Ep 14: End compulsory worship | Education update

[Emma Park] Hello and welcome to episode 14 of
the National Secular Society podcast. I’m Emma Park, and this week I’ll be talking to Alastair Lichten,
Head of Education at the NSS. One of the NSS’s goals is to
ensure that all children have access to an inclusive education, free from
religious bias. With this in mind, Alastair and I will be discussing the
Society’s current campaign against the law on collective worship in schools, as
well as its new resource for teachers ‘Exploring Secularism’. Alastair will also
be giving an update on his activities in the education sector. As a teenager I
went to a rather old-fashioned Anglican school. Every morning in assembly we
would sing hymns, say prayers, and listen to sermons. Week after week we sang about
the bliss to which only the children of Zion would have access, or exhorted each
other to smite the troops of Midian. After one of these invigorating sessions
I remember a senior teacher, long since retired, coming onto the stage and
repeating with gusto the part about non-christians being damned for eternity.
Even back then, in the heart of rural England, there were a number of students
in the audience who were Jewish, Muslim or from a non-religious culture like China,
quite apart from inveterate unbelievers like myself. Nonetheless our daily
Christian worship, although in the theory it might have been optional, was in
practice compulsory. And even though it gave heathens like me something to rebel
against, it was hardly conducive to a tolerant atmosphere. But that was two
decades ago. Since then, we in Britain have become on average less religious as
a nation and more diverse in our religious affiliations or lack of them.
Given this variety of beliefs, in the country today surely no one still
expects school children to have to engage collectively in Christian worship,
or any other kind of worship, on a daily basis. It turns out that there are two answers to this question: the legal position and
the actual practice in schools. Neither is particularly satisfactory from a
secularist point of view, and that’s why abolishing collective worship is still
on the National Secular Society’s campaign list. I am now joined by Alastair Lichten to find out more.
Alistair, hello. [Alastair Lichten] Hi Emma.
[EP] First can you explain what the law requires in terms of collective worship in schools?
[AL] Well, the law in England and Wales mandates that all schoolchildren take part in a
daily act of broadly Christian collective worship. Like so much else,
this dates back to the seminal 1944 Education Act, although the current law is found in the
1998 School Standards and Frameworks Act. Northern Ireland has
its own requirements, and in Scotland there is Religious Observance, which in
places is being replaced with Time for Reflection. The term ‘collective worship’ is a bit of a problem, as it doesn’t really sum up
what it’s all about. If you had a collective within a school, who wanted
to come together for voluntary worship, maybe at lunchtime or after-school Club,
that would be a very different issue. The issue here is that it’s mandated worship,
mandated by the state, to be directed and often coerced by school authorities, which is why our campaign is to end compulsory worship in schools.
[EP] How does the position in England and Wales compare with the law in other countries?
[AL] Well, very differently. The UK, as far as we know, is
the only democratic country which legally imposes a daily act of worship in state schools. This would be completely alien in almost any other modern liberal democracy.
[EP] We have such a variety of schools in this country: state schools,
independent schools, faith schools. How is the legal requirement for collective worship enforced
in these different schools in practice? How much room is there for schools to interpret the law in their own way? [AL] In practice most schools either ignore the requirements or simply reinterpret it in such a way
that they hold perfectly inclusive, topical, ethical assemblies, which they
then just call ‘collective worship’ and they might have a moment of silence at the end,
or invite people to pray or reflect if they want, but they basically carry out
the assembly with no element of directed worship.
The requirement is, in fact, so unpopular, Ofsted have long since abandoned any sort
of enforcement or inspection of it, and the D of E tacitly support this position.
Although the situation is very different in faith schools. For example, well
over 90% of Church of England primary schools, according to a recent survey,
have daily Christian collective worship. Also, in non-faith or community ethos
schools, where you have the particularly religious head teacher, or group within
the school, who’s keen to impose this, and keen to take a
very literal interpretation of the requirement, and, equally, some schools
manage to the right to withdraw reasonably well, but this is overwhelmingly seen as
unsatisfactory. Those parents really don’t want their children marked out
by being withdrawn, and schools can make this difficult as well.
[EP] it sounds like there is a lot of room for manoeuvre, and the situation very much
depends on the school. So what are the National Secular Society’s biggest objections
to the collective worship requirement? [AL] It’s quite simple really. We
don’t believe the state should be mandating directed worship. It’s a violation of
pupils’ freedom of belief, and without any educational basis or justification.
