Education: Breaking the government commandments: Neither parents, teachers nor even the churches are happy with new guidance on religious content of assemblies. Fran Abrams reports

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The Independent Online
TEACHERS and parents cannot see the point in demanding that schools in a multicultural society should hold daily assemblies that must accord 'a special status' to Jesus Christ. Even the churches have their doubts. But the latest official guidance, published earlier this year, says they should do just that.

Gillian Shephard, who took over from the devoutly Roman Catholic John Patten as Secretary of State for Education in July, has been faced with a growing chorus of protest on the issue.

She has not yet made her views clear, though many commentators believe she will take a more pragmatic stance than her predecessor. But if she hopes that she can simply sit back, wait for the fuss to die down and allow schools to carry on as they have in the past, she may find that she is mistaken.

If it were not for the new national system of school inspection, under which all secondary schools are being visited, this might have been possible. But the first 900 reports have revealed that about 95 per cent of schools are breaking the law on collective worship.

About 40 per cent were in breach of the requirement of the 1988 Education Act that all pupils should attend an act of worship every day. The rest were holding daily assemblies, but they were not 'broadly Christian', as required. Not surprisingly, headteachers felt they could not take such strong criticism without complaining.

Both the main headteachers' organisations have called for a change in the law. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) and the Secondary Heads' Association (SHA) oppose the requirement for a daily act of worship in schools - especially one strengthened by this new guidance.

A survey published earlier this year by the NAHT revealed that nine out of 10 secondary headteachers felt they could not satisfy the requirements, and a similar number found them unacceptable. In primary schools, 77 per cent found them unacceptable and 65 per cent said they were unworkable.

The circular to schools insists that assemblies should allude regularly to Jesus Christ, who should be accorded 'a special status', and that they should pay 'reverence or veneration . . . to a divine being or power'. It says that they need not all have these features, but that a majority must do so.

If worship consistently fails to mention Jesus, it cannot be defined as mainly Christian. So the moral content of most modern assemblies, while it may be based on Christian values such as honesty and respect for others, still breaks the rules.

While some headteachers may try to add a hymn or a prayer in order to try and meet the requirements, others are either unable or unwilling to change their practice.

The head of John Major's old school in south London wrote to all his staff at the beginning of this term to tell them that, as a non- Christian, his conscience would not allow him to conduct assemblies under the new guidelines. As no one else has stepped in to take over, he plans to carry on with the values-based gatherings which have been held at the school in recent years.

At Fearns High School in Bacup, Lancashire, each year group has an assembly once a week - there is not room in the hall for the whole school. The school's headteacher, Neil Thornley, expects to be condemned for this when the inspectors call, but he says that in the nine years of his headship and the 17 years of his predecessor's, not one parent has ever complained.

'The vast proportion of our 850 pupils are unchurched. Their parents make the decision not to go to church, not to have them baptised. It isn't my job to stand and proselytise and to pass on the Christian message,' he said.

Both the Church of England and the Churches Joint Education Policy Committee, which represents all faiths, are unhappy with the new arrangements. Both are considering their positions and are likely to make public statements this autumn.

Brian Gates, deputy chairman of the Religious Education Council, a national umbrella organisation for teachers and religious groups, believes it is possible for most schools to keep within the law if they handle their collective worship sensitively. He points out that the new guidance is only guidance and is open to interpretation.

The 1944 Education Act underlined the importance of a daily act of worship, but specifically did not use the word 'Christian' in recognition of the fact that there were both secular and Jewish elements in society. Its purpose was to give children the personal vision to fight any elements of fascism or other bigotry which might creep back, Mr Gates said.

'If schools have got the sensitivity right in the first place and started to develop whole-school policies for spiritual and moral development, that will show in their collective life together. If they only interpret the requirement for collective worship as a quite different activity from everything else that goes on in school, they will be in a bind of their own making.'

