Aim of the Network


The Network’s aim is to act as a forum for the discussion and exchange of ideas on the issue of collective worship and religious observance in order to stimulate debate, produce genuine collaboration and understanding across disciplinary boundaries, and promote engagement between Higher Education and non-Higher Education stakeholders.


The Research Context


A daily act of collective worship (England, Northern Ireland, Wales) or religious observance (Scotland, minimum 6 times a year) is a compulsory activity in schools. In Scotland the practice of religious observance must provide the opportunity for 'community acts which aim to promote the spiritual development of all members of the school's community and express and celebrate the shared values of the school and community'.  Concerns surround the implementation of this requirement in practice and whether religious observance can be practised in a way that reflects the increasing diversity of faith and no-faith communities in Scotland.


For most state-funded schools in England, Northern Ireland and Wales it is a legal requirement that the majority of the acts of collective worship during any school term be of a ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’. Parents have a right to withdraw their children from collective worship, a right extended to sixth formers in England and Wales by the Education and Inspections Act 2006 (s.55(2)).


The statutory obligation to provide an act of collective worship in state schools has been the subject of (often heated) debate in recent decades (eg., Cumper, ‘School Worship-Praying for Guidance’ (1998) 1 European Human Rights Law Review, 45-60). Three inter-related strands of this debate can be identified.


First, concerns have been expressed around the appropriateness of collective worship in an increasingly pluralistic, multicultural UK. For example, in 1985, the authors of a government commissioned report – the Swann Committee (Cmnd 9453, 446) – concluded that compulsory collective worship was inappropriate in a society of diverse beliefs. However, despite the Committee’s proposals for change, the House of Lords successfully tabled amendments during the passage of the Education Reform Bill 1988 to ensure that collective worship retained a predominantly Christian nature.


A second strand of the debate is put forward by legal scholars (eg., Hamilton & Watt, ‘A discriminating education – collective worship in schools’ (1996) 8(1) CFLQ 33) who have expressed concerns about issues of conscience and the rights of individuals and minority groups, given the obligation placed on schools to hold daily acts of collective worship. Such concerns are compounded by recent evidence which questions the effectiveness of the right to opt out of religious activities in schools (eg., Richardson et al ‘Opting out or opting in? Conscience clauses and minorities’, (2013) British Journal of Religious Education 35(3) 236).  These concerns also apply to the practice of religious observance in Scotland.


The third element of the debate, and one shared by some commentators in Scotland with respect to religious observance, is that the current law and practice on collective worship may be thought to represent a missed opportunity both to develop the spiritual and moral education of pupils, and to promote a community spirit and shared values in schools. Indeed, there are claims that a significant number of schools – for reasons of choice or otherwise – fail to comply with their legal obligations, and that those responsible for collective worship often appear to have little relevant training (eg., Sandberg & Buchanan, ‘Religion, Regionalism and Education: Tales from Wales’, in Law, Religious Freedoms and Education in Europe, Hunter-Henin, (ed) (Ashgate, 2012, 107-132)).


In addition to these educational and legal concerns, unease over collective worship in schools has been reflected in a number of public campaigns that have advocated legal reform. For example, in 1998, a national consultation held by the Religious Education Council, the National Advisory Councils on Religious Education and the Inter-Faith Network proposed that acts of worship should be replaced by regular assemblies of a spiritual and moral character. More recently, the House of Lords rejected a proposal from Lord Avebury (HL Hansard, 24 October 2011, cols 591-604) for state schools to decide for themselves whether to hold daily acts of collective worship, and for pupils to be able, directly, to opt out of such acts of worship.


In view of the fact that concerns relating to collective worship in schools have been expressed in Parliament and beyond − and that there is much debate about the role of faith in public life more generally − it is perhaps surprising that relatively little research has been conducted on the question of collective worship. Thus, given the paucity of relevant material, as well as the rather fragmented nature of that which currently exists, this Network aims to examine the practice of collective worship and religious observance in the UK in a novel, holistic and inter-disciplinary manner.

Twitter Feed...

© AHRC Research Network Copyright 2014.