This goes so clearly and obviously against principles of equality that is
actually requires its own special exemption from the Equality Act. Worship
should only ever be voluntary, and it should never be imposed, coerced or
mandated. If you’re part of a religious community, or fan of worship
personally, that’s fine, but you may not appreciate the message of exclusivity
this sends, and you may not just appreciate just how alien this practice is to many
families, and the way in which many parents want to raise their children. As
long as we have this legal requirement it provides a platform for those that do
want to impose their religion and worship in schools, whether that’s school
authorities or external evangelical groups. [EP] So is the NSS campaigning for a change in the law? [AL] Changing the various laws across the UK is a must, but the government can do better to
manage the situation with improved guidance, it has been a long time since the guidance was updated. Last month we wrote to the new Education Secretary, Gavin
Williamson, urging him to consider an update to the guidance, and we hope
that will happen in the next parliament. The guidance needs to make clear what
schools need to do to provide a meaningful alternative to worship.
That needs to be a genuine meaningful alternative, that doesn’t
stigmatize or cause any detriment to withdrawn pupils. The guidance needs to
clarify exactly what fulfilling the collective worship requirement means
This could regularise the situation,
where schools merely hold an assembly in which there is an opportunity for
voluntary worship, but without them directing it or imposing it. Also the
guidance should make clear what consultation, if any, school authorities
need to take, particularly those with [unclear] protected community
school ethoses, to ensure that their policy is suitable for their community.
[EP] Is there a particular reason why the NSS should be concerned with this issue right now?
[AL] The autumn term tends to see a big uptick in our case work related to
imposed worship and schools. The simple reason is that many parents are only
just now discovering that this is a requirement. You also tend to get a lot
of stuff around Christmas. Unfortunately some schools try make Christmas
assemblies particularly religious, or other schools even go so far as trying
to exclude pupils from Christmas related activities if they’re withdrawn from
collective worship. The big issue at the moment in England is the case of the Harris family.
[EP] The Harris family? [AL] Yeah. You may have seen on our website this
has since been taken up and supported by the Humanist Association.
So that’s put the issue in the news a little background on that we supported
the Harris family last year they attend a community ethos Academy
not a faith school but part of a Christian martyr Academy trust which
they feel is acting a bit like a faith school and that the way in which the
Christian worship is managed makes withdraw very difficult lack of any
meaningful alternative so that’s a human rights case that’s going for at the
moment we’re follow it closely and the work we expect that this is going to
push the DfE into making some sort of new guidance which could be good or bad
for us but we’ll keep up the pressure and need to wait and see elsewhere in
the UK in Wales it’s moving up the agenda as the big curriculum reform
issues start to move on this could be one of the next issues to look at
there are also campaigns in Scotland where there has already been some reform
and in Northern Ireland so really across the UK are you getting
any other specific examples of parents or their children talking to you about
difficulties they’ve encountered yeah I mean like we just look at the stats talk
on our page on compulsory worship and information there is one of the most
visited there’s a wide range of practice in terms of how exclusive or how
aggressively the worship element is pushed we want various testimonials on
the website and there is a big part of our casework that’s know people
approaching us for help although there are few parents then go
on to have draw their children because of the difficulties that can come with
that we’ve had community schools with prayers four times a day
pupils told off for not taking part parents accused of intolerance or just
anatole they’re not welcome at the school because I don’t want their
children being directed to pray to a religion that they don’t follow and all
of this is not getting into any of the more extreme or ator outlying examples
we have external evangelical groups or local local religious leaders coming in
to lead worship now for example with her parents
pupils really upset by one assembly were paper cups were apparently set on fire
one wet and one dry and this was to symbolize and to teach that Christian
baptism is necessary to avoid how completely inappropriate
lesson to be teaching in a school what about British society as a whole
is there widespread support for keeping the collective worship requirement on
the statute book absolutely not just this week actually we’ve seen the church
the just this week the recording the church really released a new poll which
they’re spinning to claim supports collective worship but obviously know
they understand the collective worship requirement is unpopular they didn’t
appear to ask about it in the poll and then just use the press release to
suggest it that the collective worship was possible last year or with our own
polling in conjunction with census white found that just 26% felt of the public
felt that school assemblies need to feature worship other polling is it’s a
sporadic on this there was a I was in the news a lot in 2011 when there was a
