British Government Considers Ending School Worship
The Government is to face renewed pressure in the spring to end the requirement for daily collective worship in schools. The move follows four conferences on the issue this year, and a wide-ranging consultation.
The consultation, sponsored by the Religious Education Council, the National Association of SACREs and the Inter-Faith Network, and financially supported by two Anglican educational trusts, revealed strong support for change among professional staff. The Churches and minority faiths were divided on the issue.
This option has the backing of most of the members of a steering committee set up by the sponsoring organisations, and it is understood that the Government has promised to give serious consideration to their recommendations. But Ministers will also have to take account of sharp divisions among those consulted.
A draft report on the initiative reveals unanimous support for change in the present rules among heads and teacher organisations, with majority support among local-authority education officers, RE professionals, and SACREs (statutory local committees on RE). Most school governors, on the other hand, want to retain the status quo.
There would also be heavy opposition to change from within the Churches. While those Methodists consulted backed change, and the Free Church Federal Council reported "reluctant support" for a new way forward, the Roman Catholic Church was still firmly in favour of daily worship for all schools, as was a majority in the Evangelical Alliance.
The Church of England declined to choose an option, but emphasised that its position was not neutral. Alan Brown, director of the National Society's RE Centre, said Anglicans were prepared to take part in discussions, but were concerned at what might replace the present rules.
"If children don't experience religious worship at school, many might not experience it anywhere," he said. Rather than legislation, the best way forward would be new government guidelines replacing the controversial and over-prescriptive Circular 1/94, he suggested.
Responses from the minority faiths were also divided, with a majority of Buddhists, Jews and Sikhs supporting change. Both Jews and Muslims wanted a change in the rules to allow the faith groups to hold their own acts of worship where appropriate. But the Muslim Educational Trust also expressed concern that change might lead to the secularisation of assemblies, which would be "religiously unacceptable".
The Government will also take public opinion into account. In 1991, 70 per cent of those questioned in a British Social Attitudes survey supported daily prayers in schools.
A Labour government will, however, be strongly influenced by leaders of the educational establishments, one of whom, Liz Paver, the current president of the National Association of Head Teachers, has made change in the rules on collective worship the main issue of her year in office, and is holding a seminar on the issue in London in February. She is a member of the Board of Education, but believes the present requirement for daily worship places an unreasonable burden on head teachers.
© 1997 Church Times