Tom Sutcliffe: Jesus wouldn't want kids forced to worship

Social Studies: This part of the Education Act is widely ignored and probably unenforceable

Tuesday 28 December 2010 01:00

Most of the regrets of youth lose their sting over time – the half-life of embarrassment and regret being considerably shorter than the half-life of a human being. But I still feel a pang when I think about one missed opportunity of my teenage years, and I was reminded of it when I read of the National Secular Society's invitation to Michael Gove to remove the legal requirement for a daily act of worship in schools that is "wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character".

It was a failure to be recalcitrant, essentially, and it occurred during a discussion of compulsory services at our school. One of the teachers present explained how offensive he found it when non-believers declined to bow their heads during collective prayers and so "flaunted" their views.

Being hopelessly meek I made some concurring murmur at the notion that what was at stake here was simple good manners. And ever since I've regretted not having the wit to ask him what he would do if the circumstances were reversed and he was forced to attend a daily assembly of atheists and take part in a chanted avowal of scepticism. Would he regard his own beliefs as an awkard anomaly and decorously conceal them? Or might he perhaps have done some "flaunting" of his own?

We should get things in perspective here. This particular clause in the 1944 Education Act is very widely ignored and probably unenforceable. It remains on the statute books only because politicians are disinclined to waste time on it and think that a repeal wouldn't get through the House of Lords anyway. British schoolchildren aren't daily subjected to theological brainwashing – and in any case the combination of the adjectives "mainly" and "broadly" open up a loophole large enough to drive a truck through.

You could probably conduct a Satanist ceremony under that rubric and get away with it, should you be inclined to. And since the legislation has virtually no practical effect it is tempting to think that there is no practical point in wasting energy on getting it removed. Except, of course, that it enshrines the same attitude that teacher exemplified years ago. That Christianity, rather literally, has a God-given right to precedence in moral matters.

You may well want to argue that this makes sense in this country at this particular point in history. You may also be able to make a good case for a communal assembly at which the schoolday takes on some kind of reflective colouration – rather than being simply about grinding more facts and meeting more targets. But is statutory compulsion really a dignified way to do it?

That teacher at school inverted, by logical sleight of hand, a position in which he was abusing a power to one in which he was a victim. And the same combination of arrogance and grievance is detectable in the defenders of collective worship in schools today. "To deny children the entitlement to take part in worship at school", said a Church of England spokesman, "is to deny them a learning experience that is increasingly important in the modern world."

I don't need to be so respectfully polite this time. Nobody is talking about denial. Let's turn the question round. Do you really think that obliging children to worship as you do is a very Christian thing to do?

Icy pavements point to the selfish society

I imagine the Big Society will face stiffer tests in the year to come, but it occurred to me that the state of the pavements near my house offered one crude early audit of the degree to which people have absorbed David Cameron's call to voluntary civic enlistment. There might once have been a time when there would have been an expectation that you would clear away the snow on the pavement in front of your own house – all of these negligible acts of clearance combining to produce a substantial shared social good.

These days though, if my own neighbourhood is any guide, most people assume that it is someone else's job, with the result that the pavements have slowly hardened into buckled sheets of ice, with the occasional geometrical patch of dry paving. I have one in front of my own house, not as a result of my own communitarian virtue but because an enterprising young man turned up at the door with a shovel a few days into the big freeze and put in a reasonable bid for the clearance work.

My guess is that the Big Society will go much the same way – private enterprise randomly and unpredictably filling in for public indifference and council cut-backs. We're in the area filling potholes, mate. Any you'd like done?

How not to cook Heston's treat

I wish I'd sold my Heston Blumenthal Christmas Pudding when the market was at its peak. In an deeply uncharacteristic fit of advance planning I picked one up when there were shelves full of them at Waitrose, only to find I'd inadvertently made a great investment. I decided not to realise my profit on eBay, but show off to friends instead.

Unfortunately, I also decided to steam the pudding rather than microwave it, and in all the excitement the pan boiled dry, and the plastic bowl containing the pudding melted through the steamer basket, filling the kitchen with acrid smoke. We managed to recover some crumbs for a sampling. If it's any consolation to those who missed out I'm not sure it was worth the premium, though I suppose it's possible I didn't enjoy the product at its best.

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