When the Act was passed the word "religious" was synonymous with "Christian" so the provision that "religious instruction should be given in every county school and in every voluntary school" was understood to refer to Christian teaching. Mrs Shirley Williams is now reported to be unhappy with "religious instruction", wanting to replace it with "religious education" — a report implicitly confirmed by the Department of Education and Science.
The arguments in favour of such a change arc that it would bring the law into line with practice, and that traditional methods of Christian instruction are increasingly questioned in a multi-racial society.
As Mrs Williams said in an exclusive interview with the Catholic Herald last December: "Schools reflect society. Once they reflected religious certainties; now they reflect change and doubt."
There have been no adequate surveys on the number of schools breaking the law, but the Assistant Masters' Association report last month suggested that the Act was ignored almost as much as it was followed, and that even where there was compulsory religious education, it was far removed from what would have been thought right in 1944, In a survey published yesterday the Religious Education Council said that there was an acute shortage of RE teachers. "In RE", it said, "the simple fact exists that there are often far too many pupils per single RE teacher, "It is not unknown for a single RE teacher to teach over 600 pupils per week. The strain on such teachers is intolerable and destructive of personal expertise. Worthwhile RE is rendered impossible on such a basis."
So the number of schools conforming with the Act is low and there are not enough teachers to go round. Similarly, the demand for exclusive Christian instruction is dropping.
Mr Harry Mellon, President of the Catholic Teachers' Federation, said that in one school in the Coventry area, with a 90 per cent immigrant intake, the Hindu Festival of Light was celebrated last autumn by Christian teachers, Such ventures into fields other than Christianity had for a long time had the support of secular and humanist groups. In 1975 the British Humanist Society produced "Objective, Fair and Balanced", a report which proposed that Christianity should no longer have a privileged position but should take its place with other moral and ethical teaching.
The Association of Christian Teachers then said that problems would arise if there was no statutory compulsion.
They added: "We recommend that it should be compulsory for county schools to present a course or courses in religious studies which shall include Christianity as a major area of study, and an examination of other significant world views at the appropriate stage." Mr Richard Wilkins, the Development Officer of ACT, now says that he would want to see a controlled change in the Education Act, "but would be very sorry to see anything on world religions ruled out".
The arguments against changing the Act are that it does not actually prescribe "Christian instruction" and could be reinterpreted to fit modern conditions without alteration.
But it is difficult to see how such a reinterpretation would be effective, especially as decisions are taken at county level and need central guidance to be consistent.
Speaking at the Farmington Trust Conference, reported exclusively in last week's Catholic Herald, Cardinal Hume said: "I think it will be very sad if any new Education Act fails to demand of young people a formation in the things of God; to deprive a person of religion is to deprive them of something extremely important and to leave them with less than a fully developed humanity".
At the same conference Dr Donald Coggan, the Archbishop of Canterbury, gave a warning against a radical shift towards the teaching of comparative religions. He said that only two bishops in the Church of England would be qualified to teach a religion other than Christianity.
The reports of a new Education Bill are still unclear, and it seems certain that it will not be part of the programme of the Government this year.
Informed sotiices say that the Prime Minister is in favour of the status quo but the Department of Education and Science is divided.
Shirley Williams is in favour of some rationalisation of the law, strongly supported by Miss Margaret Jackson, the parliamentary under-secretary of state for education, but the Minister of State, Mr Gordon Oakes, is against any change.
The Conservatives are in favour of conserving the Act, but would support a reinterpretation of it, while the Labour Party are generally in favour of replacing it with a less dogmatic law.
The provisions in the 1944 Act for corporate worship have in recent years been contravened even more than the stipulation for religious instruction.
The Act states that every school day shall start with a single collective act of worship for all pupils, and interpretations of this now include pop-music and stories even in the schools were the Act is still observed.
Pressure to change the law has come from the normally
conservative Assistant Masters' Association. Although a survey among the 40,000 members showed that 55 per cent still want a regular corporate act of
worship, the association's conference has decided that this should include material on a variety of moral, cultural and religious themes. This decision has been criticised by the Association of Christian Teachers as "woolly words on worship".
Mr Richard Wilkins, the ACT's development officer, said: "Once a nation has got a law about school worship, it says something about itself when it abandons that law.
"How wide is the variety? Does it range from pacificism to fascism, from Gandhi and St Francis to Hitler and de Sade? Who draws the line, and why?"
Speaking at the North of England Education Conference this week, Mrs Shirley Williams said there was a need for calm in the education service after a decade of change. But she said she could not promise that the next decade would be without change. The pressure is clearly on for a reappraisal of both religious education and worship in schools, which have changed shape during the last decade so that the statute governing them is out of date, and such reappraisal must be one of the priorities for change.