The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has just published its Concluding observations on the fifth periodic report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland: download here. One of its recommendations is on compulsory religious worship in state schools:
“Freedom of thought, conscience and religion
The Committee is concerned that pupils are required by law to take part in a daily religious worship which is ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’ in publicly funded schools in England and Wales, and that children do not have the right to withdraw from such worship without parental permission before entering the sixth form. In Northern Ireland and Scotland, children do not have right to withdraw from collective worship without parental permission.
The Committee recommends that the State party repeal legal provisions for compulsory attendance at collective worship in publicly funded schools and ensure that children can independently exercise the right to withdraw from religious worship at school.”
Reactions were, predictably, mixed. According to a report in the Telegraph, David Burrowes, Conservative MP for Enfield Southgate, described the recommendation as “ludicrous and mad”:
“The collective act of worship is not an indoctrination exercise. It is recognising and respecting the Christian heritage of the country and giving people an opportunity to reflect before the beginning of the day. The UN should spend more time doing its main job of preventing war and genocide rather than poking its nose in other countries’ classrooms. We can respectfully put those kind of reports in the bin where they belong.”
Equally unsurprisingly, Pavan Dhaliwal, a director at the British Humanist Association, said:
“The UK state fails its young people in far too many ways today. Almost uniquely among economically developed countries, it segregates them in schools along religious lines. We are pleased to see the UN agree with us that UK law needs to change.”
I posted on Religious education, collective worship and the right of withdrawal in 2012 and suggested that human rights and religious education rest on something of a paradox: that the “education” is done to the children but, in practice, it is the parents who exercise the “rights” in relation to withdrawal from religious education and worship – and that relatively little attention, if any, is given to the preferences of children under the age of sixteen.
I have no view on whether or not, as a matter of principle, there should be religious worship or religious instruction in state schools – except to suggest that, given the degree of religious illiteracy at all levels of society, there is surely some merit in children being taught about “religion” as a social phenomenon, if only in the interests of greater social cohesion and mutual respect between different faith communities. On the matter of the right to opt out of school worship altogether, however, the situation is rather more complex.
In October 2015, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, called on all governments represented at the UN General Assembly “to respect religious practices by children and their families and support families in fulfilling their role in providing an enabling environment for the realisation of the rights of the child.” As I noted at the time, he concluded, inter alia, that:
- Parental direction in matters of religion or belief should be consistent with the child’s own understanding, “so as to facilitate an increasingly active role for the child in exercising his or her freedom of religion or belief and respect for the child as a rights holder from early on”. 
- States parties and other stakeholders, including religious communities and families, should recognise the status of the child as a rights holder. [79a]
- Article 14 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child should be broadly interpreted as covering theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, including the right not to profess any religion or belief. [79c]
- States should respect, protect and promote parental rights and the rights of the child as, in general, positively interrelated rights, which include freedom of religion or belief; respect for the “evolving capacities of the child” is part of that and states should avoid fixed age limits when identifying religious maturity in order to do justice to the personal religious maturation of each individual child [79d].
- States should ensure “low-threshold options” for the child and his or her parents to be exempted from religious instruction in school. [79h].
I also noted that the Joint Committee on Human Rights had raised the issue of withdrawal from religious instruction and from obligatory school worship ten years ago, in its Twenty-Eighth Report of Session 2005–06, in relation to the Education and Inspections Bill, when it pointed out that children also have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion under Article 9 ECHR and Articles 12 & 14 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Committee concluded that the current law was incompatible with Convention obligations “in so far as it fails to guarantee a child of sufficient maturity, intelligence and understanding the right to withdraw from both compulsory religious education and collective worship” and recommended that, at least as a start, pupils over the age of sixteen – ie those over compulsory school age – should have the right to withdraw from the latter [2.3 & 2.4]: see s 55 Education and Inspections Act 2006.
I remain unconvinced that a fifteen- or sixteen-year-old who has had enough of compulsory school worship should be regarded as too immature to take the decision to withdraw. As the Special Rapporteur pointed out in 2015, children are rights holders as well – and the UN Committee’s Concluding observations recognise that. The report’s critics may disagree with its conclusion on withdrawal from worship in state schools and they might even be able to put forward some kind of tenable argument in support of their position – but they won’t advance their cause by simply rubbishing it.