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: