6. Memorandum from the British Humanist
1. The British Humanist Association (BHA)
is the principal organisation representing the interests of the
large and growing population of ethically concerned but non-religious
people living in the UK. It exists to support and represent people
who seek to live good and responsible lives without religious
or superstitious beliefs. It is committed to human rights and
democracy, and has a long history of active engagement in work
for an open and inclusive society.
2. The BHA is deeply committed to human
rights as a major aspect of our support for an open society in
which individual liberty, including freedom of belief and speech,
is reinforced by a deliberate policy of disinterested impartiality
on the part of Government and all official bodies towards the
many groups within society so long as they conform to agreed minimum
3. While we seek to promote the humanist
lifestance as an alternative to (among others) religious beliefs,
we do not seek any privilege in doing so but rely on the persuasiveness
of our arguments and the attractiveness of our position. Correspondingly,
while we recognise and respect the deep commitment of other people
to religious and other non-humanist views, we reject any claims
they may make to privileged positions by virtue of their beliefs.
We are therefore opposed to the present privileged position of
religion in general, and Christianity and the Church of England
in particular, especially in the current educational system.
4. The British Humanist Association has
always taken a strong interest in education, especially religious
and moral education.
We can, we believe, fairly claim to have been influential in changing
attitudes to religion in schools and now count as allies many
people professionally engaged in education, including religious
education, and from the churches.
5. We therefore have a particular concern
with children's rights in the context of education, and this memorandum
is confined to this aspect of your Committtee's enquiry. We regard
children as developing adults, with rights accruing to them progressively
as they grow and mature. We do not see them as the possessions
of their parents any more than of the state, but we hold that
both parents and the state (notably through its schools) have
duties towards them to help fit them for life as autonomous adults
in a pluralist society, making their own decisions, including
decisions about fundamental beliefs, accepting the freedom of
others to differ, and both contributing to and benefiting from
the community. 
6. We favour the appointment of a Commissioner
for Children's Rights to promote the rights and interests of children
and young people, and ensure that these are taken into account
alongside the rights of adults, including their parents, in legislation
and others spheres of life. We believe that a Commissioner for
Children's Rights would be able to work to redress the existing
imbalance between opposing rights of children and adults, and
ensure appropriate reforms where needed.
7. We recognise that parents generally wish
their children to adopt their own values and beliefs and, sharing
that attitude ourselves, we respect their wishes. However, we
also respect the autonomy of the individual, including the progressively
realised autonomy of the child, and we deplore the way that some
parents seek to close rather than open options for their children,
and to keep them in ignorance of rather than inform them about
and help them appraise alternatives. At the same time, we should
emphasise that we do not wish the community through its laws or
officials to interfere with what parents do in this way at home,
as we would consider that to be a dangerous interference with
8. We see the role of the community, through
the publicly funded school system, in the light of these principles.
The state, through the school system, should neither come between
parent and child nor itself compromise the child's autonomy or
bias his/her judgement of essentially individual matters of fundamental
belief. The community should provide education that fits children
with knowledge, judgement and skillsincluding the skills
of moral thinking and of citizenshipso that they can themselves
come to their own answers to the "ultimate" questions
of lifethe realm of religion and beliefand as adults
participate in and contribute to the society in which they live.
In an influential recent pamphlet on religious schools
(of which a copy is enclosed) the Humanist Philosophers' Group
wrote that "in a pluralist, multi-cultural society, the state
must promote the tolerance and recognition of different values,
religious beliefs and non-religious beliefs . . . "
9. Regrettably, the current orthodoxy promotes
religion over alternative lifestances and favours parental rights
and choices over those of children. We have serious concerns about
the way the rights of children, of religious minorities, and of
the non-religious population, are disregarded in current policy
on religion in schools. Many aspects of current practice seem
to us to contravene the spirit and in some cases the letter of
the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the Human
Rights Act 1998 and other standards of good practice.
10. Thus the CRC stipulates:
States Parties shall take all appropriate measures
to ensure that the child is protected against all forms of discrimination
or punishment on the basis of the status, activities, expressed
opinions, or beliefs of the child's parents, legal guardians,
or family members. (CRC, Article 2, 2)
In all actions concerning children . . . the
best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.
