Forming a collective worship policy:
the Barley Lane Primary School experience

(Source: Redbridge Assembly Bulletin, Summer 1999 edition)

Editor's note: Formulating a policy document on any aspect of school life is no easy task. We all know that, ideally, it is the process of forming the policy which is creative and perception-shaping. And yet, with so many demands on the time and energies of school staffs, it is not always easy to reach the ideal.

Couple with this the problematic notion of 'collective worship' as an educational enterprise and it is not surprising that the thought of producing a policy on collective worship (and assembly) has been a daunting prospect for many.

Some schools, however, persist. Despite difficulties of time and definition, they forge out for themselves an approach to collective worship which takes notice of legislative requirements whilst remaining sensitive to the needs of the school and its community.

Such a school is Barley Lane Primary School in Redbridge. The school's collective worship policy has developed over a number of years: the first was produced in 1989. The extracts which follow are taken from the November 1998 edition of the policy.

Perceiving that collective worship must be appropriate to the family backgrounds of the pupils at the school (as legislation requires), the opening section of the policy addresses the nature and character of the school.

The Nature & Character of the School

Barley Lane Primary School has a population of approximately 37% ethnic minority children, with most of those children 'belonging to' – with varying levels of understanding and commitment – Islam, Sikhism or Hinduism. It is important to understand that not all of these children will have experienced the faith or worship of these religions. For many it will be the cultural rather than the religious customs with which they will be most familiar. This has its counterpart in the rest of the school community, where many families would describe themselves as C of E without any allegiance to a worshipping community. This fact is very important when considering children as faith resources. Their perceptions may be inaccurate, uncertain or confused. Moreover, just as there are different denominations with Christianity, which emphasise different insights and traditions, so there are equally different groups and beliefs within the other religions represented in the school. Our school community also includes a small minority of children from families which could be described as practising Christians, as well as very small numbers of Rastafarians and Jehovah Witnesses. It is important to note that the majority of our parents do not regularly attend a place of worship.

In accordance with section 7 of the 1988 Education Act, we believe that integrity in collective worship is only maintained when the family backgrounds of the pupils in our school are taken into consideration.

Next, the role of collective worship in school life is addressed.

The Role of Collective Worship

Whilst there are no legal requirements for schools to hold 'assemblies', the law states clearly that all pupils (see Right of Withdrawal for exceptions) are required to participate in a daily act of collective worship. The legal requirements allow for a certain degree of flexibility with regard to the nature of 'worship' and this document has been constructed largely to define Barley Lane Primary School's interpretation of those requirements, as well as to outline the practicalities of planning and organising collective worship.

Collective worship occupies an important and unique place in the life of Barley Lane Primary School. It provides an opportunity for members of the school community to pause from activity, to gather together, to remind themselves of and to reflect upon the beliefs and values which bind the school community together.

We believe that the term 'worship' as it is commonly used and understood applies to the activities of a faith community, rather than a school. It is about commitment and nurture and as such militates against the open enquiry that makes up the main thrust of education in a State school. Moreover, to hold an act of worship that attempts to embrace several faiths would be both contrived and offensive, demeaning to the distinctive authenticity of each faith.

Having drawn a distinction between the 'worship' of a school and the 'worship' of a faith community, the policy goes to address how collective worship can be consistent with the educational aims of a school community. The 'difficulty' of the issue is recognised but the school is clear that it must include the 'spiritual' and be 'inclusive' so that the support of both staff and parents is gained.

Worship in an Educational Context

Our approach to this difficult issue is two-fold

Firstly, we have chosen to interpret the concept of 'worship' as providing an invaluable opportunity for the school community to focus on and reaffirm those values which are considered to be of supreme worth and importance. Values which are regularly re-visited as themes for collective worship include: care, co-operation, commitment, courage, empathy, honesty, forgiveness, friendship, loyalty respect, responsibility, sacrifice and self-worth.

Secondly, we believe that our times of collective worship can play an important role in deepening the spiritual awareness of our pupils. Collective worship, at its best, provides pupils with an opportunity to reflect upon the value, purpose and meaning of things. Pupils are led into an experience of quietness to counterbalance the busy activity which generally marks the rest of the school day. Such quiet times will often lend themselves to the nurturing of a sense of awe and wonder, especially with regard to the natural world (eg the power of the seed to grow or a candle glowing in the darkness). We are also able to sensitively explore issues of loss and suffering, limitation and frustration. Collective worship at Barley Lane gives pupils the opportunity to hear stories and words from religious and other literature which suggest that there is more to life than meets the eye. In fact, through collective worship, we encourage the children to recognise the widely-held belief in the existence of a deity. We will often consider values which are shared by different faiths. More specifically, we encourage the children to reflect on the character and achievements of Jesus, as recorded in the Christian Bible.

In addition to the above, special times of collective worship are planned in the school year to acknowledge the significance of key religious festivals from the main religions represented in the school. In line with legislation that collective worship should be "wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character", we place particular emphasis on the Christian festivals of Harvest, Christmas and Easter. However, it is important to note that whether we are dealing with Diwali or Eid, Pesach or Baisakhi, our concern is always to explore the reasons for celebration. Pupils are not themselves required to 'celebrate' religious beliefs which neither they nor their family adhere to.

