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What the Woolf Institute report says about school assemblies and faith schools shows up its whole approach as binary and reductive

2016 January 11
by Paul Vallely

There was a short letter in The Times just before Christmas. It said: ‘At our little parish church in our quiet corner of Cornwall, the carol service on December 20 will begin with the first verse of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, sung by a child. This year that child is nine years old and a Hindu. Her entire family will be present to support her.’

The report by the grand-sounding Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life came in for a fair amount of flack when it was published in the same month. The Church of England accused it of having been hijacked by a ‘humanist’ agenda. But that letter about the Hindu participation in a Christian carol service hinted at the key deficiency in the report – its lack of political sophistication.

A big part of the problem lay in the failing of the panel which produced the report – assembled by the interfaith Woolf Institute and chaired by the former high-court judge Dame Elizabeth Butler- Sloss – to understand the difference between theory and practice. Take one of its most prominent recommendations, the proposal to abolish the requirement for state schools to hold a daily act of worship.

In an era marked by a decline in formal religious observance, coupled with the growth of non-Christian religions, and the spread of an ‘I’m spiritual but not religious’ popular sensibility, the Butler-Sloss proposal sounds sensible enough. But look what is happening on the ground. Just as a Hindu child – and indeed a girl – can take the lead in beginning a Christian celebration, so in schools across the land a pragmatic accommodation has been worked out in daily or weekly assemblies. Though the 1944 Education Act creates a statutory obligation on schools to hold nondenominational daily acts of collective worship few schools now do so. At least three quarters of schools were not adhering to the requirement, according to Oftsed.

So the issue is theoretical rather than practical. If you were designing the system from scratch you would not include such a requirement. If I was going there I wouldn’t start from here, as the old country bumpkin joke has it. So why not remove the requirement? Before answering that it is important to know what would replace it.

Butler-Sloss suggests an ‘inclusive time for reflection’ drawing upon ‘a range of sources’. Given the materialist utilitarianism which informs the rest of the report the suspicion must be that it would be replaced by something social and ethical rather than spiritual. The fear must be that a whole dimension of children’s development would be neglected in line with the general drift to a devaluation of the spiritual life. That is why a law that requires daily worship (more honoured in the breach than in the observance) might be the lesser evil.

The 1944 Act requires a daily assembly which is a ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’. That wording is a happy example of our national genius for compromise. It keeps a spiritual and moral yardstick before the eyes of educators while allowing wide flexibility in its application. The same question – what will replace the status quo – is one which others faiths clearly ask themselves when faced with the idea of disestablishing the Church of England, another hoary favourite floated by Butler-Sloss. She seems to fear it must cause offence to other religions as it does to the humanists whose agenda has driven much of the report. The problem is that other faiths are overwhelmingly unhappy about the notion of CofE disestablishment, fearing it will be another attempt to erode the status of faith within national public life.

Ditto on faith schools, on which the report opines: ‘in our view it is not clear that segregation of young people into faith schools has promoted greater cohesion or that it has not in fact been socially divisive and led rather to greater misunderstanding and tension’. It is not clear. On that rather flimsy premise it recommends that the government should require faith schools to limit the number of children from religious backgrounds they admit.

Others have rather different views. Though it is true that in some middle class church schools pupils never mix with anyone outside their elite social peer group, there are many other faith schools which are far more diverse than mainstream schools. They almost always have broader catchment areas and a wider ability range. The school attached to the first church I attended in Manchester contained immigrant children of 42 different nationalities.

Moreover faith schools adopt different mission visions; CofE schools focus on serving their local area, where Catholics, Jews and Muslims see their purpose as serving the needs of their specific faith communities. It is hard to see how Butler-Sloss’s prescriptions can apply equally to both. Few in the faith communities take offence at the schools of other religions; indeed many Muslim parents prefer Christian schools over secular ones. Large numbers of non-religious parents also chose a church school – and in numbers which outweigh the groups of agnostic or atheist parents who object to a religious ethos. That is why faith schools are among the most oversubscribed in the country. The report’s cheap jibe about religious parents wanting “to have their children raised in a religious ethos at state expense” fails to consider that such parents pay the same taxes as those in secular schools.

The face of faith is changing but it is becoming richer and more complex. Addressing those changes needs an approach which is less binary and reductive. A real opportunity has been missed.


from Third Way


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