End faith-based selection in schools, UN committee urges
Posted: Wed, 7th Jun 2023
Schools in England should be prevented from religious discrimination in their admissions, a United Nations committee has said.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) also recommended repealing compulsory collective worship in schools and the parental right of withdrawal from sex education.
The recommendations were made in the CRC's concluding observations, published today, on the most recent periodic reports of child rights in the UK.
The National Secular Society welcomed these recommendations, which it has raised with the UN repeatedly for many years.
Discrimination in faith schools
The CRC urged the UK to "guarantee the right of all children to freedom of expression and to practise freely their religion or belief", including by "preventing the use of religion as a selection criterion for school admissions in England".
Most types of faith schools in England have exemptions from the Equality Act 2010, which enable them to prioritise children from families who share their faith if they are oversubscribed.
This can include requiring parents and children to regularly attend a local place of worship or provide evidence of baptism.
Many parents find that because they belong to no religion or a minority religion, they are unable to send their children to their local state school.
The NSS has long campaigned for the equality law exemptions for faith schools to be repealed.
The CRC also recommended "revising the education syllabus in Northern Ireland to include education on and respect for a diversity of religions".
Last year NI's High Court ruled that the country's religious education system breaches the European Convention on Human Rights due to its heavy Christian bias.
Compulsory collective worship
The CRC recommended "repealing legal provisions for compulsory attendance in collective worship" in schools.
The law in England and Wales states that children at all maintained schools "shall on each school day take part in an act of collective worship". Northern Ireland and Scotland have similar laws. Even in schools with no religious designation, the worship must be "wholly or mainly of a Christian character". The UK is the only Western democracy which legally imposes worship in publicly funded schools.
The NSS has long called for collective worship laws to be abolished because they breach children and families' freedom of religion or belief.
The committee said the UK should establish "statutory guidance to ensure the right of all children, including children under 16 years of age, to withdraw from religious classes without parental consent".
Children cannot currently withdraw themselves from collective worship until they reach Sixth Form.
The NI High Court also found NI's collective worship laws breach human rights.
Relationships and sex education
The CRC said "comprehensive, age-appropriate and evidence-based" sex education should be compulsory at all levels of education, including information on same-sex relationships and reproductive health rights. It said this should be "without the possibility for faith-based schools or parents to opt out of such education".
Parents in England, Scotland and NI can withdraw their children from sex education. While relationships and sex education is compulsory for all state schools in England, NI and Wales, faith schools may teach it from a religious perspective. NSS research in 2018 found this results in "distorted" sex education, including teaching adolescents that contraception and same-sex relationships are morally wrong. The CRC raised particular concern about discrimination against children who are LGBT.
NSS urges government to implement recommendation to make inclusive schools "a reality"
NSS head of campaigns Megan Manson said: "We welcome the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child's recommendation that faith-based selection at schools be abolished.
"As the UK becomes more irreligious and religiously-diverse, more parents are finding their children locked out of their local school, simply because they don't belong to the 'right' religion. It's disgraceful that such religious discrimination is permitted in the schools we all pay for.
"We also welcome the committee's recommendation to end compulsory collective worship. Compelling children to pray to gods they do not believe in has no place in schools.
"It's high time our entire education system was transformed into a secular, inclusive one which equally welcomes children from families of all religions and beliefs. We urge the government to implement the CRC's recommendations to make this a reality."
Other CRC recommendations which the NSS has called for include:
- "Promptly and effectively" investigating and intervening in all cases of child abuse, including in religious institutions.
- Ensuring access for adolescent girls to "age-appropriate family planning services, affordable contraceptives and safe abortion and post-abortion care services", particularly in Northern Ireland.
- Developing strategies for eliminating child marriage, female genital mutilation and 'honour' violence.
- Ending "conversion therapy" of children.
- Improving education about children's human rights among children and teachers.
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