Academy trust backs down in collective worship legal challenge

The Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust has reached a mutual agreement with two parents who legally challenged the extent of Christian activities and the poor alternative provision to daily Christian worship at their child’s non-faith community school, Burford Primary School, which the Trust runs

Back in July the two parents, Lee and Lizanne Harris, were granted permission to take their complaints to the High Court about the approach taken in these areas by the Oxfordshire school.

The parents exercised their legal right to withdraw their child from the assemblies where the school’s worship takes place, but complained that the school was breaching their human rights by failing to provide their child with a meaningful alternative to its worship.

After their objections were disregarded the parents initiated legal proceedings, but the Trust has now agreed to settle with them out of court. The legal agreement between the Trust and parents has been shared today. In it the Trust has agreed to ensure Burford Primary School will:

  • arrange activities for children withdrawn from collective worship and for the activities to be normally led by a teacher;
  • communicate notices and announcements outside of collective worship, so pupils who have been withdrawn do not miss them, and for worship and the promotion of religious truth claims to be confined to periods of collective worship;
  • no longer organise the school leavers’ ceremony in a church or allows it to be used to distribute Bibles;
  • not allow trips to places of worship to be used for proselytization and for the school to justify using venues outside of the school on practical rather than religious grounds;
  • ensure school visitors intending to talk about religious or non-religious beliefs respect and are mindful of the religious diversity at the school.

In response the Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust has released a statement today seeking to downplay the agreement and stressing that it will only last as long as the Harris’ child attends the school.

Anne Dellar, CEO Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust (ODST), said: “A small community school has been placed at the sharp end of a national campaign. At a time when school funds are stretched ODST took the pragmatic decision to avoid wholly unnecessary court costs. A short term child-specific arrangement has been agreed between ODST and the parents of two children attending Burford Primary School.

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“The arrangement will lapse when the youngest of the two children leave the school. Burford Primary School is not offering an alternative assembly; rather, a small number of children who are withdrawn from collective worship will be able to access alternative materials, overseen by a teacher. Burford Primary School is a happy, successful and inclusive school. While recognising every parent’s right to withdraw their child from collective worship, we are saddened that this case has diverted valuable funds and staff time.”

Chair of the Accord Coalition for Inclusive Education, the Revd Stephen Terry, said: “It is disappointing that these parents needed to resort to legal action before the Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust would agree to better respect the autonomy and educational needs of their child. The case should set an important precedent about the need for all pupils withdrawn from collective worship to be permitted to engage in meaningful activities of an equivalent educational worth.

“It would be better still if the outdated and very frequently disregarded laws requiring daily Christian worship in schools were replaced with guidance for schools on providing assemblies that are genuinely appropriate for people of differing religious and non-religious beliefs. The intransigent and grudging response of the Trust highlights the continuing reluctance of some school providers to acknowledge the increasing religious diversity in our society, and provides yet further evidence of the need for legislative change, to guarantee assemblies that are open, tolerant and inclusive.”

The Department for Education have said there are no further implications for other schools.

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