Memorandum submitted by the National Secular
This revised submission, which is not confidential,
is made in response to the Call for Evidence on Children's Rights,
set out in Press Notice No. 3, Session 2008-09, 17 December
2008. In order to observe the word limit we have had to allude
to areas of concern in broad terms, but have added a bibliography
of URLs to support our evidence and to provide further information.
While we acknowledge that this is only a short
enquiry, we hope that the Committee will take the opportunity
to consider whetheras we contendthere are some very
much broader issues that need to be acknowledged as areas requiring
further scrutiny. The broader issues, while more difficult to
pin down, are probably more insidious than most specific direct
At the broadest level, some of these questions
of children's rights also involve the rights of parents and go
the very heart of the modus operandi of the educational system.
It operates in significant ways to the detriment of both non-religious
parents and children, and to peoplewhether religious or
notwho do not want their child to be educated mainly with
others of one faith or in a school with a religious ethos. Another
consequence of the Government's policy on encouraging a greater
number of religious schools is the near-inevitability of new faith
schools that are of a minority faith. Most will not only be almost
entirely mono-faith, but largely mono-ethnic and mono-cultural.
To impose a duty on schools to promote cohesion operating within
a system that must by its nature avoid cohesion is the very opposite
of joined-up government. The policy will also contribute, quite
unnecessarily and without any saving of resources, to community
tensions at a time when avoiding them could not be of a higher
The submission below opens by questioning the
strength of the Government's commitment to the Convention on the
Rights of the Child, examines the religious context, addresses
discrimination on specific religious matters, and concludes by
noting they raise much broader questions.
How committed is the Government to conforming
to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child?
"When taken in its entirety, the evidence
given by Baroness Morgan of Drefelin on the Human Rights of Children
to the Joint Committee on Human Rights (24 March 2009, Q101-Q111)
seems to us to reveal a disturbingly cavalier attitude on the
part of the Government to Children's Rights. When pressed about
the incorporation of the Convention into UK law, Lady Morgan assured
the Committee that "[the Government is] extremely committed
to making the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child a reality".
She then outlined a number of piecemeal "vehicles" (referring
to legislation and [non-statutory] policy) and concluded "we
do not see that we need to incorporate the Convention into law
in order to honour the obligations".
This evidence session would lead any objective
observer to doubt the Government's commitment to conform to all
of its Convention obligations. The shortfall was evident both
conceptually and in specific practical matters. An example of
the latter was Lady Morgan seeking to justify requiring children
aged 15 to worship against their will by citing practical
difficulties about establishing which pupils were of sufficient
maturity, understanding and intelligencedespite Baroness
Walmsley dismissing this obstacle effectively in the debate on
the Education and Skills Bill. We agree with Baroness Walmsley
that there is no substance behind the claimed practical difficulties,
leaving uncomfortable questions about the real motives for the
Government's continued reliance on this pretext.
Furthermore, the JCHR has repeatedly branded
such attempted justifications by the Government as illegitimate,
for example, in terms such as "Administrative burdens alone
do not meet the necessity requirement for interference with the
rights of children to respect for their Article 9 ECHR rights".
It is clear that the Government intends to continue forcing older
children to worship against their will in the full knowledge that
this contravenes their Human Rights. So it is no wonder that the
Government is doing everything it can to avoid being made statutorily
accountable for conforming in all respects to its Convention obligations.
Indeed, when Rt Hon Beverley Hughes MP
has referred to the "
arduous process of incorporating
it all together in one big piece of legislation, which would frankly
be a completely fruitless task", and the Baroness (Q109)
makes a spurious commitment about "making the [UNCRC] a reality"
while showing equal reluctance to incorporate the Convention into
UK Law, the Government has all too clearly demonstrated its disingenuousness
on this important matter.
According to a National Centre for Social Research
"Two thirds [of 12-19 year olds] do not regard themselves
as belonging to any religion, an increase of ten percentage points
in as many years (from 55 per cent in 1994 to 65 per
cent in 2003). The comparison with 2003 shows how rapidly
adherence is dissolving." This hugely significant result
is broadly confirmed by an earlier study of 29,124 young
people in years nine and ten in which 58% either disagreed or
were uncertain about the proposition I believe in God.
The number of young people under 20 attending church halved
in just sixteen years from 1989 (1,518,000) to 2005 (760,000).
Anglican Sunday school attendance has dropped from 1.4 million
in 1944 to much less than 0.1 million now.
The scale of these reductions taken together with a school system
that is, if anything, catering more for the religious causes Human
Rights concerns. The wider context is that adult church attendance
has been continuously declining in Britain for 60 years and
this is independently forecast to continue; normal Sunday attendance
in 2050 will be less than 90,000 (sic). More detailed
statistical information will be provided on request.
