UK civil society calls on Government to give children the right to withdraw from worship in schools

28 February, 2023

A broad coalition of children’s rights organisations has today joined forces to tell the UK Government it must end compulsory collective worship in English schools, by giving children under 16 the right to withdraw from such sessions. The recommendation is found in the ‘Civil society alternative report’ to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, on how the UK is implementing the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The report has been released today, and was collated by the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE) after submissions from 97 organisations.

Humanists UK campaigns for the requirement for collective worship in schools to be replaced with inclusive assemblies suitable for children of all backgrounds, and submitted evidence calling for the inclusion of collective worship in CRAE’s report. Today it has welcomed the publication of the report, and urged parents concerned about collective worship in their child’s school to take action. Earlier this month, Humanists UK took its campaign directly to UNCRC officials in Geneva, calling for an end to compulsory collective worship.

The law requires daily acts of collective worship in all state schools in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Unless it is a faith school with a religious character other than Christianity, most of these acts must be Christian. While older children, and parents on behalf of younger children, can opt out of worship, children under 16 are not permitted to withdraw themselves. This therefore violates their right, under article 14 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), to freedom of religion or belief.

The UK is the only sovereign state in the world to impose Christian worship in state schools as standard. In demanding collective worship in schools, which will typically have pupils from a wide variety of religious and non-religious backgrounds, the law is incoherent: a school can do many things collectively but, lacking a shared religious faith, it cannot worship collectively.

In 2019 parents supported by Humanists UK succeeded in challenging a school’s policy on collective worship, meaning that the school then had to provide an alternative assembly of equal educational worth for all children withdrawn from collective worship. Humanists UK worked with Baroness Burt on a Private Member’s Bill to this effect in 2021-22, which would have set the requirement in place for all schools in England, but it was resisted by the Government.

Today’s report makes the recommendation on collective worship under a banner of inclusive education, which also noted that religious selection criteria for school admissions continue, and that the UK Government has no plans to review this. The report therefore also calls for the UK to ‘end the use of selective education… measures that impact children’s well-being.’

Humanists UK’s Education Campaigns Manager Robert Cann said: 

‘I welcome this report, which is a thorough and exhaustive compilation of all the actions our Government needs to take to uphold children’s rights in England. Compulsory worship is one of many important issues facing children today. In the past, the UNCRC has echoed our call for compulsory collective worship to be abolished, and I hope that it will do so again.

‘Outdated laws from the 1940s are wholly inappropriate in our increasingly non-religious society. Children should be able to attend school safe in the knowledge that their freedom of religion or belief will be respected.

‘We urge any parent concerned about collective worship at their child’s school to take action to improve matters: download our campaign pack!’


For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at or phone 020 7324 3072 or 020 3675 0959.

Read the fifth alternative report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the summary report, and the CRAE press release.

Read more about our work on collective worship.

Read our article about the UK Government ignoring UN advice on collective worship.

Download our parents’ collective worship campaign pack.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.