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Last Updated: Sunday, 24 July 2005, 22:57 GMT 23:57 UK
School worship: from sports to death
By Lucy Wilkins
BBC News website

Sport, politics and terror attacks might seem odd subjects for religious contemplation by young people, but they were all recently recommended as the focus of collective worship in schools.

Christian cross
Daily collective worship must be 'broadly Christian'

Daily collective worship is a legal requirement for England's schools, but just a quarter of secondary schools actually comply, according to education inspectorate Ofsted.

Government guidelines suggest just over half of the year's worship should be Christian, with the remaining 49% concerning other faiths.

However, schools can opt out of the Christian aspect if the background of pupils would make it inappropriate.

Likewise, parents can withdraw their pupils from collective worship without giving a reason.

London's successful bid for the 2012 Olympic Games and the G8 summit of world leaders were suggested as a focus for worship by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

But in the hours after bombs killed dozens of London commuters on 7 July, a flood of e-mails from teachers asking for advice prompted the society to quickly update the "rapid response" section of its website.

'Seek peace'

It suggested that the worship, which usually takes about 10 minutes during assembly, should start with a recapping of the day's events, emphasising the skill of emergency workers and the calm of the public.

In some schools they are clued up and happy to do it, but others see it as a chore
Joanna Moriarty
Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge
"Explain that although we don't know exactly who did this, it was caused by terrorists - people who can't get what they want by normal means so they seek to hurt and kill people," the society recommended.

The final prayer ends: "We pray that people everywhere will learn to give up war and terrorism and seek peace."

Apart from mention of a Bible psalm, psalm 102, and one prayer, the suggested assembly makes little overt reference to Christianity or Christ.

The society's editorial director, Joanna Moriarty, said they tried to avoid being "aggressively Christian" so that non-Christian schools would feel comfortable following the advice.

The Koran
Schools can withdraw from Christian worship if it is not appropriate for pupils

"Schools want material that they can use as a focus, particularly events that affect children.

"But it's not just bad things - there are good things to celebrate too," she says to explain the inclusion of sporting events planned for seven years from now.

"One reason we do this is to make it easier for teachers and those leading the assemblies to provide good quality material.

"In some schools they are clued up and happy to do it, but others see it as a chore, and it can be just landed on the newly-qualified teachers."

The National Secular Society, which campaigns for the separation of religion from education, is critical of the need for parental consent for pupils to withdraw from the worship.

Vice president Terry Sanderson said: "We believe it is an abuse of children's rights. It's not fair on the children who have to have their parents' permission to withdraw."

It was particularly unfair on those who had reached 16.

"They can smoke and get married but they can't opt out of compulsory daily worship."

'Churches'

The government says the collective worship promotes school ethos and community spirit - a view disputed by the Secular Society.

"The collective worship has nothing to do with that.

"We think the morning assembly is a good idea and bringing everyone together once a day or once a week is good.

"Those who want to do the worship should go and do so elsewhere - but I don't see why schools have become churches."

Father Christmas
They believe more in Father Christmas than they do in God and that's fine by me
Peter Wilkinson
Parent

Parent Peter Wilkinson, raised as an Anglican and now an atheist, chose to send his two sons to a non-faith school.

He said his sons, aged four and six, did not attend collective worship "as far as I know".

"And while the young students study comparative religion - exploring the world's different faiths - no one religion is rammed down their throats."

He said if the collective worship requirement was strenuously enforced at his sons' school he would "be tempted to insist that my children were conscientious objectors and could opt out".

"They believe more in Father Christmas than they do in God and that's fine by me," he said.

"Father Christmas may not exist but to my knowledge at least no-one ever lived their lives according to his so-called edicts or fought a war in his name."

Excuses, excuses

The chairwoman of the Association of Religious Education inspectors, advisors and consultants, Sarah Smalley, said schools did have problems fulfilling the requirement for worship.

Some schools organised worship "in a broad and inclusive way" but just not every day, she said.

Primary schools see it as a chance to reinforce a sense of community, shared values... this isn't the case at secondary schools
Sarah Smalley
Association of Religious Education
Others offered excuses that "are not really valid", such as a lack of space to gather the entire school for worship - there is actually no requirement for such a gathering, as smaller groups are allowed.

"There is a large group of school managers who interpret the requirements in specific ways.

"They feel they have to promote Christian worship to the students, which they may feel is inappropriate. Quite a lot of heads have a bit of a block about it."

And primary schools are better at carrying it out than secondary schools, Ms Smalley said.

"Primary schools see it as a chance to reinforce a sense of community, shared values and to give an opportunity for worship. This isn't the case at secondary schools."




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