comrade survey for the BBC and that found that around 70 percent of parents
were opposed to enforcing the requirement how do you see public
perception of the collective worship requirement developing in the future
what society looks set just keep getting more villages like religiously diverse
and less religious the idea of needing the state to mandate particular and
impose particular religious activities just seems more and more old-fashioned a
league requirement from the 1940s seems completely incongruous today and there’s
not do we really think there’s anything suggest that this requirements gonna
become more popular or more suitable for for schools we of course many schools
will just continue to muddle on muddle through as they are at the moment but
the pressure for Reforma is just gonna keep going up and up you’ve told us
about the reasons then for opposing collective worship
what is the NSS actively doing at the moment to campaign against it we’re in
regular contact with the DfE and devolved administration’s on this issue
continuing to build up the evidence bank and to raise public awareness so we’re
ready to respond to consultations and keep the pressure up and the main thing
we do is we a lot of casework support to parents
pupils and even school was affected by the requirement and if we as concerned
members of the public agree with you what can we do to support the NSS as
campaign will link to the campaign page in the show notes so be really helpful
if you could visit there and use our template letter to write to your MP or
MSP or a.m. you can sign the National petition which would be forwarded to
devolved administration’s as well you can really give the campaign a boost by
sharing on social media and letting us know about your experiences so if you’re
a parent pupil or teacher affected by the requirement we’d love to hear from
you so just as a final question Alistair should school still have any form of
collective assemblies on a daily basis and if so what should they involve
school assemblies are very popular among the parents and the general public we
have to say they’re not always teachers favorite thing but certainly regular
them don’t know about daily but regular assemblies are an important valuable
opportunity to bring the school community together now if we stopped
organizing them around exclusive religion surely that element would the
school community element could be strengthened it’s a very disingenuous
argument that’s put forward in defence of the collective worship requirement is
the claim that without it school assemblies would just disappear yes
school assemblies are being squeezed out for lots of reasons
I know every single campaign against the collective worship requirement or the
similar requirements across the UK every single campaign says replace this
requirement or the requirement for regular inclusive topical ethical school
community assemblies and they should be up to schools on how to best manage this
yeah I agree and and speaking as a former teacher myself it’s definitely
very helpful to have a collective assembly just to give the school a sense
of a group ethos but certainly there’s no reason why religion should be
involved in that alistair on your role as a head of education of the NSS could
you tell us about your activities at the moment other
any campaigns or other achievements that you would like to highlight education is
always the biggest area that work so I’m always busy well supported by the rest
of the campaigns team by our secular education forum and our fantastic allies
and members at the moment the no more faith schools campaign which I
coordinate has been a big focus and that will probably do a dedicated episode on
that at some point last month we published analysis new figures showing
that majority of teachers in England supported an end to new faith schools
this month there’s been an update on our campaign against a new proposal for a
voluntary aided faith school in Peterborough and I’ve been talking about
that the whole history of these new voluntary ated faith school proposals
which we’ve been leading the campaign against and I’ve been asked that I’ve
been asked about talking about the campaign so I did I did my no more faith
schools talk at Leicester secular society and a Hackney branch of the
Labour Party meeting I’m doing it again next month at North London humanists and
I’ll be representing the campaign at the Liberal Democrats conference in
Bournemouth all these places there’s there’s been a great response and have
had great questions so if you want me to come and talk to your group trade union
meeting local atheist secular humanist interfaith political group and more than
one that happened to come along just get in touch last Saturday you were in
Manchester for the NS s’s annual Bradley lecture could you tell us a bit more
about the history of this lecture um well yeah we had had a great time on
Saturday for this was a really great event this year the bridal lecture is
held annually at the Manchester Art Gallery it’s in September no in the
first weekend which coincides with the NSS is anniversary so it was launched on
150 first anniversary Manchester our gallery features a magnificent portrait
of our founder Charles Bradlaugh he was is the portrait of him standing at the
bar of the House of Commons he was forbidden from taking up his seat
because he was an atheist as a powerful image of him continuing you know locked
out of the House of Commons but still sat there speaking for his constituents
and speaking for what he believed was right and who gave the lecture this year
and what was he or she speaking about this year’s speaker was Andrew Massa who
