Humanists criticise UK’s record on protecting children’s rights

10 October, 2016

Father's day -- father hold child hand with love and walk togeather

The UK must do more to protect the rights of children and young people, particularly in tackling religious discrimination in schools, correcting the ongoing lack of good-quality sex and relationships education, and decriminalising abortion in Northern Ireland and across the UK, the British Humanist Association (BHA) has told a parliamentary committee.

The BHA drew particular attention to the UK Government’s recent proposals to allow new religious schools in England to religiously discriminate against prospective pupils in allocating all of their places, in response to a call for evidence on the UK’s record on children’s rights from the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR).

The current requirement that all religious schools keep at least half of their places open to local children irrespective of religion or belief is set to be scrapped, a move that the BHA says ‘ignores the evidence that the 50% cap on religious selection has boosted integration’, and ‘runs counter to the recommendations the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) made in a periodic report published this year.

Other issues raised by the BHA in their submission include:

  • Collective worship: the BHA describes the impact of the requirement for compulsory Christian collective worship in schools as ‘excluding’, ‘damaging’, and ‘discriminatory’, and points out that both the UNCRC and the JCHR have previously recommended that it be repealed.
  • Religious Education (RE): the failure of many RE syllabuses, including the UK Government’s own subject content for Religious Studies GCSE in England published last year, to provide for study of non-religious worldviews alongside study of religions is criticised in the BHA’s submission. In November 2015 the High Court handed down a ruling making clear that religions and non-religious worldviews must be afforded equal respect in the curriculum, a decision that the Department for Education continues to ignore.
  • Personal, Social, Health, and Economic Education (PSHE) and Sex and Relationships Education (SRE): The continued refusal of UK governments to introduce mandatory sex and relationships education in all schools is noted, despite the fact that all the ‘evidence shows that providing young people with comprehensive, age-appropriate PSHE (including SRE) leads to the best outcomes in terms of health, wellbeing, consent, safe sex, preventing abortions, improving attitudes to women, and tackling homophobic bullying’. The JCHR has previously described making SRE compulsory as a ‘significant human rights enhancing measure’, and the UNCRC recommended it be made mandatory in its periodic report.
  • Abortion: The BHA’s evidence notes that in Northern Ireland the right to an abortion is limited only to circumstances in which the mother’s life is at risk of where there is a serious risk to the mother’s physical or mental health, even though a recent High Court case showed this must be extended at a minimum to cases of rape, incest, and fatal foetal abnormality. Further, women and girls from Northern Ireland are currently charged by the NHS in Britain for accessing abortion services while others from Britain are not. The BHA joins the UNCRC in calling for the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland, and for full decriminalisation throughout the rest of the UK too to protect the rights of women and girls.

BHA Education Campaigner Jay Harman said, ‘Both the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child have been clear in recent years that our education system and wider legislative framework do not currently protect the rights of children to the extent that they should. Religious discrimination continues to be rife in our schools, and in fact is set to be exacerbated by recent Government proposals, and we are evidently still not doing enough to equip young people with either the information or the confidence to be happy, healthy, and safe.

‘We welcome the opportunity to feed into the JCHR’s inquiry and will continue to encourage the Government to implement the recommendations made by the UNCRC in its latest periodic review.’


For further comment or information, please contact BHA Education Campaigner Jay Harman on or 0207 324 3078.

Read the BHA’s submission to the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ inquiry here:

Read the BHA’s previous news item UN Children’s Rights Committee calls for end to compulsory worship in UK schools:

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:

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:

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.