Abolish religious assemblies in schools, says new report

Religious assemblies in schools should be abolished, a new report says today.

A radical reform of the relationship between religion and schools is called for in the report by former education secretary Charles Clarke and Professor Linda Woodhead of the Westminster Faith Debates.

They want a new national curriculum to revise the way Christianity and non-Christian religions are taught in schools, and for all state schools, faith and non-faith, to be forced to abide by it. And they want "moral" values to be taught alongside religion in all schools.

The report won immediate backing from leading humanists and secularists, many of whom advocate the abolition of faith schools also.

Under the current system, set out in the 1944 Education Act, RE syllabuses are agreed locally. Faith schools are also inspected by their own denomination on this and collective worship, leaving them free to determine their own content regarding their particular faith.

This can lead to wide variation in both content and standards.

One key reform would be use of the phrase "religious and moral education" rather than just "religious education" as already happens in Scotland.

Another would be abolishing the requirement for all schools to hold a daily act of collective worship, with the government providing guidance to schools on practical alternatives for use of the time.

The report also calls for a strengthening of the inspection regime to ensure that all schools, faith or otherwise, "contribute to the promotion of community cohesion".

However, in spite of problems claimed in the report with the current system of allowing faith schools to select pupils according to faith, such as "socio-economic discrimination", the report recommends that these schools be allowed to continue to select in this way.

Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, said: "It is over 70 years since the place of religious and non-religious world views in our state education system was last given any systematic legislative attention. In those seven decades, the demography of England and Wales has changed beyond recognition and yet the education system is fossilised, failing to make its full contribution to developing the inner life of our young people in line with their beliefs and values and to equipping them for life in today's actual society."

Rev Nigel Genders, Church of England education chief, said: "The Church continues to be committed to the provision of high quality RE in schools which is vital for a balanced understanding of the world today where more than 80 per cent of the population are people of faith. The Church strongly supports the statutory requirement for collective worship in all schools and there is plenty of flexibility in the provision to enable all pupils to benefit without compromising their faith or lack of it. Where there are real objections it is a parent's right to withdraw their child from worship, and the very few who take up that right demonstrates that schools have found exciting and creative ways of using collective worship to further children's spiritual and moral development. There is no expectation of commitment and the exposure to the range of religious traditions encourages community cohesion."

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, chairman of the Accord Coalition for inclusive education, said: "Collective worship belongs to a previous century when everyone was religious and everyone was the same religion, but not in multi-faith Britain today, and it is unfair to make children of one faith, or no faith, sit through worship of another faith every day.

"Collective worship also confuses the role of schools, which are to educate and be objective, and the role of churches,synagogues or mosques, which are confessional and subjective. Faith should come from the home, family and places of worship, but not from the school system, where knowledge and values should be the only task.

"However, changing school assemblies to a more inclusive role and concen trating on shared values is not sufficient; it should be accompanied by making RE itself broad-based too, so that children of different faiths learn about each other's traditions and it encourages social cohesion."

Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society said: "England and Wales are the only countries in the world to require a daily act of mainly Christian worship in every maintained school, and the National Secular Society has been advocating its removal for decades. The removal is long overdue, the religious landscape of England and Wales has changed out of all recognition since the requirement was brought in 70 years ago. The majority of pupils and their parents are no longer practising Christians, so forced worship is increasingly irrelevant and divisive; the state should not be imposing religion on unwilling pupils. Assemblies should focus on ethical issues in a way that better involves all pupils equally.

"Although there is a statutory right of withdrawal from Collective Worship, parents are reluctant to exercise it because doing so marks children out at as different.

"We welcome reform of religious education and it being centrally determined rather than by local religious representatives. An even more fundamental review is needed, and probably a change of subject name, to recognise that the emphasis should be on wider philosophy and thinking skills, and perhaps also citizenship and cohesion."