Collective Worship and Religious Observance in Schools

by Peter Cumper (Volume editor) Alison Mawhinney (Volume editor)
©2018 Edited Collection XIV, 396 Pages
Series: Religion, Education and Values, Volume 13


This book examines the law and policy governing school acts of collective worship in England, Northern Ireland and Wales, and their equivalent in Scotland, which is known as religious observance. The fact that the majority of UK schools (including non-denominational ones) are required by law to organize acts of collective worship/religious observance for their pupils has provoked significant controversy in recent decades. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, there has (to date) been a relative paucity of published interdisciplinary scholarly material on such matters. In seeking to rectify this anomaly, the book takes a holistic approach whereby it examines the nature and consequences of the collective worship/religious observance duty from a variety of perspectives. These range from examining the law and policy governing collective worship/religious observance in each country within the UK, to exploring the legal and educational challenges and opportunities thrown up by the current obligations. In addition, scholars from beyond the UK offer insights into the possibilities and dilemmas that the current statutory duties pose for schools and wider society. The aim of this book is to shine a light on an important issue that has often been neglected and ignored by policymakers.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword (Robert Jackson)
  • Introduction: Collective Worship and Religious Observance in Context (Peter Cumper / Alison Mawhinney)
  • Part I: Collective Worship and Religious Observance in the UK: A Country Analysis
  • 1. Collective Worship in England (Peter Cumper / Julia Ipgrave)
  • 2. Collective Worship in Northern Ireland’s Schools (Aideen Hunter / Norman Richardson)
  • 3. Religious Observance in Scotland (Claire Cassidy / Frankie Mccarthy)
  • 4. Collective Worship in Wales (Alison Mawhinney / Ann Sherlock)
  • Part II: Collective Worship and Religious Observance: Legal Perspectives
  • 5. The Law on Collective School Worship: The Rationale Then and Now (Alison Mawhinney)
  • 6. Dynamic Self-determinism, the Right to Belief and the Role of Collective Worship (Frankie McCarthy)
  • 7. Religious Observance and Collective Worship in Schools: A Human Rights Perspective (Ann Sherlock)
  • Part III: Collective Worship and Religious Observance: Educational Perspectives
  • 8. The Contribution of Collective Worship to Spiritual Development (Jacqueline Watson)
  • 9. Philosophy with Children: An Alternative to Religious Observance (Claire Cassidy)
  • 10. Collective Worship and Theology: Issues and Questions (Julia Ipgrave / Farid Panjwani)
  • 11. Educational Perspectives on School Collective Worship: Beyond Obituary (Norman Richardson / Aideen Hunter)
  • Part IV: Collective Worship and Religious Observance: International Perspectives
  • 12. Collective Worship and Religious Observance in UK Schools: Questions and Possibilities (Mary Elizabeth Moore)
  • 13. Embracing Otherness in Supporting Community: A Plea from a Pedagogical Perspective for Experiential Learning in Dialogicality (Ina Ter Avest)
  • 14. Common Symbols in a Diverse School for All: Collective Worship Seen from a Scandinavian Perspective (Geir Skeie)
  • Conclusion (Peter Cumper / Alison Mawhinney)
  • Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

← viii | ix →



This important book is the first collaborative study focusing entirely on issues concerning religious worship in schools across the United Kingdom. Acts of worship and religious observance in schools need to be distinguished from religious education as a curriculum subject, although there is a relationship between the two. The research on which much of this book is based took on the task of evaluating systematically current law and policy related specifically to ‘collective worship’ in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and ‘religious observance’ in Scotland. The book brings together the expertise of scholars working in education, law and a range of other relevant academic disciplines.

Speaking more generally, the place of religion in state-funded schools in different European countries – especially in relation to religious education – has changed significantly since the 1960s. The main drivers of change include secularization, characterized by a decline in religious belief and practice. A second influence for change is pluralization, especially through the migration to European states of people of various ethnic and religious backgrounds. A third is globalization, often connecting aspects of life in particular countries with events in other parts of the world. For young people, the revolution in communication represented by the internet, the mobile telephone and social media have been transformative. The changes resulting from these different influences have varied in a number of ways across countries, not least because of some very different national histories of religion and state, and some different experiences over time in relation to migration.

Thus, in various European states, there has been a shift in state education from so-called ‘confessional’ forms of religious education, in which religious beliefs and values are transmitted to young people, to forms of inclusive religious education, in which young people from a variety of ← ix | x → religious and non-religious family backgrounds learn together about religious and non-religious diversity, sometimes with opportunities for moderated discussion and personal reflection. Issues related to the development of workable methods for studying religions and beliefs in state schools across the European continent are discussed in on-going work initiated by the Council of Europe (Jackson, 2014).

The situation regarding religious education is complex in the United Kingdom. Scotland has its own education system, and the education system in Northern Ireland differs in some ways from that in England and Wales. English and Welsh policies can also differ in certain respects. The complication is compounded by the fact that, in addition to religious education in the classroom, there is also legal provision for what in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is still called ‘collective worship’, and in Scotland is called ‘religious observance’.

