United Nations committee slams religious bias in UK schools

2 June, 2023

Acts of ‘collective worship’ remain a legal requirement in schools

The UK is failing children through pervasive and discriminatory bias in favour of religions and religious believers in schools, one of the most important United Nations committees has suggested.

Humanists UK, which submitted evidence to recent UN hearings about this orally and in writing, said it welcomed the body’s recommendations and urged decision-makers in the UK to act on them.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which reports on treaty compliance for the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child said that the UK’s outdated law on collective worship, biased Religious Education (RE) curriculums, faith-based discrimination for school admissions, and faith-based carve-outs for relationships and sex education (RSE) all violate the treaty, which the UK ratified back in 1991.

Collective worship

One of the key recommendations made by the UN Committee is for children under 16 to be given a right to withdraw from collective worship. Humanists UK has long campaigned for the removal of compulsory collective worship. Such a change would ensure that young people have the freedom to exercise their own beliefs or non-beliefs without being compelled to participate in religious activities.

The law is also unpopular with parents. Humanists UK campaigns for inclusive assemblies in place of collective worship.

Sectarian admissions

Another significant recommendation made by the UN Committee is to remove the ability of schools in England to admit children based on their faith background. One third of schools in England and Wales are faith schools, and are able to discriminate in their admissions policies depending on the religious background of the child. There is evidence that such discrimination leads to social and economic division. Removing this discrimination would contribute to a fairer and more inclusive admissions process, ensuring that children are not discriminated against based on the religious affiliation of their family.

Humanists UK often hears from non-religious parents who are unable to get into a good local school due to not meeting the religious entry criteria.

Religiously biased RE

Additionally, the UN Committee highlighted the need to reform religious education in Northern Ireland to make it more inclusive of other religions and beliefs. This curriculum, which is currently almost exclusively Christian-focued, has recently been found to breach the human rights of a non-religious family. A more inclusive approach to religious education is crucial in fostering mutual understanding and respect among diverse communities.

Humanists UK’s recent high court win on RE is proof that inclusive RE is a legal requirement across the UK.

Age-appropriate RSE

Finally, the UN Committee recommended the removal of faith schools’ carve-outs to the Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) curriculum. Humanists UK believes that all children should receive accurate and age-appropriate information about relationships and sex, irrespective of the religious character of their school or their own religious background. The current system means that some faith schools are able to use highly inappropriate material in RSE lessons.

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Robert Cann said:

‘These concluding observations from the UN couldn’t be clearer: we have a serious problem in the UK that successive governments have been happy to ignore for years: the religious bias in our education system is now woefully out of step with international standards and commitments to the freedom of religion or belief. With the changing demographics of over half the population now having no religion – and this is even higher for young people – these issues simply cannot be ignored any longer.

‘Therefore we will be calling upon governments across the UK to consider these recommendations seriously and take immediate steps to implement them. By doing so, we can ensure that children’s rights are fully respected, allowing every child to thrive and contribute to a society built on equality and respect for all.’


For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Public Affairs Manager Karen Wright at press@humanists.uk or phone 020 3675 0959.

Read the UNCRC’s concluding observations for the UK.

Read more about our work on collective worship, RE, and faith schools admissions.

Watch the UNCRC 93rd Session on the UN website.

Read our submissions to the UNCRC.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 110,000 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.