Children's Rights - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by the National Secular Society


  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 whether—as we contend—there 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 discrimination.

  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 people—whether religious or not—who 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 priority.

  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 intelligence—despite 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[396] 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 study:[397] "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.[398] The number of young people under 20 attending church halved in just sixteen years from 1989 (1,518,000) to 2005 (760,000).[399] Anglican Sunday school attendance has dropped from 1.4 million in 1944 to much less than 0.1 million now.[400] 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 in—not merely attend—an 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.

and accordingly:

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 be removed.

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, as—for example—in 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 understanding—together 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 Education.

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,[401] 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 and

    (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 environment—apparently 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 bullied—sometimes 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 faiths—still 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 GCSE,[402] 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[403] 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 lesson—for example, the explanation of geological layers as being laid down in the Noachian flood.)


Discrimination against the non-religious in access to schools

  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 families, and

    (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 years—and 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).[404]

  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 process

    — 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.

April 2009

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 Back

397 Young People in Britain: The Attitudes and Experiences of 12 to 19 Year Olds (Publ 2004) ISBN 1 84478 291 3 Back

398   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

399   Religious Trends published by Christian Research No 6 2006/2007 derived from Table 5.7 Back

400   Religious Trends published by Christian Research No 2 2000/2001 derived from Table 2.15 Back

401 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

402 24 March 2009 Back

403 Back

404   UK Christian Handbook-Religious Trends No 7 2007/2008, published by Christian Research (ISBN 978-1-85321-176-8, Table 12.7.1 Back

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