(CRC, Article 3, 1)
. . . the education of the child shall be directed
to . . . the preparation of the child for responsible life in
a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance,
equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples . . . (CRC,
11.1 Religious schools are promoted in the
name of parental choices.
This policy ignores the community's duty (above) to respect children's
autonomy and to give them a broad education designed to fit them
for life in a plural, open and democratic society.
11.2 Rather, education in many religious
schools is limited and in some is narrowly sectarian and antipathetic
to participation in the wider community. It is doubtful whether
some religious schools are in fact committed to or contribute
to a "free society", "equality of sexes" and
"tolerance". In any case, in practice, by dividing children
by religion and narrowing down their options, religious schools
are preparing their pupils for segregated lives, with limited
understanding of other belief groups in society.
11.3 Proliferation of religious schools
will actually increase discrimination on the grounds of parental
belief. Some such schools even refuse to allow the children of
unbelieving or other-believing parents to attend the school, even
if there are places available.
11.4 There appears to be no official concern
at the way the policy on City Technology Colleges and City Academies
is being used by well-financed evangelical groups to promote their
beliefsEmmanuel College, which was briefly in the news
for teaching creationist myths as science, is only the first of
a planned chain of such CTCs that will fail to recognise children's
rights and distort children's education in the interests of promoting
American-style fundamentalism. Similar teaching is offered in
a few voluntary maintained schoolseg, the Seventh Day Adventist
school in Tottenham.
11.5 In community (non-religious) schools,
religious education is similarly (if more mildly) biased. Almost
everywhere, especially where it is based on local syllabuses that
follow the models published by the QCA, it ignores the history,
social impact and inter-relations of religions, not to speak of
the non-religious alternatives to religious belief, in favour
of largely uncritical presentation of the so-called "principal
religions" in their own terms. The treatment of non-religious
ethical traditions that was originally included in the draft syllabuses
published by the then Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority
was rigorously excluded from final versions after political intervention
by the government of the day.
12. The CC requires:
States Parties shall assure to the child who
is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express
those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views
of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age
and maturity of the child. (CRC, Article 12, 1)
13.1 Local children are rarely if ever consulted
about proposals for new religious schools or even the conversion
of their own school from a community school to a religious one.
13.2 Parents often disregard their children's
views about attending religious schools. It is notable that young
people, including those from ethnic minorities, generally favour
integration, as shown in, for example, the Cantle
reports in 2001 and a study by Save the Children.
14. The CRC state:
The child shall have the right to freedom of
expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive
and impart information and ideas of all kinds . . . (CRC, Article
15.1 It must be doubted whether children
in many religious schools have this freedom.
15.2 Voluntary aided religious schools are
not obliged, as community schools are, to teach children anything
about the other principal religions found in the community in
which they live.
15.3 Despite the fact that the majority
of young people in fact reject religion
the law and the Department for Education and Skills contrive that
even community schools, in dealing with matters of fundamental
belief, largely ignore non-religious beliefs and lifestances such
as humanism in favour of a narrow concentration on Christianity
and just five other major religions.
15.4 Moreover, parents and children who
reject religious schools, either on principle or because none
is available for their particular belief, increasingly find that
places at community schools are insufficient to meet demand. There
are parts of the country where it is already difficult to find
an ordinary community primary school, and there are of course
may places where religious minorities are too small to sustain
their own schools.
16. The Human Rights Act 1998 stipulates:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought,
conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change
his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community
with others and in public or in private, to manifest his religion
of belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance. (HRA,
Article 9, 1)
Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs
shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by
law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests
of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or
morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
(HRA, Article 9, 2)
If a court's determination of any question arising
under this Act might affect the exercise by a religious organisation
(itself or its members collectively) of the Convention right to
freedom of thought, conscience or religion, it must have particular
regard to the importance of that right. (HRA, Section 13)
17.1 Given that "religion or beliefs"
certainly includes humanism and atheism, as EU
case law has confirmed, and that (presumably) "everyone"
includes children, it is unclear how these rights can be fully
recognised in religious schools, many of which exist to support
and perpetuate one worldview rather than to permit the
observance of other religions, freedom of thought, or changes
17.2 In community schools, as in religious
schools, the law requires children to attend a daily act of (usually)
"broadly Christian" worship, whatever their own beliefs
may be. This is subject only to a right for parents to have their
children excusedno right is given at any age to the children
concerned (even to those 18-year-olds who are still at school).
