22 August, 2010


Prayer in school

I recently read The Slow, Whiny Death of British Christianity byJohann Hari. There are a lot of issues discussed briefly in thearticle, but the one that really shocked me was the legal requirementfor prayer in schools.

A few searches later and this is what I find: School Standards and Framework Act 1998 (c. 31)

The key section is this one:

  • 70. Requirements relating to collective worship
    1. Subject to section 71, each pupil in attendance at acommunity, foundation or voluntary school shall on each schoolday take part in an act of collective worship.
    2. Subject to section 71, in relation to any community,foundation or voluntary school
      • the local education authority and the governing bodyshall exercise their functions with a view to securing,and
      • the head teacher shall secure,that subsection (1) is complied with.
    3. Schedule 20 makes further provision with respect to thecollective worship required by this section, includingprovision relating to-
      • the arrangements which are to be made in connection withsuch worship, and
      • the nature of such worship.

Section 71 goes on to explain that to be exempt from collectiveworship, the parents of a child have to request that it happens.

This seems ridiculous. I personally feel that this is an assault onchildren - young impressionable minds being systematically given, asfact, a bunch of fairy tales by the most authoritative adults thechild has met yet. Is it any wonder they grow up playing the lottery,allowing money to be wasted on homoeopathy (Homeopathy remains on NHS)and taking advice from the likes of Mystic Meg?

It's not that clear-cut for everyone, though.

A colleague told me about Faith School Menace? (watch it on 4OD quickbefore it's gone), a program on More4 last week in which RichardDawkins presents his arguments against faith schools. This is aslightly different subject, but there was a sentiment that came upmore than once in the programme and has come up while I've beendiscussing this topic with my family. It goes something like this: ifkids don't get to experience faith, how will they make a balancedjudgement when they grow up?

And this is where I hit a barrier. I can't understand the idea thatpeople should be allowed to "choose to believe" at the expense oftheir ability to tell truth from fiction.

So I can only think about religion - not faith. I don't really knowwhat people mean by "faith". They can't mean what I think it means,because surely they'd want to get rid of it.

If there is a god, it's possibly reasonable behaviour to worship him.If you look at the world and it seems to point to the existence of agod, well OK. I don't see it myself, but go ahead and pray. Theimportant thing is that you made a decision based on the evidence youhad.

The problem is that someone who has been brought up being told,regularly, that there is a god has a big disadvantage when it comes totheir own personal calculation on the probability of the existence ofa supreme being. The mind that is doing the analysis has beenconditioned to at least consider the magical hypothesis.

This, I think, is why so many atheists need proof of the non-existenceof god - discrepancies between the bible and real evidence, forexample. Most people have some kind of religion as default and ittakes some energy to get out of it.

And we can't pretend that we're a devoutly Christian country in,either. Here's some data from an Ipsos MORI poll in 2007. Thequestion asked "If you had to choose just one of the statements whichone best matches your view?"

Scientific and other evidence provides the best way to understand the universe62
Religious beliefs are needed for a complete understanding of the universe22
Neither of these10
Don't Know6

So, most of the country pick science over religion for explaining theworld. And from the same survey, 42% of people think the governmentpays too much attention to religious groups and leaders.

Only 38% of Britons believe in God yet nearly every child is supposedto be told that they should.

I'm just thankful that schools aren't dong too well at meeting the requirement. From an Ofsted secondry schol report 2002/3

  • "138: Governing bodies are effective in fulfilling theirresponsibilities in two thirds of schools. This is reflected intheir contribution to shaping the direction of the school andtheir understanding of its strengths and weaknesses. A third ofgoverning bodies do not fulfil their statutory duties adequately,sometimes because of a failure to pursue thoroughly enough suchmatters as arranging a daily act of collective worship."
  • "141: Compliance with statutory requirements relating to thecurriculum has improved, but in over two fifths of schools thisremains unsatisfactory. Examples of non-compliance include failureto implement parts of the National Curriculum programmes of study,or provide religious education for all pupils. Four fifths ofschools do not hold a daily act of collective worship for allpupils."

So we have a rule that says we should tell kids something most of usdon't believe and don't believe is useful and we don't actually obeythe rule anyway.

Maye we should fix that?

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"Assault" is a legal entity which specifically requires physical contact, so whatever this is, it is not an assault.

Secondly, the law calls for a collective act of worship. There is no requirement for "prayer in school", the two are distinct. Surprisingly, despite the CoE being (legally) the national faith, the law does not say who should be worshipped or how. If the collective act is Buddhist it will not contain any sort of "prayer".
As you say, pretty much every school in the land flaunts this anachronistic legislation and I think you'd be hard pressed to find a great many non-faith schools telling children what they "should" believe.

Oh, and teachers are certainly not the most authoritarian adults that children have met. That would be their parents, who, in spite of all sensible scientific evidence to the effects of these things, the law still cheerfully allows to beat children. Of course, we wouldn't want to step on anyone's rights with elections running as frequently as they do.

That said, I agree with you that faith schools are an inherently bad idea and that collective worship in schools is not something to be legislated about. You have, of course, made it painfully difficult to agree with you, which I can only assume is deliberate.
It's supposed to be generally Christian unless the school has mostly non-Christian pupils.

I didn't set out to head down the polemic route, but Sam starts school next week and I'm pretty worried, annoyed and angry about this issue. Like I say, the only thing that makes me feel any better about it is that schools are failing to meet the requirement. I don't want to have ask for Sam to be singled out and removed from anything, but that might be the only way.

As for parents being the most authoritative adults a child meets - yes, you're right if they're lucky kids. Many parents, shockingly, leave the educatin' to them that's trained in the learnin'. These are the same people that have odd wishy-washy semi-faiths, too.

It's just all too depressing.
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