UN Children’s Rights Committee calls for end to compulsory worship in UK schools

9 June, 2016

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has today published its major periodic review of the state of children’s rights in the UK, and has advocated for:

  • the repeal of compulsory collective worship in UK schools
  • a fully integrated education system in Northern Ireland
  • full and comprehensive sex and relationships education in UK schools
  • decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland in all circumstances.

The British Humanist Association (BHA) has long campaigned for such changes, having secured similar recommendations in the civil society report that fed into the review. The BHA was on the working group that produced the education section of that report. Today it has welcomed the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child making the same recommendations.

BHA Director of Policy and Public Affairs Pavan Dhaliwal commented, ‘The UK state fails its young people in far too many ways today. Almost uniquely among economically developed countries, it segregates them in schools along religious lines. Completely uniquely it forces them to attend proselytising Christian worship even when it is against their wishes. It denies them the full and comprehensive sex and relationships education that the evidence shows they need, to lead to better outcomes in terms of sexual and reproductive health. And in Northern Ireland it denies them and others access to abortion services.

‘We are pleased to see the UN agree with us that UK law needs to change, and we will continue to take these matters up with the UK and devolved governments to press for reform.’

The report’s recommendations

The report says the following:

  • On collective worship: ‘The Committee is concerned that pupils are required by law to take part in a daily religious worship which is “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character” in publicly funded schools in England and Wales, and that children do not have the right to withdraw from such worship without parental permission before entering the sixth form. In Northern Ireland and Scotland, children do not have right to withdraw from collective worship without parental permission. The Committee recommends that the State party repeal legal provisions for compulsory attendance at collective worship in publicly funded schools and ensure that children can independently exercise the right to withdraw from religious worship at school.
  • On religious segregation in Northern Ireland schools: ‘In Northern Ireland segregation of schools by religion persists. The State party, in Northern Ireland, actively promote a fully integrated education system and carefully monitor the provision of shared education, with the participation of children, in order to ensure that it facilitates social integration’. This is not just an issue in Northern Ireland, but also elsewhere in the UK.
  • On sex and relationships education: ‘Relationships and sexuality education is not mandatory in all schools, its contents and quality varies depending on the school, and LGBT children do not have access to accurate information on their sexuality. The Committee recommends that the State party ensure that meaningful sexual and reproductive health education is part of the mandatory school curriculum for all schools, including academies, special schools and youth detention centres, in all areas of the State party. Such education should provide age-appropriate information on: confidential sexual and reproductive health-care services; contraceptives; prevention of sexual abuse or exploitation, including sexual bullying; available support in cases of such abuse and exploitation; and sexuality, including that of LGBT children’.
  • On abortion in Northern Ireland: ‘In Northern Ireland, abortion is illegal in all cases except where continuance of the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother, and is sanctioned with life imprisonment. The Committee recommends that the State party decriminalize abortion in Northern Ireland in all circumstances and review its legislation with a view to ensuring girls’ access to safe abortion and post-abortion care services. The views of the child should always be heard and respected in abortion decisions.


For further comment or information, please contact BHA Director of Public Affairs and Policy Pavan Dhaliwal at pavan@humanists.uk or on 07738 435 059.

Read the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child’s Concluding observations on the fifth periodic report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland: https://humanists.uk/wp-content/uploads/CRC_C_GBR_CO_5_24195_E.docx

The BHA is a member of the Children’s Rights Alliance of England, and was on the working group that drafted the education section of the Civil society report to the UN Committee that was produced as part of the periodic review.

Read our previous comment, Coalition of charities in England calls for statutory SRE in schools, reduction in religious selection and the inclusion of non-religious worldviews in RE, 1 July 2015: https://humanists.uk/2015/07/01/coalition-of-charities-in-england-calls-for-statutory-sre-in-schools-reduction-in-religious-selection-and-the-inclusion-of-non-religious-worldviews-in-re/

Read more about the BHA’s campaigns work on:

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.