Major's school takes on Tories over God

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THE HEAD of John Major's old school is to provoke a confrontation with the Government by refusing to comply with the law on religious assemblies.

Tony Mooney, head teacher of Rutlish School in South London, has told his staff by letter that, as a non-Christian, his conscience will not allow him to take assemblies which must accord 'a special status' to Jesus Christ, as required by new guidelines, published earlier this year.

In his letter, Mr Mooney asks for volunteers to replace him at assembly, but no one has come forward and the school's governors will almost certainly be forced to tell the Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Shephard, that they cannot fulfil their legal obligations.

The move will add to already intense pressure for the reversal of the guidelines, brought in by John Patten, Mrs Shephard's predecessor and a devout Catholic. The guidelines represented a tightening of the provisions of the 1988 Education Act, which merely states that assemblies should be 'in the main, Christian.'

Both head teachers and church groups have protested that Mr Patten, who was fired as Education Secretary in the July reshuffle, bowed to pressure from right-wing Christians over the new guidance. They believe he was backed by his Minister of State, Baroness Blatch, and permanent secretary, Geoffrey Holland, both of whom are committed Christians and both of whom have also now left the department. They hope that Mrs Shephard will decide to take a more pragmatic approach.

More than 95 per cent of the 900 secondary schools inspected last year were told they were not complying with the law. Many schools had responded by holding assemblies with a moral message but without an explicitly Christian content. The guidance sought to strengthen the Christian element particularly.

Both the National Association of Head Teachers and the Secondary Heads Association have protested that the new rules are unworkable. They are likely to receive backing this autumn from the Churches Joint Education Policy Committee, which represents all faiths and which is preparing to send a paper on the subject to Mrs Shephard. It is expected to say that she should reverse the changes and take the pressure off schools to have hymns and prayers every day.

Mr Patten suggested that clergy could be engaged to take school assemblies if the staff were unwilling.

But Mr Mooney, whose school was attended by Mr Major in the Fifties, points out that even if a local cleric were willing to take 10 assemblies every week - the 900 boys will not all fit in the school hall at once - this would not be practicable unless staff were willing to attend. Health and safety regulations would prevent one adult from supervising 450 pupils without any additional help.

He said he was not seeking to break the law but that both he and his staff had to follow their consciences and so they were all exercising their legal right to refuse to take assemblies. Even staff who were Christians did not believe that they should force their religion on a school where at least a quarter of pupils were from other faiths, he said. In the meantime, the school will continue with its moral and humanist daily assemblies.

'I want to involve all our kids in assemblies because I think they are all valuable. I think it is valuable to talk about moral issues, but to emphasise one religion, whatever religion that might be, doesn't encompass the whole body of our school,' he said.

Dr Brian Gates, deputy chairman of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, said the idea that non- believing staff should deliver Christian assemblies in order to comply with the law was 'educationally indefensible and theoretically blasphemous.

'If this head looks again at the wording of the Act and takes some informed professional advice, it will be possible for him to continue to do it in a way that doesn't compromise his integrity. For example, he may be able to make reference to Jesus Christ in the context of telling the boys and girls that on this day there is a particular Christian festival,' he said.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said it would consider any correspondence from Rutlish when it was received.

(Photograph omitted)