School worship and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child

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”. [75]
  • 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.

Frank Cranmer

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "School worship and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child" in Law & Religion UK, 13 June 2016,

12 thoughts on “School worship and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child

  1. I can remember in my youth, when going to a Catholic School, my father,who professed to be a Catholic, tried to remove us from Assemblies and Religious Education. Luckily, the school gave me the choice, and I chose to remain, as did my two siblings. We just didn’t tell our father, what we were doing.

    While I can’t claim that I grew up to be a practising Catholic, that Religious education at least allowed me to practise a faith of sorts, sporadically, until my mid-thirties when I withdrew totally from religion, for the next 25 years.

    A personal Epiphany brought me back to faith, but as an Anglican – I had too much baggage from my Catholic upbringing and a disbelief in some of the doctrine, which made returning to the Catholic Church impossible. Anglicanism seemed a safe haven, and now nearly 10 years later, I’m sure that It was the right decision.

    I support school assemblies and religious education, but with the child, once the reach the age of reason (about 6 or 7) to make their own decision. As for children from other faiths, than their religious foundations should be respected and schools that have a majority of them, should make some provision for teaching about their difference. The citizenship curriculum seems to meet this, with provision for children to learn about different faiths, but it needs to be robust enough to improve the overall religious literacy of the whole population in the longer term.

  2. I refused to take part in religious stuff from age nine. I was still forced to go to chapel three times a week and consequently was deliberately disruptive during those religious ceremonies for the next nine years – at albeit private schools.

    I also viewed it as child abuse and an assault – and 50 years later still do. British law on school religion is transparently abusive.

  3. Withdrawal from RE and collective worship was originally to cover those of other faiths and sects (eg JWs), with the possibility of alternative provision, rather than those who simply wanted ‘no religion’. Nowadays, so long as non-confessional RE remains part of the curriculum (as it should, since religious literacy has become more rather than less important) there is no more reason to withdraw from this than from any other subject. The right in question is presumably no more than ‘not to be indoctrinated’, which could apply to other curriculum areas.

    Collective worship, as Frank points out, is more complex, as it involves an invitation to engage personally. But the case can certainly be made (as David Burrowes begins to do before rubbishing the report) for gathering for reflection, and to establish school ethos, including recognising and celebrating diversity. Prayers and readings from sacred texts, carefully chosen and introduced, are part of this and need not be coercive. My experience leading assembly in a Muslim-majority church primary school is that parents value this. And as minidvr suggests, younger children are less likely than their parents to opt out of the corporate experience and be identified as ‘different’. But I know it’s more difficult at secondary level.

    Is the suggestion that the right to withdraw be transferred from parent to child? If both have the right, what happens when they disagree?

  4. The UN recommendation is welcome but does not go far enough.

    Non-faith schools should preserve a position of neutrality in matters of religion and belief. There should certainly be education about religion or belief but (as confirmed by the recent High Court case – see, however much our fervently Christian Secretary of State tries to deny it – see it must be “objective, critical and pluralistic”.

    In that case the judge explicitly ruled out the right of withdrawal as an adequate defence for teaching that failed to reach this benchmark: “an opt-out is not an adequate substitute for the provision of an educational programme which accords the Parents their right to respect for their convictions. The need to withdraw a Child would be a manifestation of the lack of pluralism in question”.

    How much more so with an act of worship! State schools (leaving aside faith schools for the moment) have no business promoting religious worship. It detracts from their standing as purveyors of knowledge and educators in the ability to think critically and rationally. It privileges the minority who have a religious faith over the majority who do not, and within the minority it privileges (by the law’s ‘wholly or mainly Christian’ stipulation) those who are Christian over those of other faiths.

    Let us by all means have school assemblies that inspire, unite, raise questions of values, draw on religious as on secular traditions – but let us abolish without delay or regret not only the compulsion on schools but even their right to organise religious worship by pupils, the willing no less than the unwilling.

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  6. I would suggest that debating the ethics of “compulsory religious worship” is kind of academic, since it is, in any case, an oxymoron. Worship that is compulsory is not worship at all.

    Certainly children should be made aware of religion in the world. Doing this in school would clearly be less controversial if it were simply done along with other things they should also be aware of, like politics. Even then, I find it debatable whether it is the school’s role to teach these things, just as I find it odd when people think that children need to go to school to learn how to socialise. These are things that can be adequately learned outside of school, and arguably learned better outside of school. School, I think, is for learning the things that we might need professional educators to teach, which includes maths, science, etc., but not how to socialise or have political or religious views.

  7. What about the parents’ right to withdraw from having to pay for all this school mandated religion? We don’t have any such right!

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