A MORAL MESSAGE AND A CONTEMPLATIVE MOMENT

The silence is impressive as the pupils of St Wulfram's, Grantham, watch their headteacher march solemnly up the aisle for assembly. One or two figures among the massed rows of blue uniforms wriggle a little under the gaze of the watching staff, but no one speaks.

Michael Cartwright does not immediately mount the stage: first there are announcements to be made. Three pupils troop up to collect certificates, the school hears that the girls beat the boys at netball last night, and that next Monday's football match against St George's is cancelled.

Only then, with the sound of the theme music from 2001: A Space Odyssey filling the glass-sided Fifties hall, does Mr Cartwright take up a more imposing position behind the lectern on the stage. His strong presence fills the hall. Assemblies have a weekly theme at St Wulfram's, and this week it is 'Fears and Fantasies'. Yesterday the pupils shared some of their fears: spiders, bats, heights. Some chose to talk with staff afterwards instead.

Today there is room for a joke: the pupils hear that one of their fellows, on being asked by his teacher if he would like to share his fears with the head, had doubted that this would help: 'He's at the top of my list]' he explained. There is a serious message, too. How many of our fears come from within ourselves?

'No person travels far without encountering himself. . . . Could the fact that I am at the top of a certain young man's list be because most of our discussions are about something he has done wrong?' Mr Cartwright asks.

There is also a religious message: 'If there is a God, He must have control. Even the unknown to us is known to God.' Today there is no prayer and the assembly ends in a moment of contemplation, but this is by no means the norm - as the Baptist head of a Church of England school, he is a believer in religious worship.

This assembly was one of a minority at the school that have a moral rather than an overtly religious message. But it was similar in style to one earlier this year which led to a warning that the school was failing to comply with the law on collective worship.

'I told the Ofsted inspectors to come back on Sunday and we would go round the churches making notes on whether or not we have seen an act of worship. I bet we would all have had very different ideas,' Mr Cartwright said.

WHAT DO PARENTS WANT?

Parents rarely complain about the content of assemblies, and though there have been a few celebrated disputes, most are happy with the worship at their children's schools. St Wulfram's school (see left) is no exception.

Merrilyn Parker and her husband chose the school for their son and daughter because they wanted a Christian ethos even though they are not weekly churchgoers.

'Personally, I think it has got to be balanced,' she said. 'There might be some people in the school who don't quite believe the same things. If you lecture them too much, if it is just Bible studies without having a moral and compassionate part to it, they will just switch off,' she said.

Alan Asher, whose 11-year-old daughter, Jannean, joined the school this term, is an active member of the Church of England. He hopes that as well as adding an extra spiritual dimension, school assemblies may give Jannean opportunities to learn that others have different views.

'When we go to church we are with like-minded people, and if you like it has given them tunnel- vision. But at school, when other children in the class come out and say it is utterly boring, it gives my daughter a chance to see another side of things.

'It also gives other people an opportunity in that if they like what's going on they may want to see more of it,' he says.

Margaret Morrissey, spokeswoman for the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, says that while most parents want their children to take part in an assembly that will reinforce the life of the school as a community, they do not necessarily want Christianity in its most explicit form.

'What the majority of parents are looking for is not for their children merely to be given religion but for them to learn about caring for each other, about moral issues and about organisations like the Samaritans,' she says.

Is your school breaking the guidelines on collective worship? The following checklist should help:

All full-time state school pupils aged 18 or under must take part in an act of worship every day, unless withdrawn by their parents. Sixth form colleges must hold an act of worship once a week, though students will not be obliged to attend. Assemblies may be held in the classroom.

Over a term, the majority of assemblies must be of a broadly Christian character. They must accord a special status to Jesus Christ, and show 'reverence or veneration' to God.

Assemblies can contain elements of other religions

There should be variety in the grouping, content and leadership of assemblies. If the headteacher takes every one or if all the children go into the hall instead of sometimes having class assemblies, this is considered inadequate.

(Photograph omitted)

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