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Mandatory Christian prayers in schools 'should be axed'

An influential commission recommends radical teaching reforms to adapt to increasing diverse and secular UK schools

By Chloe Farand

Published 07/12/2015

Schools have to ensure pupils take part “each school day in an act of collective worship”
Schools have to ensure pupils take part “each school day in an act of collective worship”

Schools should no longer be forced by law to hold daily acts of Christian worship, as part of major reforms reportedly outlined by an influential commission.

A report by the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, which includes the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, said the arguments for mandatory Christian prayers in secular schools was "no longer convincing".

Under existing laws, schools have a statutory duty to ensure pupils take part “each school day in an act of collective worship”. Parents in England and Wales have a right to withdraw their child from such services, but this is not the case in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

While faith schools are permitted to hold acts of worship in accordance with their religious character,  in secular schools the worship must be “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”. This also applies to academies, free schools and foundations schools.

Debating the issue on the BBC Nolan Show this morning, commentator Malachi O'Doherty said: "I do believe education should be secular; education should be separate from religious cultivation.

"If people want their children raised within a religious tradition then that is their responsibility in the home.

"I think that education and religion are in some measure incompatible, in that the point of education is to teach people to think and induct them into the sciences and the humanities and so on - but to think logically about things and there is no logical, firm argument that establishes the existence of God let alone the Christian interpretation of God and therefore if you're teaching this to children it has to be on that understanding that's its not a finished thing, it's not rounded off, we haven't come to any conclusions about it so it's for them to think about it themselves."

Peter Lynas, NI director of Evangelical Alliance, said: "30% of the population are going once a week or more often to church. That's the single biggest grouping in society of any type.

"Who else gets those kind of attendance numbers?

"Let's remember that 200,000 people go to the Irish league football matches in the entire season; 400,000 people go to church every single weekend. That's an incredible number of people."

He added: "The legislation is there that we have to have a spiritual component [in schools]. We need to have a plurality of ideas in the public square... The idea that you can put nothing in its place is a false one because secularism is its own perspective."

According to the Observer, a draft of the Commission's report suggests replacing this with a more inclusive "time for reflection".

The Commission includes members from all the UK's major religions, and is being led by the former High Court judge Elizabeth Butler-Sloss.

It reportedly suggests new guidelines "to build on current best practice for inclusive assemblies" which would draw upon a range of sources and "contribute to their spiritual, moral, social and cultural development".

And it warns against the greater segregation of communities as a result of the "negative practical consequences of selection by religion" in faith schools.

The commission was established by the Woold Institute, which studies relations between Christians, Muslims and Jews and includes, Iqbal Sacranie, the former general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, and Lord Woolf, the former chief justice.

The recommendations come after a report published by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) last month, which urged for “fresh thinking” on school collective worship and more transparency in its implementation.

In that report, senior academics said the statutory duty to organise prayers in schools lacked "a clear and accepted rationale" and has been “controversial for decades”. 

The National Secular Society (NSS) says the UK is "the only Western democracy to legally impose worship in publicly funded schools".

The NSS argues assemblies should “play an important role in fostering a sense of community in schools” and “with an ethical dimension”, they can contribute to pupils’ development.

Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the NSS, said: "The right to withdraw from school worship is neither a practical nor an acceptable compromise. It inconveniences schools and leaves pupils ostracised, so parents wishing to withdraw their children are left in an impossible position.

"Many schools flout the law because teachers know how inappropriate and unworkable it is, so in those cases abolition would simply formalise the arrangement that already exists, and it would give this common-sense approach a legal basis.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The current requirements for a daily act of collective worship won’t be changing – collective worship plays an important role in schools. It encourages children to reflect on belief, and helps shape fundamental British values of tolerance, respect and understanding for others.

“It is for schools to tailor their provision to suit the needs of their pupils, and parents can choose to withdraw their children from all or any part of collective worship.”

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