We are concerned about the requirement in the
School Standards and Framework Act 1998, s 70, for every school
pupil each day to take part innot merely attendan
act of collective worship. We believe it is an abuse of the rights
of children of any age for the state to require them to worship.
We have recently received a distressed letter from a parent in
Bedfordshire illustrating these concerns, given in Appendix 1,
paragraph 2 onwards.
Recommendation 1: That the requirement in School
Standards and Framework Act 1998, s 70 for each school pupil
each day to "take part in" an act of collective worship
Under the Education and Inspections Act 2006, s 55,
the Government allowed pupil opt-out, but only for pupils restrictively
defined as "sixth form pupils", which definition inappropriately
linked it to the compulsory school age. We believe this runs counter
to older children's rights, asfor examplein Gillick
v West Norfolk and Wisbech Area Health Authority. We commend
the support given by the JCHR for amendments to the Education
and Inspections Act 2006 to permit pupils with sufficient
maturity, understanding and intelligence to make an informed decision
to be able to withdraw themselves from Collective Worship.
We record in Appendix 2 the objections
cited by the Government and Conservative peers during the Education
and Skills Bill in Summer 2008 to acceding to the JCHR's
recommendations on self-withdrawal of pupils of sufficient maturity,
intelligence and understandingtogether with our ripostes.
The JCHR's recommendations were broadly in line with our Recommendation
2. Such withdrawal from academies is not statutory and does not
apply in funding agreements to all academies.
Recommendation 2: That the pupil opt-out for Collective
Worship initiated in the Education and Inspections Act 2006 s
55 be extended by changing "sixth form pupil" to
"competent pupil" which should be defined as a pupil
with sufficient maturity, understanding and intelligence to make
an informed decision about whether or not to withdraw themselves
from Collective Worship. The opt-out should be extended to Religious
Recommendation 3: Withdrawal from Collective Worship
and Religious Education by both parents and older pupils should
be a statutory right in all maintained schools and academies.
It should be made mandatory to make this clear in the school prospectus
and on the school website and forbidden to discourage the exercise
of this right.
Provisions for determination under the SSFA
1998 (Schedule 20) do not seem capable of being applied to
situations where no religious worship (as opposed to non-Christian
worship) is considered more appropriate, which could, but may
not necessarily, be to promote cohesion. We are aware of a school
in Monkseaton, Tyneside, which has been refused permission to
opt out of Collective Worship. We can also see that some may argue
for allowing multiple determinations where a school has a significant
proportion of pupils from a number of faiths, but the more this
occurs, the less cohesive the school will be. In a recent case
in Meersbrook, Sheffield,
disputes over Collective Worship led to the head teacher's absence
from school for many months and then resigning, as did the Chair
of the Board of Governors. This would have been avoided if Collective
Worship had not been mandatory. A Muslim, who has a sister at
the school, said: "When Mrs Robinson took over she said she
wanted one assembly for all the students. We didn't have a problem
with that, but wanted a [secular] assembly where no hymns were
sung and topics involving all the children could be discussed.
But after a while, hymns were introduced again and we objected."
Recommendation 4: Collective Worship should be
abolished for schools and academies without a religious character.
Attendance at Collective Worship for schools and academies with
a religious character should be made entirely optional. Pressure
on pupils to attend should be expressly forbidden.
An objective analysis of Religious Education
shows it to be heavily centred on promoting religion. The Non-Statutory
Framework for Religious Education itself devotes only about four
lines in 50 pages or so to "a secular world view".
Two of these four passing references are further diminished by
the addition of the phrase "where appropriate". The
combined effect of these paltry references is to all-but dismiss
or ignore the non-religious majority.
Unsurprisingly, text books based on the Framework
show a similarly distorted view. We can provide extracts from
one of, or possibly the, leading GCSE vade mecum based
on this Non-Statutory Framework which devotes less than half a
page out of 150 pages to non-belief. Symptomatic of the tone
of the volume is its disturbingly negative stance on homosexuality,
failing to balance negative religious positions with views from
religious and other people that homosexuality is a natural variation.
The foundations of the Framework are "learning
about religion" and "learning from religion". The
latter seems to translate in both the Framework and material deriving
from it into:
(a) everything that is good is religious in origin
(b) people who are not religious are lacking
(c) practically no thought process is complete
without considering the religious aspect.
A short extract from this leading text book
is reproduced in Appendix 5. The last words, from the section
on homosexuality, read "always support your view with teaching"
which would lead most adults, let alone young people, to assume
that the only "correct" answer is the very narrow religious
one they portray.
