, teachers’ representatives, councillors and these days many include a humanist.

    Reply

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