17.3 The same limitation applies to excusal
from religious education in all schoolsonly parents have
17.4 Some vigorous opposition to religious
schools comes from women of Asian backgrounds who say:
For girls, single-faith schools can become yet
another agency that polices their behaviour. Who defines these
so-called values and cultures? The British state is once again
identifying Asian tradition and values with those of the patriarchal
forces within the community and excluding other voices that challenge
those stereotypes . . . (South Asia Solidarity Group and Asian
Women Unite!, 2002)
17.5 Religious schools seem to be part of
a multi-cultural model that would deny some groups or individuals
the right to change or to integrate or assimilate if they want
to, as these women do.
18. The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000
requires that every public authority, including local education
authorities and (probably) all schools in receipt of public funding
shall, in carrying out its functions, have a
due regard to the need (a) to eliminate unlawful racial discrimination
and (b) to promote equality of opportunity and good relations
between persons of different racial groups.
19.1 It is difficult to see how religious
schools can assist this process, when some of them, because of
the existence of ethno-religious groups, divide children de
factor on racial lines.
19.2 The difficulty is not solved by the
Government's proposals eg for "inclusion" and partnerships
between schools. These are artificial and severely impractical
ideasif they actually worked, the raison d'être
of many religious schools would be undermined, but in practice
they will be ineffective, leaving schools unable to fulfil their
legal duty to avoid racial discrimination and promote good relations
between racial groups.
20. It is sometimes argued against the views
set out above that the European Convention on Human Rights, as
enforced by the Human Rights Act, states:
No person shall be denied the right to education.
In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation
to education and teaching, the state shall respect the right of
parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with
their own religious and philosophical convictions. (Part 2, First
Protocol, Article 2)
21.1 As Amnesty International has pointed
out, "This article guarantees people the right of access
to existing educational institutions; it does not require the
Government to establish or fund a particular type of education.
The requirement to respect parents' convictions is intended to
prevent indoctrination by the state. However, schools can teach
about religion and philosophy if they do so in an objective, critical,
and pluralistic manner".
21.2 Similarly, the Humanist Philosophers'
has said that "neither parents nor faith communities have
a right to call upon the state to help them inculcate their particular
religious beliefs in their children, nor further their own projects,
customs or values through their children. . . ."
21.3 In fact, although this clause has been
used to argue for diversity and choice in the form of more religious
schools, it could better be used by the non-religious and by religious
to protest against the legal dominance, even in community schools,
of Christianity and (to a lesser extent) the other five favoured
world religions. The state could better meet its obligations under
this clause of the Convention by providing integrated schools
that recognise and respect the huge diversity of beliefs in the
community and offer an unbiased and educational introduction to
this area of human experience, along with facilities and opportunities
for the various belief groups to provide optional teaching and
observance in conformity with their own beliefs.
22. The British Humanist Association has
recently published a paper, A Better Way Forward, which
provides an integrated policy on religious schools and on religion
in community schools in a context of human rights and anti-discrimination
thinking and legislation. We believe this paper offers a positive
and workable alternative to the present system with its growing
fragmentation along religious lines. The paper argues for integrated
schools that seek to prepare all children, of all beliefs and
none, for life in a plural and democratic society, and which therefore:
22.1 provide inclusive and inspirational
school assemblies, but without prayers or worship, along with
"beliefs and values education" that is impartial, fair
and balanced, introducing children to religious and non-religious
beliefs and related fundamental questions such as the roots of
morality, but without the overwhelming detail of the current model
22.2 respect the wishes of some parents
by offering the opportunity for religious communities to provide
optional prayers and religious instruction in a particular faith
for those who wish it (the parents of younger pupils, but the
pupils themselves at KS4 and above).
23. We see these policies, on which we have
consulted widely, as offering a constructive solution that seeks
to meet not only the legitimate rights of parents and the rights
of children, but also the requirements of an open and inclusive
society towards its citizens.