I interviewed in episode 12 the twelve of the podcast and as also as I
discussed in a previous episode believe episode 11 there’s been a massive
campaign over the last year by reactionary religious groups against
inclusive rse RC is relationships and sex education in schools andrew is an
award-winning deputy a teacher who has created a really fantastic inclusive
education program called no outsiders which has been the subject
of this vicious anti LGBT campaign by certain religious groups although it’s
not it’s called an outsiders as he as he talks about in his speech it’s not just
about LGBT issues you know it’s about inclusivity people of all faiths and non
different social backgrounds to put different abilities if an indifferent
interests etcetera it’s just a it’s a really lovely you know the exactly the
sort of inclusive education that schools should be doing but unfortunately it’s
been the subject of protests and conspiracy theories claiming it’s some
sort of anti anti religious LGBT indoctrination program so Andrew you
know in a really positive and inspiring way was able just to tell the audience
and a sellout crowd what it what it was all really about and really make the
case for out there in the coming week NSS members will receive their autumn
bulletins can you give us a preview yeah members get free issues of our bulletin
magazine a year and the autumn one I think’s landing in the next week or so
when this podcasts release the lead story is about our exploring secularism
project which ms4 it provides free education resources for schools to help
too teachers and pupils explore secularism
in what we hopes are balanced informed and they’re a relevant way as always in
our bulletin as updates on all our campaigning activities and also we’re
announcing free we quite exciting events coming up at Conway Hall are based in
central London on the 1st of November of November the National secular societies
historian and one of our council members Bob forger will be talking about Richard
Carlisle and his pivotal role in 19th century secularism and nibble ISM in
February the chair of our secular education forum dr. Keith sharp will be
giving a talk on the 1944 Education Act and its legacy which obviously will be
discussed today and in May and I’m very much looking forward to this there’ll be
a CPD day for teachers it’s called exploring secularism for educators it’s
a free event and we’ll be there useful Ferrari teachers
sacré members and any other educators with an interest in secularism or in
religion and society so all those details will be in the show notes and in
and outs in the bulletins and those will be in conwy Hall in Redlands Square just
near the British Museum you mentioned this exploring secularism resources for
schools I understand it’s something you’ve been
working on for quite a long time can you tell us a bit more about it yeah the
exploring sectors in project it’s one of those that I’m most excited about this
is been something that we’ve been approached for you know for over over
the years a lot of times re teachers politics teachers our teachers that
interested citizenship teachers asking us know because I have questions about
secularism are there resources on it a lot of religious studies a-levels cover
aspect sort of secularism and it comes up all sorts of places but it’s not
really but there’s a real dearth actual good resources on what is secularism and
exploring sacred squares it tends to get lumped in as anti religious or as
non-religious so we’ve launched we’ve launched a big range of new all free
resources they’re all all focused around open questions and
explore it and explore the issues you know we’re advocating that pupils ask
these questions we’re not advocating that they come to to certain conclusions
but you know that allows teachers people to explore what is secularism or what
the sort of main secular issues today there’s worksheets presentations all
sorts of things and if you if your teacher get in touch we can send you
copies of resources if you’re a parent you know get in touch you know please
send this to your school let them know it’s there in which lessons would you
envisage that this resource might be useful
we designed the resources to be very flexible so for example one one of the
resource allows people to explore different models of secularism around
the world and that could be you could that you could use at an re lesson if
you know exploring what is secularism maybe looking at different examples but
equally you if you’re doing comparative politics lesson you could use that
resource if you were studying if you’re doing French and you were doing French
French culture you could study the topic of late life today if you’re doing
history there’s history focus resources if you’re doing geography or politics
looking at different political systems we have resources on how we learn
resource and on how art and literature have challenged or reinforced religious
privilege or discriminate ollar install discrimination so you could you could
talk about blasphemy in an English lesson or an art lesson you know these
are relevant issues you could talk about NIT lessons we were considering issues
around censorship on the Internet so although the majority of interest and I
think the majority of use this is focused on religion and belief lessons
it’s quite unsuitable essences of it’s a wide-ranging they’re a flexible set of
resources Alastair loochtan thank you very much thanks so much that was episode 14 of the National
Secular society podcast hosted by Emma puck if you’d like to help us challenge
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