Patten warns schools not to shun act of worship: Legal threat over religious assemblies

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JOHN PATTEN, the Secretary of State for Education, threatened yesterday to use his legal powers against thousands of schools which break the law by failing to hold daily religious assemblies.

He said at a press conference on a Department for Education circular: 'I am very concerned that a number of schools are not having the daily act of worship which is laid down in statute. I would not hesitate to use my powers under the 1944 Education Act to write to a school and direct it to follow the law.'

The circular represents a victory for traditionalists. It tells schools that religious education should be predominantly Christian and that most acts of worship should contain some reference to the special status of Jesus Christ.

Mr Patten is trying to enforce a law on daily worship which schools have flouted for 50 years. A recent study of inspectors' reports found that 85 per cent of local authority schools were breaking the law.

The Department for Education said that other secretaries of state had written to schools asking them to comply with the 1944 Act but none had taken the next step of issuing a direction that they must do so. Ministers could act only if they received a formal complaint or in response to an inspectors' report.

Dr Brian Gates, deputy chairman of the Religious Education Council, said: 'It is extraordinary that, after 50 years, ministers are now proposing to pursue this legally. Heads and teachers need training in how to cope with collective worship. You can't simply wave a wand and expect all schools to offer daily Christian worship.'

The guidance that Christianity should predominate in RE syllabuses dismayed liberal Christians and leaders of non-Christian faiths, who said that it was an attempt to change the law without recourse to parliament.

The 1988 Education Reform Act says that Religious Education should be Christian 'in the main', but taking into account the other principal religions.

Gwen Palmer, the RE council's chairman, who had not seen the circular, said that her members were overwhelmingly opposed to the use of the word predominate. 'No one is disputing the Act. This is only one interpretation and it is a very narrow one which could prove divisive in both schools and society.'

The circular says that daily worship should be 'wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character'. Some non-Christian elements might be included but it must 'contain some elements which . . . accord a special status to Jesus Christ'.

Dilip Kadodwala, a Hindu member of the Government's RE advisory group, said that non-Christians would be unhappy with the latter and it would lead to more schools exercising their right to opt out of national arrangements for worship.

Colin Hart, director of the Christian Institute, which campaigns for a more traditional approach to RE, said: 'The new guidelines will encourage all those concerned to see a strengthening of Christian teaching in schools. The Secretary of State is to be congratulated for not caving in to pressure from progressive educationalists.'

Mr Patten said during yesterday's press conference that he did not wish to be involved in the case of Jane Brown, headteacher of Kingsmead School in Hackney, east London, who turned down tickets for pupils to attend the ballet Romeo and Juliet on the ground that it was exclusively about heterosexual love.

'I have no powers whatever to remove governors or teachers at local authority maintained schools,' the Secretary of State said. However, he advised anyone who believed that a school was not being run properly to send him a formal complaint.