To take the English case, the 1944 Education Act regarded what it called ‘religious education’ as including both ‘religious instruction’ and ‘collective worship’. Under the influences outlined above, religious instruction and collective worship as practised in state-funded schools have both evolved.

‘Bottom-up’ changes in schools run in parallel with influences from the academic world and the world of professional education. In England and Wales, in the case of religious instruction, such influences eventually resulted in changes to law. The 1988 Education Reform Act at last changed the name of the curriculum subject from ‘religious instruction’ to ‘religious education’, and acknowledged that its content should take account of the country’s religious diversity. However, the term ‘collective worship’ was left in place, and academic argument – as reflected in John Hull’s powerful book School Worship: An Obituary (Hull, 1975) – made no impact on the law.

The legal requirement to maintain acts of collective worship in state-funded schools with pupil and teacher populations from diverse religious and secular backgrounds has presented schools with some serious challenges. As the present volume indicates, one response has been simply to ignore the requirement. Another has involved interpreting the requirement loosely, using the time and opportunity to bring the whole or parts of the school together in order to pursue worthwhile collective activities, often ← x | xi → related to learning about religions and beliefs, spirituality, or exploring values issues as a school community. Creative and valuable as many of these activities are, it is clear that changes in law and policy are required urgently.

Maintaining the status quo would be a mistake, and arguably runs counter to the human rights principle of freedom of religion or belief. Abolishing the duty completely would remove opportunities for bringing the school population together as a community. Clearly, the name of the activity needs to be changed in law (since the 1950s, many schools have simply referred to it as ‘Assembly’), and there needs to be some flexibility. For example, in the secondary school where I taught in the late 1960s, the whole school assembled once a week, on Monday; there was no assembly on Wednesday; and on the other two days three particular age ranges assembled (11–13, 14–16, over 16). Assemblies included listening to invited guests, sometimes from religious or humanistic communities or from caring professions, speak about their work or their world view, outlining their experience and opening up discussions about values and society. When guests came in, opportunities were always provided for students to ask questions and make contributions. Students sometimes performed short dramas on religious or philosophical themes that they had prepared in English or RE lessons; I recall one by third-year pupils exploring different kinds of truth – logical, scientific, aesthetic and religious. Sometimes, the whole school was brought together to acknowledge and reflect on a particular event, such as the death of a pupil or a member of staff. To move to the present day, in June 2017, a south London primary school had a whole school assembly which gave pupils an opportunity to reflect on an attack near the school on a seventeen-year-old Muslim boy, and also on the atrocities committed on London Bridge. The concepts of terrorism and extremism were explored, together with human rights values, as were the obligations on members of the school community to respect one another’s rights to hold particular beliefs. The assembly was part of a series both exploring the school as a community, whose shared values enable celebration of differences in culture and religion, and providing pupils with time for reflection on the issues raised. These examples show how bringing the whole school community together, or bringing particular age groups together, can provide educational opportunities for exploring ← xi | xii → questions of value and spirituality, as well as enabling pupils to learn about the commitments of people from different backgrounds.

My personal view is that all students should study and try to understand worship and devotion in different religious traditions, just as they should gain an understanding of non-religious world views. This can be done, in part, through listening to explanations and personal accounts from visitors to the school, or through participating in educational visits to particular communities.

I have shared some anecdotes about what can be done creatively in the context of outmoded legislation. However, changes in law and policy in relation to collective worship and religious observance are needed urgently across the United Kingdom. The present book provides politicians and policymakers with the tools they need in order to do this, as well as providing detailed information for educators and parents.

In addition to valuable introductory and concluding chapters by the editors, Part I presents an analysis of law and policy across the nations of the United Kingdom, indicating policy options in each particular case.

Part II provides a variety of legal perspectives on collective worship and religious observance, focusing on the rights of children, parents and teachers, and giving due consideration to the interests of the state.

Part III is written by scholars working in education, and deals with issues such as the contribution that ‘assemblies’ can make to pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, to the nurture of their reflexive and philosophical skills, and to the need to take close account of the religious or world view background of children and teachers who participate. This Part concludes with a discussion of ways forward for policymakers, noting difficulties in reaching a broad consensus, and favouring a position requiring serious reform rather than total abolition.

Part IV provides a welcome international perspective from scholars working in the broad field of religions and education in the USA, the Netherlands and Scandinavia. Relevant concepts such as the cultivation of human integrity, holistic interreligious knowledge and experiential learning through dialogue are presented, together with the argument that the state school should be a community of persons and learning, reflecting a diversity of values, world views, religions and convictions. ← xii | xiii →

This book will surely generate informed debate, leading to important educational reform.


Hull, J. (1975). School Worship: An Obituary. London: SCM Press.

