The government is unlikely to “stir the pot” over whether there should be any changes to the requirement for schools to provide a daily act of collective worship, the group which oversees Lancashire’s religious education syllabus has heard.
Peter Martin, chair of the county’s Standing Advisory Committee on Religious Education (SACRE), told members that the issue had not been raised at a recent gathering of counterpart organisations from across the country.
All state schools and academies must provide collective worship – a requirement dating back to education reforms implemented in the aftermath of World War Two.
The law requires that worship in non-faith schools should be of a “broadly” Christian character over the course of each term, without focusing on any one branch of the faith. Some non-Christian elements and themes common to Christianity and other faiths are also permitted.
Guidelines issued by the Lancashire SACRE emphasise a focus on a range of spiritual, moral, social and cultural topics, which should be appropriate to the ages and family backgrounds of the pupils present.
The document says that youngsters should be given an “opportunity” to worship, but that it should be an inclusive process in which they can ”pray or reflect in accord with their own beliefs”. It adds that themes relating to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus can spark discussion on issues of “spiritual and moral concern to all people” – including justice, prejudice, pollution, cruelty and war.
One of the aims of the SACRE’s work over the next twelve months is to improve the collective worship provided in Lancashire’s schools, but committee member Francis Williams – a county council-appointed representative – questioned whether that was work in which the group should be involved.
“I really don’t think we should be concerning ourselves with acts of collective worship – I think we should be looking [solely] at religious education as a subject which needs to be taught in schools,” Mr Williams said.
“[The two issues] sit with some difficulty in relation to each other,” he added.
Worship in faith schools can be undertaken in accordance with the principles of that particular faith. But a non-faith school which feels that the requirement to provide “broadly Christian” worship is inappropriate for all – or a group of – its pupils can apply to the SACRE to deviate from the rule.
However, collective worship must be still be provided – and it will be up to the headteacher to decide what form it should take. Parents also have the right to withdraw their child from collective acts of worship - as they do from religious education itself.
But the meeting heard that there has been no increase in the numbers of parents requesting to withdraw their child from RE lessons in Lancashire’s schools over the past twelve months.
Last year, the committee said that a nationwide commission on RE should have “shown more teeth” on the issue, after it recommended only that the Department for Education review the right of withdrawal.
Peter Martin suggested the other ten recommendations in the report – which included a suggestion to rename RE “religion and worldviews” – had been “buried” by the government.
SACRE officer Alison Lloyd, said the report appeared to have been “parked”. But she told the committee that a recent refresh of the curriculum in Lancashire had “raised expectations” of what was required by primary schools – and was working on doing the same at secondary level.
“The new syllabus is far better quality [and ensures children are being taught] more than just about Christmas and Easter every year,” Ms Lloyd said.
RE is not part of the national curriculum and so its syllabus varies by local authority area.