Humanists UK launches guide to religion in schools in response to tumbling religion figures

18 April, 2023

Following primary schools National Offer Day, Humanists UK has published a comprehensive guide on how to navigate religion in English schools. It has done so in response to the latest Census figures, released in January, that show that more people aged under 67 ticked ‘No religion’ than ‘Christian’ – with the ‘No religion’ figures being in the high 40s until around age 50. And yet one-third of state-funded schools are Christian, and this share has gone up over the last ten years. Further, every other school must by law have daily Christian worship. The laws on worship, faith schools, and religious education (RE) all date from 1944. Humanists UK has questioned whether they are compatible with modern society.

The guide, called Religion in Schools – a Guide for Non-Religious Parents and Young People, offers a wealth of information on topics such as: school ethos and admissions, RE, collective worship, and the teaching of creationism and so-called ‘intelligent design’ in science. Also released this week is a new guide tailor made for the new education law and curriculum in Wales, and a guide for parents on religion in schools in Northern Ireland.

Religion in schools… in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
We’ve published four guides for non-religious parents and young people. Download the guides below.

Why the guide is needed

In 2015 the High Court in England ruled that ‘the state must accord equal respect to different religious convictions, and to non-religious beliefs’ such as humanism in RE. The Welsh Government subsequently changed the law and curriculum to reflect that, but the UK Government has refused to do the same in England. Similarly, in 2019, non-religious parents in Oxfordshire successfully sued their school into introducing a meaningful, inclusive alternative to Christian worship for their children. But again, the UK Government has refused to take the matter up nationwide. These two refusals have left parents and young people exposed to ongoing discrimination with little recourse to challenge it. It is hoped that this guide will help them do so.

Publication of the free resource is timely, because this week parents of primary age children across England will be discovering whether they have been accepted into their preferred school. Some faith schools can teach biased RE, as well as discriminate in their admissions policies against the non-religious, and so every year around this time Humanists UK hears from non-religious parents, or those of a different faith to the ethos of the school, who are frustrated that they have been allocated a faith school against their wishes. Conversely, some parents may be content to send their child to a local faith school, but are unable to do so because they do not meet the religious admissions criteria – resulting in a long trip to get to another school further away. Both of these situations would be avoided if the religious bias on curriculum content and admissions in faith schools were abolished. However, until that happens, this guide is essential reading for people navigating the complex web of school types and the different religious privileges that can apply in each of them.

Oldham parent Eamonn Keane said:

‘This guide for parents is an incredibly useful resource, and I hope will help many other parents across the country make sense of religious influence and discrimination in state schools, and to lobby for change. Many simply don’t know what the law permits schools to do. Yet we know all too well in Oldham how discriminating against local children on the grounds of their parents’ religion can lead to racial and social division. The 2021 Census found that at least a quarter of us in Oldham have no religion, and another quarter of the population are from faith backgrounds other than Christianity: taken together these two groups now represent a higher proportion of the population than Christians. So it is a great injustice that one of the best schools in Oldham actively prevents local children from benefiting from its high standards, simply because their parents don’t happen to be Christian.’

The Census in England and Wales records over 40% of children as non-religious and two-thirds non-Christian. But it uses leading wording (‘What is your religion?’) which has long been shown to inflate the number of people who do not believe in, practice, or consider themselves to belong to a religion choosing a religious box. The Office of National Statistics acknowledges this itself. The annual British Social Attitudes Survey, by contrast, asks a less leading question. In 2020 it saw over two-thirds of young adults say they are non-religious, with under one-fifth saying they are Christians – including 0.7% saying they are Anglicans.

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Robert Cann said:

‘I’m thrilled that we are publishing this free resource today. The non-religious comprise two-thirds of young people and yet they are frequently denied their freedom of religion or belief or equal respect by our school system. A reckoning must surely be coming between the non-religious population and our very Christian education system. In the meantime we hope this guide helps and empowers parents and young people with the knowledge they need to get the best out of their schools.’

What the guide covers

The guide kicks off with a comprehensive reference table, setting out all the different school types and what they can and can’t do in terms of religion. There follow chapters on RE, humanism resources, collective worship, school admissions, creationism / evolution, and frequently asked questions. The guide also covers topics like the legal right of parents and young people to withdraw from religious education and collective worship, and the importance of providing inclusive assemblies for those who do not wish to participate in worship. Parents and young people are signposted to all the relevant legislation, and given hints and tips about how to engage positively and constructively with schools and other bodies.


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.

Download the guide for parents.

Read our article about how faith-based school admissions disadvantage the non-religious and minorities.

Read more about our work on faith schools, collective worship, RE, Understanding Humanism, and creationism/evolution.

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.