Joint Committee On Human Rights Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

6. Memorandum from the British Humanist Association

  1.  The British Humanist Association (BHA) is the principal organisation representing the interests of the large and growing population of ethically concerned but non-religious people living in the UK. It exists to support and represent people who seek to live good and responsible lives without religious or superstitious beliefs. It is committed to human rights and democracy, and has a long history of active engagement in work for an open and inclusive society.


  2.  The BHA is deeply committed to human rights as a major aspect of our support for an open society in which individual liberty, including freedom of belief and speech, is reinforced by a deliberate policy of disinterested impartiality on the part of Government and all official bodies towards the many groups within society so long as they conform to agreed minimum conventions.

  3.  While we seek to promote the humanist lifestance as an alternative to (among others) religious beliefs, we do not seek any privilege in doing so but rely on the persuasiveness of our arguments and the attractiveness of our position. Correspondingly, while we recognise and respect the deep commitment of other people to religious and other non-humanist views, we reject any claims they may make to privileged positions by virtue of their beliefs. We are therefore opposed to the present privileged position of religion in general, and Christianity and the Church of England in particular, especially in the current educational system.


  4.  The British Humanist Association has always taken a strong interest in education, especially religious and moral education[11]. We can, we believe, fairly claim to have been influential in changing attitudes to religion in schools and now count as allies many people professionally engaged in education, including religious education, and from the churches.


  5.  We therefore have a particular concern with children's rights in the context of education, and this memorandum is confined to this aspect of your Committtee's enquiry. We regard children as developing adults, with rights accruing to them progressively as they grow and mature. We do not see them as the possessions of their parents any more than of the state, but we hold that both parents and the state (notably through its schools) have duties towards them to help fit them for life as autonomous adults in a pluralist society, making their own decisions, including decisions about fundamental beliefs, accepting the freedom of others to differ, and both contributing to and benefiting from the community. [12]

  6.  We favour the appointment of a Commissioner for Children's Rights to promote the rights and interests of children and young people, and ensure that these are taken into account alongside the rights of adults, including their parents, in legislation and others spheres of life. We believe that a Commissioner for Children's Rights would be able to work to redress the existing imbalance between opposing rights of children and adults, and ensure appropriate reforms where needed.


  7.  We recognise that parents generally wish their children to adopt their own values and beliefs and, sharing that attitude ourselves, we respect their wishes. However, we also respect the autonomy of the individual, including the progressively realised autonomy of the child, and we deplore the way that some parents seek to close rather than open options for their children, and to keep them in ignorance of rather than inform them about and help them appraise alternatives. At the same time, we should emphasise that we do not wish the community through its laws or officials to interfere with what parents do in this way at home, as we would consider that to be a dangerous interference with individual liberty.

  8.  We see the role of the community, through the publicly funded school system, in the light of these principles. The state, through the school system, should neither come between parent and child nor itself compromise the child's autonomy or bias his/her judgement of essentially individual matters of fundamental belief. The community should provide education that fits children with knowledge, judgement and skills—including the skills of moral thinking and of citizenship—so that they can themselves come to their own answers to the "ultimate" questions of life—the realm of religion and belief—and as adults participate in and contribute to the society in which they live. In an influential recent pamphlet on religious schools[13] (of which a copy is enclosed) the Humanist Philosophers' Group wrote that "in a pluralist, multi-cultural society, the state must promote the tolerance and recognition of different values, religious beliefs and non-religious beliefs . . . "


  9.  Regrettably, the current orthodoxy promotes religion over alternative lifestances and favours parental rights and choices over those of children. We have serious concerns about the way the rights of children, of religious minorities, and of the non-religious population, are disregarded in current policy on religion in schools. Many aspects of current practice seem to us to contravene the spirit and in some cases the letter of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the Human Rights Act 1998 and other standards of good practice.

  10.  Thus the CRC stipulates:

    States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that the child is protected against all forms of discrimination or punishment on the basis of the status, activities, expressed opinions, or beliefs of the child's parents, legal guardians, or family members. (CRC, Article 2, 2)

    In all actions concerning children . . . the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration. (CRC, Article 3, 1)

    . . . the education of the child shall be directed to . . . the preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples . . . (CRC, Article 29,1)

  11.  However:

  11.1  Religious schools are promoted in the name of parental choices[14]. This policy ignores the community's duty (above) to respect children's autonomy and to give them a broad education designed to fit them for life in a plural, open and democratic society.

  11.2  Rather, education in many religious schools is limited and in some is narrowly sectarian and antipathetic to participation in the wider community. It is doubtful whether some religious schools are in fact committed to or contribute to a "free society", "equality of sexes" and "tolerance". In any case, in practice, by dividing children by religion and narrowing down their options, religious schools are preparing their pupils for segregated lives, with limited understanding of other belief groups in society.

  11.3  Proliferation of religious schools will actually increase discrimination on the grounds of parental belief. Some such schools even refuse to allow the children of unbelieving or other-believing parents to attend the school, even if there are places available[15].

  11.4  There appears to be no official concern at the way the policy on City Technology Colleges and City Academies is being used by well-financed evangelical groups to promote their beliefs—Emmanuel College, which was briefly in the news for teaching creationist myths as science, is only the first of a planned chain of such CTCs that will fail to recognise children's rights and distort children's education in the interests of promoting American-style fundamentalism. Similar teaching is offered in a few voluntary maintained schools—eg, the Seventh Day Adventist school in Tottenham.

