Humanists UK at UN: Illegal schools deny the right to science

8 March, 2024

All children deserve to have science lessons at school

At the 55th session of the UN Human Rights Council, Humanists UK has raised its concerns that illegal schools in England are failing to uphold the rights of children to participate in science. 

What’s an illegal school?

The term ‘illegal schools’ refers to unregistered schools operating in England and Wales which purport to be after-school clubs or supplementary out-of-school education, abusing the fact that home education is unregulated in the UK. Most frequently taking the form of yeshivas and madrassas, whistleblower reports and journalistic exposes have highlighted the fact that these schools are unsafe, with untrained teachers, corporal punishment, and concerns about sexual abuse and safeguarding issues.

Whistleblowers and other investigations have reported that these schools teach nothing but scripture from dawn until dusk. Children do not learn about science or maths. Though their pupils are born and raised in English cities, many pupils graduate unable to speak English whatsoever. In London, where the majority of these schools are run within the ultra-Orthodox Charedi community, it is estimated that at least 6,000 boys are missing from London’s school registers as a result of attending illegal schools.

At the UN: drawing attention to the problem

During the interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Humanists UK welcomed her statement that the critical enquiry of science is at times considered to clash with faith or religion in contravention to article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Article 15 guarantees the right to participate in and enjoy the benefits of scientific progress.

The intervention was delivered via video by Humanists UK Public Affairs and Policy Officer, Thomas Mohan. He said:

‘We are concerned about belligerent attitudes towards scientific inquiry affecting the rights of the child. In 2019, the Office for Standards in Education in England revealed that approximately 6,000 children are being taught in unregistered and unregulated illegal schools, many of which are places of religious instruction. Unregistered faith schools serve a variety of different religious groups, but tend to be fundamentalist, extreme, or isolationist in their outlook, providing their pupils with a narrow religious curriculum unsuitable for modern Britain. As well as evidence of severe failures in safeguarding, former pupils have told us they were not taught secular subjects like science or geography at all. Yet draft legislation to tackle illegal schools was dropped by the UK Government in 2022.

‘We remain concerned by UNESCO’s 2022 Gender Report that found an almost global picture of the gender gap in education, including in science. Further, we note that studies in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia found that some non-state faith-based schools cancel out some of the positive impact on gender equality from increased education access by reinforcing traditional narratives on gender roles in their curricula and textbooks, through gender-segregated practices and limited access to progressive role models.

Humanists UK went on to ask the Special Rapporteur to make additional recommendations to states for the promotion and protection of the rights of children, including girls, to access and participate in science in both state-funded and non-state educational settings.

Campaigning for children’s rights

Humanists UK leads the national campaign to close illegal schools and uphold the rights of all children to a full education. It is calling on both the Government, or if elected this year, the Labour Party, to bring back a range of proposals included in the Government’s abandoned Schools Bill as part of a narrower Bill to tackle this problem, where there is already strong cross-party consensus.


For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Kathy Riddick at or phone 020 3675 0959.

Read the full intervention.

Read more about our international work.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 120,000 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.