Humanists urge education laws reform to protect children's rights

By agency reporter
September 13, 2020

Reforms to the laws on collective worship, religious education, and faith-based admissions are among changes urgently needed to protect children’s rights, Humanists UK and Wales Humanists have told two key bodies advocating for children’s rights in England and Wales.

In response to calls for evidence on the state of children’s rights by the Children’s Rights Alliance England (CRAE) and Children in Wales, Humanists UK and Wales Humanists highlighted the way laws around religion and education in the two countries violate rights laid out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), particularly the right to freedom of religion or belief outlined in Article 14.

The evidence is being collected to inform the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child’s next report on how well the nations of the UK are meeting their obligations with respect to the Convention and recommends changes governments need to make to ensure children’s rights are realised. The last of these reports – known as the Concluding Observations – was conducted in 2016. In it, the Committee recommended the repeal of compulsory collective worship in UK schools. However, four years on, no progress has been made, with the legal requirement to carry out an act of worship that is Christian in character still in place across the UK.

Since the last report, Wales has made considerable progress in implementing policies which explicitly respect children’s rights. These include the abolition of the defence of reasonable punishment, which will see all violence against children outlawed, and a newly laid Bill that seeks to make religious education fully inclusive of humanism and make relationships and sexuality education compulsory.

Nevertheless, the response also highlights that the Welsh Government has failed to take steps to fully incorporate the UNCRC into law. This means that – unlike in Scotland, where a Bill to incorporate the UNCRC directly into law was recently introduced – Convention rights are not enforceable. The provisions are not legal protections that citizens can actually access.

In the context of England, Humanists UK raised the lack of adequately inclusive RE provision that covers humanism, the impact of religiously selective admissions on social cohesion and fair access to schools, and faith-based exemptions in the new RSE guidance. It also expressed serious concerns at the lack of progress on legislation to prevent the operation of illegal religious schools, which not only threaten freedom of religion or belief and the right to education, but violate the state’s duty to "take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment [and] maltreatment".

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager, Dr Ruth Wareham commented: "As our evidence demonstrates, reforms to the law relating to religion and education are urgently needed to protect children’s rights in England and Wales. It is outrageous that, more than four years on from the last UN Committee report on children’s rights, the freedom of religion or belief of children all over the UK is still being violated by the practice of compulsory Christian worship. During this time, additional issues have also become increasingly pressing, such as the failure to act on illegal schools, and the continued use of unfair faith-based admissions policies which segregate our communities.

"We very much hope that the evidence we have provided helps to shape the Committee’s approach during the next round of Concluding Observations. We also hope that the changes that are necessary to bring domestic law into line with the Convention are treated as matter of priority by both the UK and Welsh Governments."

* Humanists UK https://humanism.org.uk/

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