Inclusive Assemblies Bill completes passage through House of Lords
A Bill aiming to replace compulsory Christian worship with inclusive assemblies in English schools without a religious character yesterday completed its passage through the House of Lords. Humanists UK has long campaigned for reforms to the law mandating worship in schools. It said it was delighted with this progress. The introduction of assemblies that are suitable for all regardless of background would mark a ‘significant victory for inclusive education in England’, it added.
The Education (Assemblies) Bill is a Private Members’ Bill introduced by Vice-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG) Baroness Burt. During third reading yesterday, she thanked Humanists UK for its support and was hopeful for further progress once the Bill reaches the House of Commons. She added that the Bill would ‘uphold children’s rights to an inclusive education and would reflect the recommendations from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child which has urged the UK to repeal these collective worship laws’. Baroness Burt concluded her speech by saying ‘I wish the Bill well on its next stages in the other place where the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, Crispin Blunt, intends to pick it up.’
Vice-Chair of the APPHG Baroness Burt commented:
‘I am thrilled that the Education (Assemblies) Bill has completed its passage through the House of Lords. I now urge the Government to make sure it gets a fair hearing in the Commons. The introduction of inclusive assemblies would bring school communities together, irrespective of religion or belief. It would bring an end to the unfair exclusion of any child from assemblies because their families do not happen to be Christian.’
Humanists UK Education Policy Researcher Dr Ruth Wareham commented:
‘It is heartening to see this important Bill take a further step towards becoming law. Mandatory worship is a relic of a bygone age, and has no place in a 21st century education system. The public overwhelmingly backs the idea of inclusive assemblies that better reflect our diverse society. We therefore hope that MPs will get behind this Bill and work to unite schools around shared values rather than allowing them to continue to be divided by religion.’
About the Bill
The Bill proposes to remove the requirement for schools without a religious character in England to hold collective worship. Instead, they will have to hold inclusive assemblies designed to be suitable for all children regardless of their religion or belief. These assemblies could include religious topics, but not in a way that presents any particular religion or belief as true. The Bill does not propose to alter the requirement that worship takes place in faith schools. However, it does specify that children who have been withdrawn from worship must be provided with a meaningful educational alternative. This alternative must be in line with the assembly provision in other schools.
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. What’s more, the process is often difficult and no meaningful alternative to worship is offered in the vast majority of schools.
The changes proposed by the Bill are likely to be popular with parents. In 2019, parents responding to a YouGov poll ranked religious worship last in a list of 13 possible topics that could be covered in assemblies. Just 29% thought worship was appropriate. This compares with 76% who thought ‘the environment and nature’ would be appropriate. 74% who thought ‘equality and non-discrimination’ was appropriate. And 73% who thought ‘celebration of achievements’ and ‘physical and mental health’ should feature. Polling conducted this year also shows that 60% of parents with school-age children oppose the collective worship law being enforced. Just 24% think it should be. This poll was based on questions used in a 2011 poll commissioned by the BBC. At that time, 30% of parents thought the law should be enforced. This suggests that opposition has grown in the last decade.
The Bill is unlikely to become law unless it wins support from the Government. However, despite acknowledging that the law ‘[does] not permit the replacement of worship with a non-religious option’ it has said the practice is ‘inclusive and allows all schools to tailor their provision to suit their pupils’ spiritual needs’. Nevertheless, the Bill’s passage through the Lords has prompted robust debate, bringing an unfair law dating back over 75 years to much wider attention. Humanists UK will continue to campaign to end compulsory religious worship in schools.