7 October 2002
11 In the 1970s the BHA co-founded the Social Morality
Council, now transformed into the Norham Foundation, and worked
constructively through it with people from Christian and other
traditions to seek agreed solutions to moral and social problems
despite our disagreements on matters of fundamental belief. We
were founding members of the Values Education Council and remain
engaged in it. We have for many years been active in the Religious
Education Council, in many Standing Advisory Councils on Religious
Education and Agreed Syllabus Conferences, in the National Association
of SACREs and several other organisations. Back
Our view is exactly contrary to that of the Plowden report: "Children
should not be taught to doubt before faith is established,"
Central Advisory Council for Education (England) (1967) Children
and their Primary Schools (HMSO). Back
Religious schools-the case against, Humanist Philosophers'
Group BHA, 2001. Back
This despite the fact that four out of five adults are opposed
to the Government's policy of expanding the number of religious
schools: this was shown both by a You-Gov poll of 6,000 people
(The Observer-11/11/01) and by an NOP Solutions poll published
in Bella in June 2000, which found that 79% said separating
children according to religious belief was as wrong as separating
them according to colour or accent, while 72% believed that children
should never be excluded just because they were of a different
faith, or of no faith at all, and 55% said that single-faith schools
created a divided society. Back
For example, Oona Stannard, director of the Catholic Education
Service, has said: "The CES supports the right of Catholic
governing bodies to determine their own admissions criteria. We
see no need to obligate new faith schools to take a percentage
of pupils of other faiths. . . "-TES, 30/11/01. Back
We have been particularly struck by the views of younger people,
who, in strong terms, emphasised the need to break down barriers
by promoting knowledge and understanding of different cultures.
Younger people were seen to be leading the process of transition
and should be given every encouragement to develop it further.
Many of those we spoke to preferred integration on many levels
and those who had experienced schools with a mixture of faiths,
races and cultures were very positive about that environment .
. . The complete separation of communities based on religion,
education, housing, culture, employment etc, will, however mean
that the lack of contact with, and absence of knowledge about,
each other's communities will lead to the growth of fear and conflict.
The more levels upon which a community is divided, the more necessary
and extensive will be the need to foster understanding and acceptance
of diversity."-paragraphs 5.7.1, 5.7.2. Back
A survey published with the Ouseley report showed that sixth formers
of all communities-especially girls-desire to mix across racial
divides and are frustrated at "not knowing any Asians"
or "not meeting many white people" (report in The Guardian,
11/7/01; while The Independent (13/7/01) reported that schoolgirls
from Bradford's (predominately Asian) Grove school felt that their
desires for multi-racial education were thwarted by parents who
"through fear, not racism, sent them to Muslim schools". Back
Pupils say Government plans for more religious and specialist
secondaries will increase racism and encourage them to play truant
. . . Pupil discussion groups run by Save the Children reveal
widespread opposition to more faith-based schools and confusion
and scepticism about specialist schools . . . Pupils wanted to
mix with and learn from classmates of other religions and backgrounds.
One said: "I like all religions and faiths-this will increase
racism. This is a very bad idea." Another said: "It
would be a good idea if people from different faiths went to the
same school so we could learn from each other."-Times Education
Supplement, 17/9/01. Back
61% of 14-16 year olds described themselves as atheist or agnostic
in a survey of 13,000 young people by Revd Professor Leslie Francis
and Revd Dr William Kay. Trinity College Carmarthen (Teenage Religion
and Values, Gracewing, 1995). Back
Kokkinakis v Greece: (1994) 17 EHRR 397; Human Rights Committee,
1993 (General Comment no 22 (48) (Art. 18) adopted on 20 July
1993, CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.4, 27 September 1993, p1.); Manoussakis
v Greece: (1996) EHRR 387, para 47; McFeekly v UK: (1981), 3 EHRR
161; Campbell and Cosans v UK: (1982) 4 EHRR 293 para 36.
re Crawley Green Road Cemetery, Luton-St Alban's Consistory
Court: Dec 2000. Back
op. cit. Back
The extent to which religious minorities suffer discrimination,
not least in schools, was highlighted in Home Office Study 220:
Religious Discrimination in England and Wales, by Paul
Weller, Alice Feldman and Kingsley Purdam (Home Office, 2001). Back