Peers come out strongly in favour of Inclusive Assemblies Bill

A Bill proposing to replace the requirement for schools without a religious character to carry out Christian worship with inclusive assemblies has today passed its second stage in the House of Lords. Humanists UK, which has long campaigned for reforms to the law mandating worship in schools, said it was delighted that a strong majority of peers spoke out in support of the Bill. The introduction of assemblies that are suitable for all regardless of background would mark a significant victory for inclusive education.

The Education (Assemblies) Bill is being proposed as a Private Members’ Bill by All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG) Vice-Chair Baroness Burt. After thanking Humanists UK for their support with drafting and briefing peers on the Bill, Baroness Burt said the assemblies it proposes will bring ‘all children together in a community to reflect on matters that affect them – and us all.’

The Bill would remove the requirement for schools without a religious character in England to hold collective worship. Instead, it would introduce a requirement for these schools to hold inclusive assemblies suitable for all children regardless of their own or parents’ religion or belief. That could include religious topics, but not in a way that presents any particular religion or belief as true. The Bill leaves the requirement to carry out worship in faith schools untouched but requires children whose parents withdraw them to be provided with a meaningful educational alternative in line with the provision available in other schools.

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented:

‘We are absolutely delighted that this visionary Bill has passed its second stage debate today. If it becomes law, it would mark a significant victory for inclusive education, as well as for advancing the freedom of religion or belief of children and their families.

‘The vast majority of the peers contributing to today’s debate expressed appetite for change. All the evidence suggests that this echoes the view of society at large. With this in mind, we very much hope that inclusive assemblies soon become a reality in all our state schools.’

Summary of debate contributions

Describing the possible content of these assemblies, Baroness Burt commented that the assemblies required by her Bill ‘would address the spiritual, moral, social and cultural education of ALL children. When you have children coming together from many religious backgrounds and none, this spiritual dimension must take a different form for it to be meaningful to all. It would be thoughtful, encouraging children to reflect on our world, the moral choices we face, our responsibilities to each other and to the planet.’

The vast majority of peers contributing to the debate, many of whom are members of the APPHG, spoke in favour of the Bill. APPHG member Baroness Bennett offered the Green Party’s support for the Bill and outlined some of the topics inclusive assemblies might cover, including the environment and nature, art and culture, and first aid. Pointing out that the UN Children’s Rights Committee has recommended repealing worship laws, she said ‘it is important that we, as a nation, stand up for children’s rights’ because ‘on an international stage, when we are failing to comply with our own obligations, that weakens our position as an advocate for children’s rights around the world.’

Lord Harries of Pentregarth, the former Bishop of Oxford, said he supports the Bill ‘on Christian grounds’, and ‘the Christian faith… can shine in its own light’. He added that ‘the current law does not reflect where we are as a society and does a disservice to the Christian faith’. And the Earl of Clancarty emphasised the importance of inclusive assemblies for helping children to ‘think for themselves’ about what they believe.

Opposing the Bill, Lord Lilley argued that people are ‘essentially religious animals’. However, APPHG member Lord Dubs noted ‘There are moral standards that are shared… and which don’t need to have a Christian backing’. He said the Bill is ‘important and gets to the heart of what assemblies might be about.’ Another APPHG member, Baroness Massey, noted that the Bill ‘supports parental wishes and opens up great opportunities for involvement for children in issues that concern them, issues such as mental health, relationships, the environment…’ These assemblies ‘could make a real contribution to children’s lives’, she added.

Baroness Meacher said it was of the utmost importance that children are encouraged to respect good values of kindness, generosity, tolerance of difference, and more’, and argued that assemblies are ‘the main context for these incredibly important values’. However, she said that if these values are conveyed within a religious narrative with which the children simply don’t identify… it is extremely high risk…that children will somehow disregard the values themselves.’ This echoed the position of Baroness Murphy, another APPHG member, who said ‘prayer should not be enforced on children’. She detailed the importance of ‘enjoyable assemblies’ to enable children to ‘come together’ and ‘learn about moral issues and dilemmas and the great issues of the day’ and encouraged the Government to adopt the Bill.

Lord Desai, who identified himself as a humanist, said ‘is a very strange idea that moral and spiritual education can be done by getting people and haranguing them’. Lord Singh of Wimbledon, a Sikh, drew peers’ attention to the ‘vulnerability’ of children, saying, ‘assemblies couched in the teachings of one faith as gospel truth can cause confusion and hurt.’ And Baroness Hamwee emphasised the importance of ‘the school community getting together’, saying this is ‘valuable’ and that the Bill provides ‘a chance to reflect on things outside the formal curriculum: ethics, morality, values… which are not the monopoly of one religion or of religion.’

Labour’s education spokesperson in the Lords, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, said that the Government ‘should be put under the spotlight’ on the issue ‘because it has many questions to answer as to its apparent ambivalent position with regards to current legislation. Perhaps most fundamental… [is] why the UK is the only sovereign state in the world to require Christian worship in state schools, including those without religious character?’ He went on to highlight the fact that, according to the latest British Social Attitudes Survey, 62% of people identify as non-Christian, and asked if the Government had given ‘any thoughts to the implications of that statistic.’ He suggested that the Government conduct a public consultation to ‘test opinion and gauge the appetite for continuing with collective worship in school assemblies’ and, if not, whether they should be replaced with inclusive assemblies as set out in the Bill.

Unfortunately, while only three peers spoke in opposition to Bill (one of whom was the current Bishop of Oxford), the final of these speakers was Government Minister Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen. She said the Bill’s aims were ‘well-intentioned’ but argued that ‘the current legislation… already affords the sufficient flexibility the Bill is trying to achieve.’ She went on to claim that collective worship ‘is inclusive and allows all schools to tailor their provision to suit their pupils’ spiritual needs’. However, contradicting this, she later pointed out that, while schools could obtain an exemption to conduct worship in line with a faith other than Christianity, ‘this does not permit the replacement of worship with a non-religious option’. In other words, leaving non-religious parents to either put up with worship or withdraw their children. In her final statement, Baroness Burt noted, ‘being withdrawn… is to be excluded, to be alienated.’ Instead, she said, we should ‘bring all children together… to focus on values that unite us.’