Governments across the UK should repeal compulsory collective worship, children’s rights bodies from all four nations have told the United Nations.
Humanists UK, Wales Humanists, and Northern Ireland Humanists all contributed evidence to national reports compiled by key children’s rights bodies in each country, with partner organisation Humanist Society Scotland contributing to a similar report in Scotland.
The reports will now be used to shape the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child’s review of the UK’s children’s rights record.
The last review – known as the Concluding Observations – was conducted in 2016. In it, the UN Committee recommended the repeal of compulsory collective worship in UK schools. However – as noted in the reports by the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE), Children in Wales (CiW) and the Children’s Law Centre Northern Ireland – four years on, no progress has been made. The legal requirement to carry out an act of Christian worship is still in place across the UK.
With this in mind, the reports for Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland (where collective worship is known as ‘religious observance’) say the UN should ask the respective governments when they will repeal these provisions.
Segregated schools and RE in Northern Ireland
In 2016 the Committee also said the Northern Ireland Government should ‘actively promote a fully integrated education system and carefully monitor the provision of shared education… to ensure that it facilitates social integration’.
Despite this, most Protestants and Catholics are still educated apart from one another, with teaching staff and governing bodies also divided along faith lines. This represents a considerable barrier to social cohesion and threatens the freedom of religion or belief of pupils educated in this segregated system. What’s more, even in integrated schools (where pupils from the Protestant and Catholic communities are educated together with those from other backgrounds), the curriculum for religious education, drawn up by the four main Christian churches, contains very little on other world religions, and nothing at all about humanism.
The report to the UN from Northern Ireland’s Children’s Law Centre draws heavily on the evidence of Northern Ireland Humanists, asking the Committee to press the Government to explain how it will ‘ensure the NI RE curriculum acknowledges and respects the beliefs of children with no religion and those with minority faiths.’
Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Ruth Wareham said:
‘Children’s rights bodies from across the UK are united in the view that laws requiring schools to impose a daily act of Christian worship on pupils fly in the face of children’s freedom of religion or belief.
‘Over four years ago the UN told the UK this was the case and yet the Governments are still to take action. We very much hope that the UN takes up the issue again.’
Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator commented:
‘The segregation and religious bias endemic in the education system in Northern Ireland represents a clear and ongoing threat to children’s rights, particularly the right to freedom of religion or belief. Children’s rights bodies in Northern Ireland clearly agree that we need schools that educate pupils from a variety of different backgrounds alongside one another in an inclusive manner if we are to have a cohesive, tolerant society that respects the rights of everyone equally.’
Wales Humanists Coordinator Kathy Riddick said:
‘Changes like introducing compulsory RSE and making religious education fully inclusive of humanism mark a huge step towards realising children’s rights in Wales. But the lack of action on collective worship threatens to undermine this. The education Bill currently passing through the Senedd could easily be amended to repeal the law requiring worship but the Government is refusing to do this.
‘We hope the fact that the children’s rights bodies have unanimously concluded that these laws should be repealed persuades them to think again.’
For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Dr Ruth Wareham via firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 020 7324 3000 or 07725 110 860.
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Read our article on education law reforms urgently needed to protect children’s rights.
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