I've been perusing inspection reports. Strange hobby it isn't; it's getting to know the schools in my local area just in case a job comes up that means I could have an extra half an hour in bed each morning.
And what I notice time and time again is that most schools are criticised for lacking in the statutory requirement for a daily act of collective worship. Now when I was a school pupil back in the increasingly hazy mists of time, we had assembly every day. We sung hymns, we dropped our hymn books accidentally on purpose to raise a few giggles and glares, we didn't dare whisper to our neighbour, and we stood up when the teachers flounced onto stage. Since becoming a teacher I've never stepped foot into a school that does this.
Instead, the majority of schools do not have a hall big enough to accommodate the whole school population in one place at one time. Even if there's a way round this, such as extracting one year group at a time for their own year assembly, most pupils only meet for a whole school assembly once a week. This, I think, is a mistake. I believe that a whole school assembly provides cohesion and sets out expectations quite clearly. It's an opportunity to pass on messages and give some moral guidance. I remember the stories we were told in assembly quite clearly, right back to primary school. True, they seemed to be told on an annual rotation, and I've never been one for the religious messages in particular, but I feel I gained a lot from the food for thought they provided.
But sadly, as most schools don't have a whole school assembly every day, this collective act of worship is supposed to take place in form time instead. And it just doesn't work. Maybe in Year 7 the pupils are open and receptive to the structure of a quick prayer "to the god we believe in" and some debate of a thought for the day, but try this with stroppy Year 9s and upwards and you are fighting a losing battle. However subtly a teacher may try to squeeze in a moral message, the pupils are quick to sense that your tone has changed from nagging about uniform to something they're going to take even less notice of. Start to mention "prayer" and the backlash starts.
Religious Education has a generally poor reputation amongst pupils; it needs a rebrand for the 21st century. It's no surprise really: when the news is dominated by deaths and doom caused by religious conflict and the subsequent wars on terror, who wouldn't be turned off by religion? But that's not to say I don't think it has a place in schools: it is precisely because of the dominance of religious conflict in the news that pupils need to know about world religions. And Religious Education does provide the crucial opportunity for children to think philosophically about moral issues, which I see as far more important than learning about oxbow lakes or other trivia that, let's face it, could be condensed to a fact file on the back of a cereal packet. The things learnt in Religious Education are, I believe, some of the most essential life skills that pupils need to grasp. But get rid of the name. It's such a turn off. Call it something sexier and half the battle is won.
But back to these daily acts of collective worship. Why have them at all? Schools fail to provide this quite frequently according to the inspection reports I've read, because even if there is some discussion about important issues in tutorial time, the religious aspect is missing. So why do the powers that be keep insisting that we provide a prayer a day? Again, it needs re-branding. What is a prayer anyway? For the few people who do believe in a god, how many of them pray because they believe their god will answer their prayers, and how many actually just benefit from sorting their muddled thoughts and anxieties into some sort of conscious order? Meditation does provide benefits, but most pupils aren't in the mood to think if from the outset they are being asked to do something they don't believe in. Instead, we need a daily act of collective thinking, discussion, debate and awareness. It would serve the same purpose but without the failure factor generated by using the words "religion" or "worship".