The combined effect of this whole approach must
be irrelevant, disturbing or offensive to the high proportion
of both parents and pupils who are not religious or do not rely
on religious sources for their moral compass. It is therefore
unsurprising that the NSS is receiving a growing number of complaints
from parents about the increasingly proselytising nature of RE.
There also appears to be an element of subject creep by including
topics only peripherally appropriate for RE such as the environmentapparently
giving the misleading impression that only religious people care
about the planet and suggesting that those who do should be religious.
As must be obvious from the decline of religious
adherence not matched by any reduction in the statutory religious
requirements in schools, many parents are unhappy that RE is in
reality Religious Instruction, albeit more subtly packaged than
when the subject had that more honest description and was openly
confessional. The normal riposte to such complaints is to point
to the statutory right of withdrawal, but in practice to exercise
it would be put the child under unreasonable pressure. Parents
are reluctant to withdraw their children from either CW or RE
unless they are mature older secondary pupils, as otherwise they
are likely to be ostracised or bulliedsometimes even by
staff. The combined effect is that many parents are forced to
permit their children to be subjected to passive or even active
proselytisation and they write to us to say this causes them great
distress. We have even had evidence of a Church of England school
requiring pupils to pray three times a day.
Lord Adonis implies that RE is always objective:
"I simply note that there is now a non-statutory
national framework* for religious education (NFRE) which seeks
to ensure that it constitutes a broad and balanced understanding
of religion. More local standing advisory councils on religious
education are now adopting syllabuses based on the framework*."
(Lords Committee stage 21 July 2008: Cols 1607-08).
Schools Minister Jim Knight has written similarly
in reply to the JCHR.
We disagree with these Ministers that RE is
objective, and are not alone in holding this view. At Committee,
Lady Walmsley pointed to the fallacy:
"If all RE lessons were of the [objective,
critical and pluralistic manner] described by [Jim Knight] in
his letter, we would probably not be speaking to these amendments
today, but they are not. In many schools, they are mainly or even
fully directed at one particular religion, and, instead of teaching
about religion, they teach that the religion in question is the
one true religion."
We note that although the subject has been renamed
Religious Education, it remains Religious Instruction in Voluntary
Aided Schools. There is not even any requirement to teach about
other religions, far less that there are people who do not see
any necessity to have one. It should be remembered that pupils
attending these schools may not come from families wanting any
religious education, far less confessional instruction. Voluntary
aided schools of a religious character are not statutorily required
even to refer to other denominations or other faithsstill
less to that significant proportion of the population who are
religiously unconcerned or not religious. It should especially
be borne in mind here that many pupils in such schools do not
hold religious beliefs. In a large number of counties, the majority
of primary schools are Church of England schools and the only
practical one for young children to attend.
Recommendation 5 (requiring legislative changes
but pending the wider changes proposed in Recommendation 6): No
maintained school should be permitted to teach only about the
school's designated religion, but must devote a reasonable proportion
of time to other religions and non-religious perspectives. Confessional
teaching should not be permitted.
SACREs do not allow as of right non-religious
representatives to be members, and any non-religious representative
does not have a vote. Even if non-religious representatives did
have votes, they could expect to be outvoted on any proposal for
a "non-religious" determination even if the majority
of the parents do not want a religious element in assembly. The
non-religious are completely excluded from this process. This
is a fundamental flaw in the SACRE provisions.
Recommendation 6 (requiring legislative changes):
Religious Education should be replaced with Philosophy and Ethics,
and its "predominantly Christian" nature removed. The
new subject should be made part of the national curriculum and
the Non-statutory Framework for RE should be withdrawn. Guidance
to the new National Curriculum subject should written by independent
academics representative of society as a whole rather than overwhelmingly
by religious representatives. SACREs should be abolished. (As
noted elsewhere, some move towards this has occurred in a new
suggesting some appetite to respond to our changing society.)
It is all-but impossible to achieve the statutory
right of withdrawal in RE. The frequent references in the non-statutory
religious framework to links to other subjects, show an increasing
tendency for RE to appear in one guise or another in other subjects.
There have been complaints in the press about Creationism being
taught in science lessons
and not merely in response to pupils' questions. Unfortunately,
debates involving both subjects would be expected to give undue
deference to religious sentiments and therefore those advancing
the scientific perspective would be hampered. In these circumstances
we reluctantly conclude no debate at all in science lessons would
be better. We have even had a complaint recently of RE being introduced
into music lessons. This gives rise to the following recommendation:
Recommendation 7: No other subject than RE should
be used as a means of conveying religious teachings.
(By this we do not exclude reasonable cross-curricular
references to religious belief, but we do wish to exclude intrusions
of dogma that would prompt those of other religions or none to
withdraw from the lessonfor example, the explanation of
geological layers as being laid down in the Noachian flood.)
