Joint Committee On Human Rights Twenty-Fifth Report

Appendix 2: Letter from the National Secular Society re: Mandatory Collective Worship - Enforcement and Human Rights Concerns

I enclose a letter the Society sent today to Rt Hon Alan Johnson MP as Secretary of State for Education and Skills. In Section 3 we have raised matters which seriously impinge on pupils' human rights. The most pressing of these relates to the inability of older, "Gillick-competent", pupils to "excuse" themselves (as opposed to being "excused" as a result of a representation by their parents) from Collective Worship. Some of these pupils will thus be forced to take part in collective worship against their conscience, in contravention of their Article 9 right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

I hope the Committee will be prepared to examine this issue as soon as possible on the following grounds:

a) The scale of the problem. There are around 3 million pupils in secondary schools in England. This suggests around 2 million non-believers. Some are over 18 and the high proportion of the remainder will nevertheless be able to claim the protection of Article 9

b) The considerable pressure being applied to the Secretary of State by the church leaders. If he acts as they seem to be demanding, the problem, in human rights terms, will deteriorate still further.

In light of this urgency, if the matter does not fall within any current or imminent work in progress, could I ask whether this matter could be examined at least briefly in its own right, please?

16 June 2006


I am writing in connection with the representation you have recently received from a number of national church bodies setting out, as they see it, the benefits of Collective Worship, and calling on you to increase still further pressure on schools to perform the statutory daily act of mainly Christian Collective Worship.

As you may be aware, the National Secular Society seeks to secure equal rights for the non-religious. Our Honorary Associates are listed at the foot of this page, and the Society was founded in 1866. As recommended in the Home Office's guidelines on Governmental consultation Working Together, we are normally consulted when religious groups' views are sought.

In the 60 years since Collective Worship became a statutory requirement, religious belief and adherence have fallen dramatically. Anglican membership, for example, has dropped by more than half.[91] For this reason we are convinced that the Government should not be responding to church leaders' requests to increase compliance with the law on Collective Worship. On the contrary, the Government should be taking steps to remove the compulsion, and making it easier for pupils themselves to opt out of any Collective Worship that takes place. Our rationale is as follows:

1. It can no longer be justified to continue this mandatory Collective Worship to a captive audience in schools, given that the majority of pupils - in secondary schools at least - are not religious. According to a National Centre for Social Research study on the Department's website:[92] "Two thirds [of 12-19 year olds] did not regard themselves as belonging to any religion". The long and continuing decline in religious belief has reached a point where in many schools any collective worship is embarrassing to pupils and teachers alike.

An indication of just how much pupils can dislike Collective Worship comes from St Luke's Sixth Form College in Sidcup[93] where adults were posted at the exits to discourage pupils from leaving collective worship, and punishing them severely if they did. I have even been told that on one occasion pupils were actually locked in to make them observe mass. I. have reproduced below one of several local press stories on this topic.[94]

2. We cannot see any evidence to justify the claims which the church leaders make in respect of collective Worship, and nor do they cite any. They claim educational benefits in paras 2-6 of their letter e.g. "it provides a means of developing an appreciation that goes beyond the material world, fostering a concern for others and providing a forum for exploring shared values." The educational or ethical/moral benefits they dubiously claim for Collective Worship could be achieved to much greater effect by being taught in a secular way. Less time spent on Collective Worship advocated by the religious lobby would free time up for pupils to be taught more about, for example, relationships and ethics, and philosophy—how to think more clearly for themselves.

Several of the claims made in the religious leaders' letter come under the heading of "to help promote tolerance" (the phrase the CofE uses in its summary of their letter to you). We do not think there is any evidence that emphasising pupils' different religions (or absence of religion), as collective worship must do, contributes to tolerance. We think it does the opposite. A. far better way of promoting tolerance would be to emphasise what pupils have in common, such as their shared humanity. Nor, as we explore in 4. below, do we believe the evidence suggests that the approach called for by the churches will result in the best grounding on moral/ethical issues.

Your Department claims to support evidence-based policy making. We invite you to inform us of any evidence the Department has which would justify moving in the direction that the church groups propose. In particular, we seek evidence to justify that teaching non-doctrinal matters through the medium of religion, as the church leaders suggest, is more effective than teaching them in a secular way.

3. Legal advice that the Society has obtained indicates that the inability in law of older pupils - those "Gillick competent" to make their own decisions about personal matters - to withdraw themselves from collective worship contravenes their rights under the Human Rights Act in relation to their freedom of thought, conscience and religion. I am therefore asking you formally to review this aspect of the law, and take steps to amend it if, as we believe, it is in breach of the HRA. I am copying this letter to the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

4. The Society recognises that it is important for ethical issues to remain a key part of assemblies. Given the high level of scepticism of pupils to religion in general, we believe it would be far more effective to teach them ethics by reference to pupils' common experience than by calling for obedience to what some regard as sacred texts. Few pupils have any knowledge of or interest in these texts, far less regarding them as any source of authority.

The positions advocated by some religious leaders on ethics, particularly on sexual matters such as contraception and homosexuality, are widely disregarded by their own adherents and regarded with incredulity or even hostility by many others. Seeking to instil those religious moral codes which are outmoded and unrealistic runs a serious risk of making no impact whatsoever. Moral discussions based on common experience rather than dogma are, we believe, much more likely to make a positive and lasting impression on pupils. We also invite you to produce evidence to confirm that the continuance of moral teaching in a religious context during Collective Worship is more effective than a secular alternative.

The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, has acknowledged the indifference referred to above of the young to the Church's teachings. He has just written about a large "mismatch" between the Church and the views of those aged 15 to 25 as revealed by a survey called Making Sense of Generation Y. He concedes that: "The research suggests young people are happy with life as it is, that they have felt no need for a transcendent something else and regard the Church as boring and irrelevant".[95] He described the survey as an "urgent" wake-up call for the Church, and I suspect this is the motivation behind the letter you have received.

We would welcome the opportunity to meet you to discuss these issues, as doubtless you will be meeting representatives of the churches whose demands have prompted this letter.

We look forward to your response, and the results of your inquiries on the compatibility of the law to the HRA on these matters.

16 June 2006

91   UK Christian Handbook: Religious Trends Pub Christian Research Ed Dr Peter Brierley Back

92 (page 10) Back

93 Back

94   Not printed here Back

95   http:/ The Times 8 May 2006 quoting Dr Sentamu commenting on the study Making Sense of Generation Y Back

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