Jackson, R. (2014). ‘Signposts’: Policy and Practice for Teaching about Religions and Non-Religious Worldviews in Intercultural Education. Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publishing. ← xiii | xiv →

← xiv | 1 →


Introduction: Collective Worship and Religious Observance in Context

This is a book about collective worship and religious observance in UK schools. At first glance one might assume that notions such as ‘collective worship’ and ‘religious observance’ would have little place in the classrooms of state-funded schools. Yet, on closer inspection, it soon becomes clear that this is not the case, on account of the fact that the vast majority of UK schools are required by law to organize acts of collective worship (England, Northern Ireland, Wales) or religious observance (Scotland) for their pupils.

In view of the historically close ties between Church and State in the United Kingdom, it is perhaps unsurprising that the duty on schools to make provision for acts of collective worship/religious observance has a long history. For example, in England, Northern Ireland and Wales, forms of religious observance in schools were commonplace even prior to the Education Act 1944 – the statute which, in relation to the introduction of the ‘collective worship’ requirement, represented the first instance of a legal duty in regard to such matters in schools. Likewise, in Scotland, religious observance can be traced back to the nineteenth century and the Education (Scotland) Act 1872, which gave schools the freedom to continue the customary practice of religious observance, subject to a resolution in favour of discontinuation by the local electorate.

Controversy and topicality

Just as acts of collective worship/religious observance have had a long history in schools in the UK, so too have these practices been synonymous with controversy for many decades. Today issues relating to ← 1 | 2 → collective worship/religious observance continue to generate controversy. There are a number of reasons for this state of affairs. They include: disagreement about the appropriateness of acts of collective worship/religious observance in an increasingly pluralistic, multicultural UK; the degree to which the current system properly affords respect to the rights of those with no ‘religious’ faith; and concerns that the present arrangements do not adequately develop the spiritual/moral education of pupils, or promote a community spirit and shared values in schools. We will explore, in more detail, these and other such criticisms of the current collective worship/religious observance arrangements in the forthcoming chapters.

The controversy surrounding collective worship/religious observance has also led to such matters being highly topical. After all, matters pertaining to collective worship/religious observance have, in recent years, increasingly been associated with the debate about the appropriate place of religion and belief in contemporary public life. Thus, for example, there have been: calls for the collective worship requirement in law to be replaced with non-statutory guidance, as made by Charles Clarke and Linda Woodhead (Clarke & Woodhead, 2015); proposals for collective worship to be replaced with inclusive times for reflection, as put forward by the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life (Report of the CORBBPL, 2015); concerns about the procedure of opting out from acts of collective worship/religious observance, similar to those expressed by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2016); relevant initiatives from law and policymakers, as evidenced by a recent announcement from the Scottish Government that it plans to hold a consultation on aspects of the practice of religious observance in Scottish schools (BBC News, 2016); and finally, other recent developments, such as a YouGov poll which found that 38 per cent of adults in Scotland are against having a place for worship in the education system (Sanderson, 2016), and a petition that was launched in 2017 which called on the Welsh Assembly to reform the law on collective worship in schools (Wightwick, 2017). ← 2 | 3 →

Rationale, scope and remit

Even though the issue of collective worship/religious observance is topical there is also, perhaps surprisingly, a relative paucity of published material by scholars in this area. One possible explanation for this state of affairs is the tendency of some to view collective worship/religious observance as being less a specialized or stand-alone topic and one rather to be explored in the context of the more general issue of religious education. Instead of adopting this approach – which risks collective worship/religious observance being subsumed by its expansive sibling religious education – this book seeks to examine collective worship/religious observance (to the extent that it is appropriate to do so) as a topic that is worthy of analysis in its own right. Accordingly, this book aims to document the relevant law and policy governing collective worship/religious observance, whilst also aspiring to stimulate fresh thinking in this area.

By bringing together scholars from such a wide range of disciplines, this collection aims to demystify much of the uncertainty that currently surrounds the areas of collective worship/religious observance. It seeks to examine questions such as: what is the purpose of collective worship/religious observance? How should schools take account of the rights of children, parents and teachers when organizing such acts? And what are the legitimate interests of the state in such matters? Another important theme to be explored in the book is discussion of whether significant differences exist in the law and policy governing collective worship amongst England, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as comparing collective worship legal frameworks with that governing religious observance in Scotland. Finally, the book aims to foster debate on the extent to which acts of collective worship/religious observance are capable of helping to develop shared values in an increasingly plural and multicultural society.

The essays in this collection are based primarily on research that was recently undertaken as part of a two-year Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project (Grant Ref: AH/K006436/1, <http://collectiveschoolworship.com/>) on collective worship and religious observance in UK schools. The primary focus of this book, as well as the ← 3 | 4 → aforementioned AHRC project, is schools without a religious character. While many of the observations made in the forthcoming chapters apply to all schools, the primary focus of this edited collection is schools without a religious character – the rationale for this being that a proper analysis of schools with a designated religious character would require detailed and separate consideration.



XIV, 396
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (January)
collective worship religious observance religion in UK schools
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2018. XIV, 396 pp.

Biographical notes

Peter Cumper (Volume editor) Alison Mawhinney (Volume editor)

Peter Cumper is a Professor of Law at the University of Leicester. Alison Mawhinney is a Reader in Law at Bangor University, Wales.


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