UN Children’s Rights Committee calls for end to compulsory worship in schools

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has published its major periodic review of the state of children’s rights in the UK, and has advocated for:

  • the repeal of compulsory collective worship in UK schools
  • a fully integrated education system in Northern Ireland
  • full and comprehensive sex and relationships education in UK schools
  • decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland in all circumstances.

Humanist Society Scotland campaigns against religious observance in Scottish schools, and has previously issued a joint call for reform with the Church of Scotland.

Earlier this year the Scottish Government ruled out making any changes to the guidance issued on religious observance, even after the publication of several substantial reports called specifically on the Scottish Government to take action.

Despite repeated urging to change its guidance by HSS, the Scottish Government guidance still does not allow pupils to withdraw themselves from religious observance without parental permission.

A recent High Court judgement in England even went on to say that “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“.

In March 2016 HSS wrote to the Scottish Government to request further clarification on the legal position of senior pupils who wish to withdraw themselves from religious observance. No response has been received yet.

HSS Chief Executive Gordon MacRae

HSS Chief Executive Gordon MacRae

HSS Chief Executive, Gordon MacRae commented:

“We welcome the recommendations in this report.

“Whilst we would like to see religious observance scrapped and replaced with a more inclusive alternative, such as philosophy with children, we have called for updated guidance on numerous occasions to ensure that the situation in Scotland is compatible with the law.

“It is now clear that the Scottish Government’s policy on religious observance flies in the face of the recommendations of several high-profile academic reports, the views and wishes of many stakeholders and now a high-level report from the United Nations.

“We have worked constructively with the Scottish Government and other stakeholders for many years, but now it’s time for action.”


Dr Claire Cassidy

Dr Claire Cassidy, Senior Lecturer and Deputy Head of the School of Education at the University of Strathclyde, commented:

“I fully support the recommendations of the UN Committee and would urge the Scottish Government to act upon these recommendations. In doing so, this will take further the positive work already undertaken in Scotland to support children’s rights in law, policy and practice.”

The report’s recommendations

The report says the following:

  • On collective worship: ‘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.
  • On religious segregation in Northern Ireland schools: ‘In Northern Ireland segregation of schools by religion persists. The State party, in Northern Ireland, actively promote a fully integrated education system and carefully monitor the provision of shared education, with the participation of children, in order to ensure that it facilitates social integration’. This is not just an issue in Northern Ireland, but also elsewhere in the UK.
  • On sex and relationships education: ‘Relationships and sexuality education is not mandatory in all schools, its contents and quality varies depending on the school, and LGBT children do not have access to accurate information on their sexuality. The Committee recommends that the State party ensure that meaningful sexual and reproductive health education is part of the mandatory school curriculum for all schools, including academies, special schools and youth detention centres, in all areas of the State party. Such education should provide age-appropriate information on: confidential sexual and reproductive health-care services; contraceptives; prevention of sexual abuse or exploitation, including sexual bullying; available support in cases of such abuse and exploitation; and sexuality, including that of LGBT children’.
  • On abortion in Northern Ireland: ‘In Northern Ireland, abortion is illegal in all cases except where continuance of the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother, and is sanctioned with life imprisonment. The Committee recommends that the State party decriminalize abortion in Northern Ireland in all circumstances and review its legislation with a view to ensuring girls’ access to safe abortion and post-abortion care services. The views of the child should always be heard and respected in abortion decisions.


Notes: For further information or comment please contact Gary McLelland ongary@humanism.scot or 07813060713.

About HSS:
Humanist Society Scotland seeks to represent the views of people in Scotland who wish to lead ethical and fulfilling lives guided by reason, empathy and compassion. We provide a range of non-religious ceremonies and campaign for a secular state. HSS has over 14,000 members across Scotland.


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