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 on Tuesday, 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 Education and Inspections Bill was proposed by Lib Dem peer Baroness Walmsley, who argued that “there is no justification for forcing young people to take part in a religious service with which they do not agree. Freedom of worship, or non-worship in this case, is a basic part of our rights as citizens of a free country. It is totally contradictory to say we think young people are old enough at 16 to work and pay taxes, get married and even fight for their country but then not give them the right to choose whether they participate in worship. Forcing young people to attend religious services is self-defeating. If we want young people to behave more maturely, we have to give them responsibility for their own decisions over such personal issues as religion.”

The amendment was suggested by the National Secular Society, which had recently written to the Education Secretary Alan Johnson, and to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights about the issue. Mr Johnson said he 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 against Collective Worship for over 40 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 last week’s Times Educational Supplement (http://www.tes.co.uk/2259308) also referred to in the debate, 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 of education.

Canon John Hall, chief education officer for the Church of England, tried to put a brave face on it, telling the BBC: “Students have always been able to withdraw from these sessions with parental consent and we understand that in practice a more flexible approach for those in sixth-form may be appropriate. This may be of little relevance – in practice, we are aware of very few cases of withdrawal from collective worship.”

But it is clear that the CofE – along with its self-styled “partners” in government – will be loath to make any further concession. Canon Hall claimed that collective worship was an “integral” part of the education system and held “great educational value” for young people at all stages of their school career. “The act of daily worship allows students an opportunity to encounter God and equips them with the tools of reflection and silence we all need to help cope with life-changing moments,” he said. “These sessions also help promote tolerance and understanding and can foster strong links between school and community.”

Terry Sanderson, vice president of the National Secular Society, said: “Can anyone make sense of John Hall’s silly claims? How is forcing people to worship against their will of ‘great educational value’? What does it teach them – that Christians use coercion to inflict their ideas on unwilling converts?”

Meanwhile peers, including NSS honorary associate Baroness Massey, proposed an amendment to the Bill calling for a “bar on the establishment of new schools of a religious character.” But Lord Adonis resisted this, basing his rebuttal on Human Rights: “It would be unacceptable to infringe the rights of parents in local communities to have a ban on the establishment of new faith schools. Article 2 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights provides for the right for parents to have their children educated in accordance with their religion and other views,” he said.

However, the NSS maintains that Lord Adonis’s claims are factually inaccurate: the Article prohibits the State from banning such schools, but does not require the State to provide them. Our contention is supported by the Joint Human Rights Select Committee.

The remainder of the debate provided a rare opportunity to put the case against “faith schools” and there were some magnificent contributions from Honorary Associates, especially Lady Massey, Lady Turner and Lord Taverne. The former Tory education Secretary Lord (Kenneth) Baker described the decision to introduce minority faith schools as “a grievous and huge mistake, and successive generations in our country will suffer from it.” The Society also briefed peers on some especially deleterious amendments tabled by the bishops.

Read the full debate here. Cols 1126-1141, 1156-1210, 1226 – 1245 (emergency business interrupted the debate).