Having interpreted collective worship in an educational sense, the policy now moves on to articulate how the experience of collective worship promotes aspects of pupils' personal development

At Barley Lane Primary School, we also believe that collective worship makes a vital contribution to the development of pupils in the following areas:

  1. Collective worship contributes to the moral development of pupils by providing them with an opportunity to:
    • reflect on matters concerning right and wrong;
    • hear about incidents in which, and people in whom, goodness or right are exemplified;
    • learn about religious and other teachings concerning right and wrong.

  2. Collective worship contributes to the social development of pupils by providing them with an opportunity to:
    • gather with others for a common purpose;
    • share times of joy and sadness with others;
    • learn how to behave appropriately within a specific social setting;
    • increase self-confidence in public speaking / dramatic performance.

  3. Collective worship contributes to the cultural development of pupils by providing them with an opportunity to:
    • hear and respond to music from a range of times, places and cultures;
    • reflect upon ideas concerning the concept of beauty;
    • appreciate the range of talents and gifts found within the school community and beyond.

  4. Collective worship contributes to the intellectual development of pupils by providing them with an opportunity to:
    • learn and to engage with their minds;
    • have ideas concerning values confirmed or challenged;
    • reflect on the importance of learning in the context of our school community;
    • consider the power of words.

    At Barley Lane Primary School, we hope that each daily act of collective worship will touch on one or more of the above areas. Even when the majority of the 'assembly' time on a given day has been devoted to a class performance or a singing practice, we are concerned to safeguard at least one of the above elements, as well as a clear focal point.

    The policy document outlines the planning and organisation of collective worship (what happens on each day, and so on) before moving on to principles and practicalities.

    Principles & Practicalities

    When leading assemblies, teachers are asked to note the following principles and practical considerations. The main consideration is of course that an assembly is properly prepared, presented and evaluated.

    1. Variety in presentation is important. Tools to aid delivery can include: video, recordings (tapes and CDs), OHP, slides, drama (rehearsed or spontaneous), music, dance and religious or other artefacts. Stories can be told as well as read.

    2. Good timing is essential, especially with the increasing demands of the curriculum. The entire assembly, including the focus, the supporting song and notices, should not exceed 20 minutes. This clearly has an implication for all class teachers, since it is important to quietly and calmly lead each class into the hall by 9.20am, in order to finish by 9.40am.

    3. Whilst singing and notices may sometimes have to be sacrificed due to the pressures of time, the focal point is the one absolutely essential ingredient in every assembly. The focal point can take the form of a reading, listening to a prayer, a focused silence, a piece of music, a picture or a certain ritual – eg lighting a candle.

    4. There should be no attempt at eliciting acts of assent or corporate public response.

      Responses are private, conditional and may well be reflective in nature and are certainly open to subsequent review. Therefore it is important not to put pressure on the children. Similarly, it is important to phrase statements carefully. Rather than "We believe" or "It is true that…", it is more appropriate to say, for example, "Christians believe" or "Hindus believe". Equally appropriate is the term, "I'd like you to listen to these words."

    5. High expectations of behaviour are expected throughout the assembly. This is made easier when class teachers bring their class into the hall promptly and in an orderly fashion, having walked down the corridor quietly and calmly. It is the school's expectation that children will sit quietly and wait for the assembly to begin, listening to the music being played. This preliminary 'quiet space' is an important aspect of preparing for collective worship. Inappropriate behaviour during an assembly should not be allowed to detract from the content. Offending pupils are to be immediately moved to sit next to a member of staff and then sent, either directly after the assembly or at playtime, to apologise to the assembly leader, with further sanctions at her or his discretion.

    Finally, policies regarding a number of issues are addressed, including: record-keeping, visitors and right of withdrawal.


    To provide evidence of daily collective worship and a means of review, simple record sheets – outlining content and method of delivery – are completed. These record sheets are kept in a plastic wallet pinned to the staff room notice board and should be filled in as soon as possible after the assembly.

    Visitors (including the role of prayer)

    Barley Lane Primary School has a long tradition of inviting visitors to contribute to or lead collective worship, particularly at Harvest, Christmas and Easter. If outside speakers do take part in an act of collective worship, we ensure that they are carefully briefed about the school's policy. We endeavour to choose visitors who can communicate well to children. We also aim to invite visitors who understand the nature and purpose of collective worship in schools and who will not, therefore, use the opportunity to seek converts. Having made that clear, we do allow visitors the freedom to include prayers, if they are considered appropriate, but we ask for prayers to be introduced in such a way that a response is left open. Our policy is that an 'invitation' to listen to the words of the prayer should be offered, so that a variety of responses is possible – for example, there is value in using phrases such as "I would like you to listen to some words which are very special for … (eg Christians)." We do not believe that the expression "Let us pray" is an appropriate introduction to a prayer in the context of State school collective worship. Visitors are providing with all necessary practical information (with regard to timing, age-range of children, parking arrangements etc) and publicly thanked for their contribution.

    Right of Withdrawal

    Parents/guardians have the legal right to withdraw their child from collective worship, provided they give written notification to the school. Teachers can also exercise their right to withdraw from leading or attending acts of collective worship, but attending 'assemblies' is part of a teacher's contractual duty.

    At Barley Lane Primary School, we are confident that our approach to collective worship is educationally sound and crucial to the spiritual, moral, social, cultural and intellectual development of our pupils. We believe that our collective worship policy embodies an integrity which parents and teachers alike will be pleased to acknowledge.

    Thanks are extended to the headteacher and staff of Barley Lane Primary School for permission to include these extracts on the Redbridge RE Network website.

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