Providing free access to high quality, inclusive assemblies

Guide to the law on assemblies

On this page we set out the law on assemblies in schools in the United Kingdom. This varies depending upon whether the school is a state or private school, and whether it has a designated religious character or not. More detailed FAQs in response to specific questions can be found on the FAQs page.

England, Wales, and Northern Ireland

State schools with no religious character

Current law requires all state-funded schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to hold daily acts of ‘Collective Worship’, and in schools with no formal religious character this worship must be ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’.

Humanists UK frequently receives complaints from parents about this law, and as a result has a guide for parents on the law, and campaigns for it to change. But the law does not mean that all assemblies must be Christian in nature, and for those assemblies that are Christian, it does not require that they are anything more than ‘broadly Christian’. 

The government guidance, both in England and in Wales, states:

‘It is open to a school to have acts of worship that are wholly of a broadly Christian character, acts of worship that are broadly in the tradition of another religion, and acts of worship which contain elements drawn from a number of different faiths. [The law provides] that within each school term the majority of acts of worship must be wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character, but it is not necessary for every act of worship to be so… Thus, whatever the decision on individual acts of worship, the majority of acts of worship over a term must be wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character.’

Some schools therefore choose to meet their obligations by ensuring that 51% of their assemblies are broadly Christian, while the other 49% are more inclusive. Arguably, many of the more inclusive assemblies available that are not explicitly Christian could well be seen as ‘of a broadly Christian character’, given that much of moral teachings is common to many religious and non-religious traditions. 

However, schools can apply for a ‘determination’ that their collective worship should take a different form more suitable to their school population – for example, to instead have assemblies that are not specifically Christian. However, this does not open the way for some schools to hold assemblies that are not collective worship of some kind. In the case of local authority schools, a determination can be made by a school’s Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (SACRE), and in the case of academies and free schools, directly by the Secretary of State for Education.

In addition, sixth form pupils in England and Wales and parents on behalf of other pupils have the right to withdraw from Collective Worship, either in its entirety or from parts of it. A child can be removed for only the worship element of an assembly and then reintroduced for the remainder of the time.

Finally, the law on the subject of collective worship is not enforced, and not inspected by Ofsted. In practice, many schools choose not to follow the law in this area, and hold faith-based assemblies less frequently, if at all.

Schools with a religious character

Collective worship in schools with a religious character is not subject to SACRE or Local Authority control, but is instead set by the school’s governing body, and is conducted in line with the religion and trust deeds of the school. Sixth form pupils and parents of younger pupils have the right to withdraw if they wish.

Private schools

Private schools are allowed to do what they like with regard to collective worship: they can choose to have it or not, and do not need to offer the  right of withdrawal for parents or pupils. When private schools have a religious character, they typically practice daily collective worship.

Scotland

State schools

In Scotland, there are no legal requirements for state schools with no religious character to hold daily acts of collective worship. The Education (Scotland) Act 1980 sets out that in all state-funded schools, the practice of ‘religious observance’ should occur at least six times a year, unless a resolution to discontinue this has been passed by the local education authority and approved by the electors in that local authority area.

The Scottish Government’s Curriculum for Excellence: Provision of Religious Observance in Schools (March 2017) states that schools may feel that a different name for the events that meet their religious observance requirements will be more appropriate to their individual context and culture. For example, in a non-denominational school, the use of the term ‘Time for Reflection’ might be considered more appropriate by the school community.

Parents have a statutory right to remove their children from participating in religious observance, as long as their children attend a non-denominational school. However, it is more difficult for a parent to remove their child from religious observance if they attend a denominational school, as it is implied that they have decided to opt in to the school’s religious character. In Scotland, children or young people do not have the right to withdraw themselves from religious observance.

Private schools

Private schools are allowed to do what they like with regard to collective worship: they can choose to have it or not, and do not need to offer the  right of withdrawal for parents or pupils. When private schools have a religious character, they typically practice daily collective worship.