Government to defy Human Rights watchdog by not allowing ‘adult’ pupils to withdraw from Collective Worship and Religious Education

The Government last night threw out proposals that would have permitted older children to withdraw themselves from collective worship and religious education in schools – despite the fact that the Parliamentary Human Rights watchdog had said that if they are competent to decide this would be a breach of the pupils’ human rights.

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said: “Parents are entitled to withdraw their children from Religious Education or Collective Worship without giving any reason. But Education Minister Lord Adonis refused in the Lords last night to accept an amendment to transfer this right to pupils considered adults for Human Rights purposes. The amendment was brought to implement a specific recommendation of the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

“We urge Lord Adonis to think again because he appears to be suggesting that even adult pupils should leave their Human Rights behind at the school gate. The Government’s refusal is an abuse of Human Rights. It is Dickensian for the state to legally require pupils below sixth form to “take part” in an act of worship, especially when two thirds of secondary school children are not religious (according to the Social Research Council).

“The Government’s divergence from Human Rights on Religious Education is even greater. The Government will not allow any pupils even if over 18 to withdraw themselves form Religious Education, yet parents can withdraw them at any age. It suits the churches’ case for them to give the impression that all Religious Education lessons are non-proselytising, but they are not. The law allows proselytising lessons in thousands of religious schools and in some of them pupils are even forced to watch pro-life films of aborted foetuses. It is outrageous that pupils considered adults for human rights purposes, and indeed even those who have reached the legal age of majority, should be forced to participate. The Human Rights proposal was not that the lessons be discontinued, but simply that older pupils be given a choice.

“Even when it is a Human Rights obligation, the Government mantra of Choice is suddenly abandoned when it comes to religion. It has just dawned on the Government that its obsessive religiosity has got it into deep water on community cohesion. It is well past time it rethought its position on religion in education.

The amendment to the Education and Inspections Bill was tabled by Baroness Turner of Camden (Labour) supported by LibDems Lords Avebury and (Dick) Taverne. Lady Turner and Lord Taverne are Honorary Associates of the National Secular Society.

Debate starts Lords Hansard 17 Oct 2006 : Column 697.

Lady Turner moves amendment Lords Hansard 17 Oct 2006 : Column 722

JCHR report