John Hall on Collective Worship in Schools

Andy Hawes’ article last month on the importance of school worship (Where God is Dead June 2004) was a real encouragement to me not to give up on one of the important political debates in which on behalf of the Church I am currently engaged.

When Charles Clarke succeeded Estelle Morris in November 2002, the Bishop of Blackburn, Alan Chesters, then chairman of the Church of England Board of Education, wrote on behalf of the main Churches’ education chairmen and officers, asking for an early meeting. The new Secretary of State for Education and Skills was surprisingly ready to agree and told us of three of his priorities: to understand why so many politicians were negative about ‘faith schools’ and if possible to change the public debate; to give greater priority to Religious Education in the school curriculum; and to decide what to do about collective worship. In other words, he was willing to grasp nettles. But he wanted to be well prepared.

Andy Hawes quoted from a speech given by David Bell, HM Chief Inspector of Schools, at the House of Commons recently. He wanted the law changed to require worship weekly or monthly instead of daily. His was by no means the first intervention of that kind. There has been clamour for change over school worship for some time. In 1998, my first year in this post, the National Association of Head Teachers at their annual conference passed overwhelmingly a resolution that the requirement for school worship should be abolished. I had a heated debate on the matter on the Today programme with John Humphrys holding the ring between me and Liz Paver a past president of the NAHT, who at that time was a member of the Board of Education.

Although in 1998 it was the NAHT asking for a change in the law, in 1944, when the law on collective worship was first introduced, it was the National Union of Teachers that led the extra-parliamentary opposition. William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, was sympathetic to the teachers opposed to the legal requirement but reflected to a correspondent, ‘I think teachers are a little liable to ignore the fact that while it is objectionable to force the teachers to conduct prayers against their consciences it is also objectionable to force the children to omit prayers for the sake of the teachers’ consciences.’

Sixty years ago, the law expected the whole school to assemble at the beginning of the day for an act of Christian worship. Since 1988, the law has recognised that for most secondary schools an assembly of all the pupils would be impracticable, so they can meet at any time of day in any grouping (form, tutor group, year, house). It is also clear that many schools have large numbers of pupils who are not of a Christian faith heritage, so schools can be flexible, using non-Christian worship traditions if appropriate almost half the time, and even, if for example almost all the pupils are Muslim, having Muslim worship all the time with the agreement of the local standing advisory council for RE (SACRE). Since 1998, the law has explicitly stated that for schools with a religious character, the daily worship should be in accordance with the religion of the school, and it can take place in the school or in the local church. We therefore expect Church of England schools to have a daily act of worship that reflects Anglican liturgical practice. Many schools in recent years have successfully introduced regular Eucharists.

I maintain, as Andy Hawes does, that the law is flexible and practical and that there should be no problem for schools in implementing it. The opposition is not really on practical grounds but seems to be an unhappy combination of the ideological attitude of the secularists and the ‘my religion is a private matter’ of ill-prepared and understandably nervous Christians.

Many of us who were at school in the 1950s and 60s will have mixed memories of formal assemblies with a hymn, a reading, a hurried prayer and the school notices, which might be the traditional head teacher’s frank assessment of the shortcomings of his charges. I have some affectionate memories of hymns sung with gusto and familiar repeated prayers. I can also remember assemblies where the hymns were sung only by a handful of stalwart teachers and the readings were poorly prepared and the prayers muttered. We can surely avoid that caricature. What pupils and teachers are entitled to is a brief period each day of thought and reflection, silence and prayer, a little breathing space in a headlong day. This should be supplemented in church schools by an introduction to the great prayers of our tradition and to something of our liturgical practice, with from time to time big imaginative and well-prepared Eucharistic celebrations, perhaps reflecting the best in the current practice of youth worship. One of my favourite memories from my time as a parish priest is of a middle school where the spring term finished on Maundy Thursday. My suggestion of a Mass of the Last Supper (admittedly in the morning – perhaps the liturgical purists will forgive me) was agreed and we decided to risk overcrowding and disorder by assembling the whole school in the hall. I added to the head’s anxieties by suggesting she wash the feet of twelve of the pupils. It was one of the most moving Maundy Thursdays of my priestly ministry. I shall never forget the pin-drop silence and profound sense of a rich symbol of authority coming alive for those pupils and teachers.

Most (96%) primary schools have a daily act of worship. The key to a renewed practice of school prayer and worship in secondary schools must be support and guidance. There are legions of helpful publications and websites such as the National Society’s with Culham Institute ( and SPCK’s ( There is very little or no government funded training or preparation as part of initial teacher training or continuing professional development. There is no current government guidance, nor is there any support for headteachers in implementing the law from the National College for School Leadership or other means of government support.

Charles Clarke has had several discussions with religious authorities, including ourselves, about the current situation. He has given no indication that he supports a change in the law. Indeed I was given assurances that David Bell was speaking without the Secretary of State’s encouragement or support. He has promised that, when the new national framework for RE is in place, he will go on to consider, with a group representing the religious interests in education, how the law on collective worship can be better supported. I believe that the situation can be recovered, so that all schools observe this good law.

The Reverend Canon J R Hall is the Church of England’s Chief Education Officer and general Secretary of the National Society