State schools, collective worship and confused expectations

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Oxfordshire parents Lee and Lizanne Harris are taking their children's primary school to court over what they perceive to be discrimination and indoctrination.

In short, they object to the religious, Christian content of assemblies, and the lack of educational value in the alternative provision for children whose parents opt out. No doubt there is a complicated story behind the headlines, but one issue at play appears to have been confused expectations on the part of the Harris family.

Firstly, as the school rightly point out, what they have been doing is not merely legally justified, it is in fact required by legislation. Publically funded schools which are not designated "faith schools" are required to hold a daily act of worship which is "wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character", whilst faith schools are in fact subject to different regulations.

Although this might sound counterintuitive at first, it would obviously make little sense to provide for the possibility of Jewish or Sikh faith schools, but demand that they offered daily devotional time for Christians.

"Faith schools" will have a defined religious ethos which may relate to Christianity or any other faith, whereas non-faith schools have a softly Christian character.

This soft Christian character is the default position, rather than a form of neutral secularism. Obviously, there is ample room for debate on whether this is desirable, but at the present time it is crystal clear where the law stands.

It should be noted of course that not all schools honour this legal commitment, but that does not make it less binding; many motorists fail to respect speed-limits! Of course, the way in which the law is phrased allows for an inclusive approach which is sensitive to other faiths and world views.

It is possible to have messages which thank God as a creator, or reinforce values like kindness and mutual respect, and still be of a broadly Christian character.

Secondly, this is an act of collective worship, it is not part of the academic program of the school. Consequently, it is doubtful whether "educational worth" is an appropriate concept to apply.

Providing a la carte spiritual or moral input for those who do not wish to engage in Christian worship is not really viable, as what would serve the needs of humanists might not be right for a Jewish child.

Removing God from the equation is neither neutral nor inclusive, this approach also privileges a particular world view.

Most people would accept that social and political debate is needed about what is appropriate for state schools in the twenty-first century, and there is a strong case to consider reform. However, it is unfair to criticise a school for following the rules as they currently stand, in what they believe to be a caring and non-exclusionary manner.

Helen Hall is a Senior Lecturer at Nottingham Law School, a qualified solicitor and Anglican priest.