Discrimination against the non-religious in access
We recognise that many church schools are popular
among those who are able to attend them. We believe that most
of their popularity results from their ability to exclude less
welcome pupils through their privileged admissions arrangements.
Thus, having a higher proportion of able, aspirant, well-supported
and well-adjusted pupils they are usually, but not always, able
to produce better exam results. This in turn will create more
demand for places, which will increase applicants and potentially
allow the selection of yet more gifted pupils. It is now an accepted
duty of middle class life that parents feel forced to play the
game, feign belief and attend church (and contribute to the collection)
in order to obtain the necessary certificate. One school insisted
on 48 attendances per annum. We are convinced that what parents
want is good schools, not religious schools.
The more church schools benefit in this way
from their privileged entry criteria, the greater the disadvantage
to community schools in the same catchment area.
On a broader front, we are convinced that non-religious
parents (by some measures, the majority) are at a material disadvantage
relative to parents who are, or claim to be, religious when applying
for school places. The entry criteria for religious schools are
privileged over those for community schools, because:
(a) they enable priority to be given to religious
pupils from far away against local pupils who are not from religious
(b) they permit the use of "Vicars' Certificates",
that facilitate covert selection. We can prove cherry-picking
takes place: further independent information provided on request.
We are not suggesting that there should be a
corresponding privileged entry to community schools for those
who are disadvantaged in their entry to religious schools, but
the fact that there is not such an entry for them means that children
without such privileged access to religious schools are, overall,
disadvantaged compared with those who have one.
It should not be forgotten that the school places
from which they most likely to be excluded are the most sought-after
in oversubscribed schools. Indeed the number of religious schools
in some areas such as London is disproportionately high. In maintained
secondary schools, over 20 per cent of places are in Christian
schools, whereas only eight per cent of the population in London
attend church on an average Sunday.
More church schools are being built, despite
a major fall in the number of teenagers and despite church attendance
being in decline for 60 yearsand forecast by Christian
research to continue declining precipitately. By any measure,
the extent of this decline is hugely significant. In 1990, the
number of church attenders in Britain on an average Sunday was
1,667,200. It is currently (end 2008) around 600,000 and
is forecast to continue to fall rapidly, by 2050 to fall
to 14,300 (sic).
In contrast, the non-religious are a large group,
as demonstrated in the Context section above.
Given these figures, it is clear that the non-religious
are at a major and growing disadvantage in our publicly-funded
educational system, probably to an extent to which their Human
Rights are infringed.
Our interim recommendations on access are:
prohibit discrimination on grounds of
religion and belief in school admissions
prohibit interviews of any kind, or reference
to religious officials in school selection
prohibit parents being asked to signify
their support for the ethos of a school as part of the admissions
introduce a formal system to accurately
and fairly gauge local support for new schools and conversions
of schools, to which the local education authority should have
due regard and could be subject to judicial review for disregarding.
local authorities should be required
to extend the equivalent of denominational transport concessions
to those parents specifically seeking a school without a religious
character where their nearest school is one of a religious character,
and to display the availability of such concessions with equal
prominence given to those of denominational transport concessions.
We will shortly prepare a paper to elaborate
on measures to combat a) the disadvantage suffered by parents
not wishing their children to be exposed to a religious ethos
and b) systemic undermining of cohesion, particularly in relation
to minority faith schools.
396 (Minister of State for Children, Young People
and Families) in the debate on Children and Young Persons Bill,
24 June 2008, at Col. 46 http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200708/cmpublic/children/080624/pm/80624s01.htm Back
People in Britain: The Attitudes and Experiences of 12 to
19 Year Olds (Publ 2004) ISBN 1 84478 291 3 Back
The Fourth R for the Third Millennium Education in Religion and
Values for the Global Future Ed LJ Francis J Astley and M Robins
Publ. Lindisfarne Books (2001) ISBN 1-85390-507-0, Table 1, more
fully reported in L.J. Francis The social significance of religious
affiliation among adolescents in England and Wales (University
of Bangor) Back
Religious Trends published by Christian Research No 6 2006/2007 derived
from Table 5.7 Back
Religious Trends published by Christian Research No 2 2000/2001 derived
from Table 2.15 Back
Guardian 10 February 2009 (Headline: Sheffield teacher
quits over multi-faith assembly. "Attempt to promote tolerance"
resulted in racism accusations after hymns included in joint Christian
and Muslim worship.) Back
24 March 2009 Back
UK Christian Handbook-Religious Trends No 7 2007/2008, published
by Christian Research (ISBN 978-1-85321-176-8, Table 12.7.1 Back