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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Government Climb Down On Over-16’S School Collective Worship

The Government has accepted that it is almost certainly a breach of human rights to force pupils of 16 and over to attend collective worship in schools if it is against their conscience. It now intends to amend the law accordingly.

At present, collective worship is mandatory in all schools, religious and otherwise, right up through sixth form colleges, unless parents specifically request their children to be excluded.

In the House of Lords last night, Lord Adonis – Government spokesman for Education in the Lords – accepted the principle of allowing sixteen year olds and over to exempt themselves from worship in schools.

The amendment to the new Education Bill was proposed by Baroness Walmsley, who argued that sixteen year olds can pay tax, get married, fight for their country and are, by most measures, adults – yet they cannot refuse to worship, even if they are atheists or members of another religion.

The amendment was suggested by the National Secular Society, who had recently written to the Education Secretary Alan Johnson, and to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights about the issue. Mr Johnson saw no reason then to change the rules on collective worship, but since then, the JCHR had concluded that the NSS argument had merit.

Now Lord Adonis has promised that he will introduce an amendment to the Education Bill at the next stage of its passage through parliament.

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society – which has been campaigning for this for over 30 years – said: “This is very good news indeed. It has seemed intolerable to us that young people are being forced to worship at school, sometimes against their will. It is self-evidently a breach of their human rights. Indeed, it can be argued from a human rights perspective that the age limit for self-exemption should be lower. The church is quite happy to allow fourteen year olds to confirm their commitment to Christianity, yet it will not accept that other children of that age can feel equally certain that they don’t believe.”

Mr Wood pointed to the front page report in this week’s Times Educational Supplement which showed that some young people are prepared to take the matter into their own hands when religious enthusiasts use school as a place of indoctrination rather than education.


Published Wed, 19 Jul 2006