Joint Committee On Human Rights Twenty-Fifth Report

2 Education and Inspections Bill

Date introduced to first House

Date introduced to second House

Current Bill Number

Previous Reports

28 February 2006

25 May 2006

HL 116

18th and 21st of 2005-06


2.1 Since we last reported on this Bill we have received representations from the National Secular Society asking us to consider whether the inability of older pupils to excuse themselves from collective worship in schools is incompatible with their right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion in Article 9 ECHR.[73]

2.2 Under the current legal framework governing exceptions from receiving religious education and attending at religious worship at school, the statutory right to request that the pupil be excused is exercisable by the parent of the pupil, not the pupil themselves.[74]

2.3 Article 2 Protocol 1 ECHR requires States to respect the right of parents to ensure education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions. This is clearly a parental right, and the statutory provision in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 entitling parents to request that their child be excused from religious instruction or collective worship can be seen as a concrete expression of this right.

2.4 Pupils themselves, however, also enjoy the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion in Article 9 ECHR. This is a right they enjoy in their own right, not a right belonging to their parents.[75]

2.5 The absence of an equivalent statutory provision entitling pupils who are old enough to be competent to make such decisions about their moral and spiritual welfare (referred to by the National Secular Society as "Gillick-competent pupils") to be excused from religious instruction or collective worship does appear to us to raise an issue of compatibility with Article 9 ECHR. The current statutory framework does not appear to allow, say, a 16 year old pupil who does not wish to receive religious instruction or attend collective worship to be excused from them unless his or her parents agree to make the request to be excused, which they will not necessarily do. In our view this would be likely to lead to a breach of the pupil's Article 9 right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

2.6 The opportunity could therefore be taken to amend the Bill so as to reduce the risk of this potential incompatibility, for example by amending the School Standards and Framework Act to make the right to withdraw from religious instruction and worship exercisable not only by parents but by pupils who are old enough to make informed decisions for themselves. We therefore welcome the Government's acceptance in principle that pupils aged over 16 should be able to withdraw themselves from collective worship rather than it being a matter for parental consent, and its indication that it will seek to move an appropriate amendment at Report.[76] Although such an amendment will not remove the risk of incompatibility completely, because it draws the line by reference to a determinate age rather than the maturity and competence of the individual child, it should significantly reduce the risk of this potential incompatibility arising in practice.

73   Appendix 2 Back

74   S. 71(1) School Standards and Framework Act 1998 Back

75   See for example, Valsamis v Greece 24 EHRR 294 for an example of a case in which the European Court of Human Rights considered whether there had been a breach both of the parents' right under Article 2 Protocol 1 and of the pupil's separate right under Article 9 Back

76   Lord Adonis, HL Deb 18 July 2006, col. 1204 Back

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