Under current legislation, all schools in England and Wales must provide daily acts of ‘broadly Christian’ collective worship for their pupils. Although it is no longer enforced, this is a much-contested requirement seemingly at odds with the multi-faith – and largely nonreligious – composition of modern Britain.
Lee and Lizanne Harris live in Burford – a quaint town in rural Oxfordshire. They are nonreligious and have two children who attend the local community primary school. This school has no religious designation but joined Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust – a Church of England multi-academy trust (MAT) – in 2015. Although community schools can join religious MATs without compromising their nonreligious identity, the Harrises claim that ‘harmful aspects of evangelism’ began creeping into school life after the merger.
In particular, they noticed that assemblies presented Christianity as the only true religion. The Harrises objected to this, arguing that it excluded children from non-Christian backgrounds such as their own. They also suggested that it potentially amounted to indoctrination as young children lack the capacity, and in assemblies they lack the opportunity, to challenge or question the views being promoted.
According to the Harrises, Collective Worship at Burford Primary School was therefore not collective and its exclusivity was arguably unchristian.
These concerns were further compounded by the school’s close relationship with the local church. Members led assemblies once a week (a privilege not offered to representatives of other faiths), the vicar sat on the governing board, and important school assemblies were held in the church building. The latter is understandable for Harvest and Christmas services, but less-so for the year 6 leaver’s assembly.
When the Harrises raised their concerns regarding overly evangelical assemblies, the school argued that they were simply following the law. Due to the dearth of guidance on how the collective worship mandate should be interpreted, it would be hard to argue otherwise. So, rather than continue fighting for change the Harrises exercised their right to withdraw.
The most recent guidance (published 1994) states that parents can withdraw their children from collective worship if they wish. In such instances, parents can request alternative religious education or worship to take place according to a particular faith or denomination – though schools don’t always have to provide this.
It doesn’t, however, have any suggestions for what to do with nonreligious children who obviously can’t just worship a different god in a parallel assembly.
The Harrises claim that after being withdrawn, their children were not provided with alternative activities of equal educational worth but instead were left to play with iPads during assembly time. This, they argue, breaches article 2 of the Human Rights Act 1998 which states:
No person shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.
At this point, Burford Primary School invited evangelist Warren Furman (more commonly known as ACE from the 90’s TV show, Gladiators) to lead a special assembly. All children had to attend – including the Harrises’ two despite being withdrawn from collective worship – and parents were not informed of the visit beforehand. His ministry, ACE Active, involves preaching to schools, youth groups and prisons and appears to possess a distinctly evangelical tone. This was the last straw for the Harrises, leading Lee to vent his frustrations in a blog for the National Secular Society.
At this point, Humanists UK offered to support the parents and explored legal options with them.
With HUK’s guidance, the Harrises requested permission for a Judicial Review to be conducted regarding Burford Primary School’s interpretation of the collective worship law – specifically in relation to the lack of alternative educational provision made for children who were withdrawn.
This was granted in July 2019 and is significant as the first opportunity for the collective worship legislation and guidance to be seriously challenged.
Shortly before the Judicial Review was due to occur, the matter was settled out of court with ODST conceding to many of the Harrises’ requests.
Without admitting liability, ODST agreed to ‘take a number of steps to make changes to arrangements at the school for those withdrawn from collective worship’ by providing ‘age-appropriate inclusive materials/activities (i.e. not those limited to humanism) … to the Claimants’ two children’. These materials/activities will not be acts of worship or take any particular religion as true, but will be designed to ‘further the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of all pupils, regardless of religion or belief’.
These arrangements only apply to the Harrises’ children and will end when they leave the school, so although a number of news outlets reported that the school will be providing ‘alternative assemblies’, this is not technically accurate.
The school also agreed to ‘a protocol about the choosing of venues for school events’ to avoid the issues surrounding using church buildings for non-religious services and to ‘change the information provided to parents about current collective worship events’, ensuring parental awareness of assembly practices.
The school will not change its position on Christianity, but any prayers or references to God or Christianity as ‘truth’ will be ‘limited to designated and identifiable acts of collective worship’, thereby allowing those who have been withdrawn to be truly exempt from anything that could be perceived as ‘evangelism’ or even ‘indoctrination’.
Given Burford’s historical involvement in Cromwell’s defeat of the Levellers (17th century dissenters who amongst other things fought for religious tolerance) it is fitting that the debate about legally mandated Christian collective worship should have come into focus here. It is unlikely, however, that it will also end here.
The outcome of the Harrises’ claim does set something of a precedent. Although it will not change how other schools carry out assemblies overnight, it will surely encourage other challenges. Nonreligion is rising in Britain and the demand for more inclusive assemblies will grow with it.
If challenges continue to be mounted, as HUK clearly hopes that they will, the government will have little choice but to reconsider the legislation and/or accompanying guidance on school assemblies in the near future.
It is an irony that if Clarke and Woodhead’s proposals for change been taken seriously, this dispute could have been avoided. They recommend that all pupils in a school ‘take part in a regular assembly or act of worship in keeping with the values and ethos of the school and reflecting the diversity and character of the school community’. The proposal received widespread assent from the main religious and nonreligious stakeholders. The main opponent? The Church of England.
Charlotte is an AHRC funded PhD student at Lancaster University. Her research explores how nonreligious parents navigate England's education system - specifically collective worship, faith schools and RE - in raising nonreligious children.