New Bill proposes to replace compulsory worship with inclusive assemblies

A new Bill that proposes to replace compulsory religious worship in English schools with inclusive assemblies will be considered in the UK Parliament, after being drawn ninth in the House of Lords Private Members’ Bill ballot today. The Education (Assemblies) Bill was tabled by All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG) Vice-Chair Baroness Burt with support from Humanists UK.

Since it was drawn ninth, the Bill is likely to be debated over the coming year. If it receives sufficient support, it could theoretically become law.

The Bill will introduce a requirement for schools to provide assemblies that develop the ‘spiritual, moral, social, and cultural education’ of all pupils, regardless of religion or belief. That will replace an existing requirement for daily compulsory collective worship. In fact, the Bill proposes that no compulsory acts of worship or other religious observance should be organised by schools. However, it will permit pupils to opt-in to voluntary acts of worship if they so wish, with parents retaining the right to withdraw those aged under 16 from such sessions.

The Bill’s introduction comes just weeks after the UK Government said that any schools it is alerted to that are breaching the requirement to hold collective worship will be ‘investigated’ and ‘reminded of their duty on this matter’. This marks a ramping up in the enforcement of worship not seen in many years.

The UK is the only sovereign state in the world to impose worship in all state schools, including those without a religious character. Outside of faith schools, this worship must be ‘broadly Christian’. Parents may withdraw their children from worship and sixth form pupils in England and Wales may withdraw themselves, but younger pupils may not withdraw without parental permission. This process is often difficult and no meaningful alternative to worship is offered in the vast majority of schools – a fact that Humanists UK believes is discriminatory.

In February, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child pressed governments across the UK to ‘to repeal legal provisions for compulsory attendance at collective worship in publicly funded schools and ensure that children can independently exercise the right to withdraw from religious observance at school.’ A prior report by the same Committee in 2016 also said the requirement should be abolished.

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Dr Ruth Wareham commented: 

‘We strongly support the introduction of Baroness Burt’s Assemblies Bill. The requirement for all schools, including those without a religious character, to carry out daily acts of Christian worship is simply not appropriate for the diverse, multi-belief society that the UK is today. It should be replaced with inclusive assemblies that further all children’s spiritual, moral, social, and cultural development, regardless of their background. We very much hope this Bill will help to make this positive vision a reality.’

The Bill is due to have its first reading in the House of Lords on 27 May. This is where the Bill is formally presented, but no substantial debate happens at this stage. A full debate is expected to be scheduled in due course.