  11.5  In community (non-religious) schools, religious education is similarly (if more mildly) biased. Almost everywhere, especially where it is based on local syllabuses that follow the models published by the QCA, it ignores the history, social impact and inter-relations of religions, not to speak of the non-religious alternatives to religious belief, in favour of largely uncritical presentation of the so-called "principal religions" in their own terms. The treatment of non-religious ethical traditions that was originally included in the draft syllabuses published by the then Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority was rigorously excluded from final versions after political intervention by the government of the day.

  12.  The CC requires:

    States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child. (CRC, Article 12, 1)

  13.  However:

  13.1  Local children are rarely if ever consulted about proposals for new religious schools or even the conversion of their own school from a community school to a religious one.

  13.2  Parents often disregard their children's views about attending religious schools. It is notable that young people, including those from ethnic minorities, generally favour integration, as shown in, for example, the Cantle[16] and Ouseley[17] reports in 2001 and a study by Save the Children[18].

  14.  The CRC state:

    The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds . . . (CRC, Article 13, 1)

  15.  However:

  15.1  It must be doubted whether children in many religious schools have this freedom.

  15.2  Voluntary aided religious schools are not obliged, as community schools are, to teach children anything about the other principal religions found in the community in which they live.

  15.3  Despite the fact that the majority of young people in fact reject religion[19] the law and the Department for Education and Skills contrive that even community schools, in dealing with matters of fundamental belief, largely ignore non-religious beliefs and lifestances such as humanism in favour of a narrow concentration on Christianity and just five other major religions.

  15.4  Moreover, parents and children who reject religious schools, either on principle or because none is available for their particular belief, increasingly find that places at community schools are insufficient to meet demand. There are parts of the country where it is already difficult to find an ordinary community primary school, and there are of course may places where religious minorities are too small to sustain their own schools.

  16.  The Human Rights Act 1998 stipulates:

    Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or in private, to manifest his religion of belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance. (HRA, Article 9, 1)

    Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. (HRA, Article 9, 2)

    If a court's determination of any question arising under this Act might affect the exercise by a religious organisation (itself or its members collectively) of the Convention right to freedom of thought, conscience or religion, it must have particular regard to the importance of that right. (HRA, Section 13)

  17.  However:

  17.1  Given that "religion or beliefs" certainly includes humanism and atheism, as EU[20] and UK[21] case law has confirmed, and that (presumably) "everyone" includes children, it is unclear how these rights can be fully recognised in religious schools, many of which exist to support and perpetuate one worldview rather than to permit the observance of other religions, freedom of thought, or changes of belief.

  17.2  In community schools, as in religious schools, the law requires children to attend a daily act of (usually) "broadly Christian" worship, whatever their own beliefs may be. This is subject only to a right for parents to have their children excused—no right is given at any age to the children concerned (even to those 18-year-olds who are still at school).

  17.3  The same limitation applies to excusal from religious education in all schools—only parents have this right.

  17.4  Some vigorous opposition to religious schools comes from women of Asian backgrounds who say:

    For girls, single-faith schools can become yet another agency that polices their behaviour. Who defines these so-called values and cultures? The British state is once again identifying Asian tradition and values with those of the patriarchal forces within the community and excluding other voices that challenge those stereotypes . . . (South Asia Solidarity Group and Asian Women Unite!, 2002)

  17.5  Religious schools seem to be part of a multi-cultural model that would deny some groups or individuals the right to change or to integrate or assimilate if they want to, as these women do.

  18.  The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 requires that every public authority, including local education authorities and (probably) all schools in receipt of public funding

    shall, in carrying out its functions, have a due regard to the need (a) to eliminate unlawful racial discrimination and (b) to promote equality of opportunity and good relations between persons of different racial groups.

  19.  However:

  19.1  It is difficult to see how religious schools can assist this process, when some of them, because of the existence of ethno-religious groups, divide children de factor on racial lines.

  19.2  The difficulty is not solved by the Government's proposals eg for "inclusion" and partnerships between schools. These are artificial and severely impractical ideas—if they actually worked, the raison d'être of many religious schools would be undermined, but in practice they will be ineffective, leaving schools unable to fulfil their legal duty to avoid racial discrimination and promote good relations between racial groups.

  20.  It is sometimes argued against the views set out above that the European Convention on Human Rights, as enforced by the Human Rights Act, states:

    No person shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and teaching, the state shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions. (Part 2, First Protocol, Article 2)

  21.  However:

  21.1  As Amnesty International has pointed out, "This article guarantees people the right of access to existing educational institutions; it does not require the Government to establish or fund a particular type of education. The requirement to respect parents' convictions is intended to prevent indoctrination by the state. However, schools can teach about religion and philosophy if they do so in an objective, critical, and pluralistic manner".

  21.2  Similarly, the Humanist Philosophers' Group[22] has said that "neither parents nor faith communities have a right to call upon the state to help them inculcate their particular religious beliefs in their children, nor further their own projects, customs or values through their children. . . ."

  21.3  In fact, although this clause has been used to argue for diversity and choice in the form of more religious schools, it could better be used by the non-religious and by religious minorities[23] to protest against the legal dominance, even in community schools, of Christianity and (to a lesser extent) the other five favoured world religions. The state could better meet its obligations under this clause of the Convention by providing integrated schools that recognise and respect the huge diversity of beliefs in the community and offer an unbiased and educational introduction to this area of human experience, along with facilities and opportunities for the various belief groups to provide optional teaching and observance in conformity with their own beliefs.


  22.  The British Humanist Association has recently published a paper, A Better Way Forward, which provides an integrated policy on religious schools and on religion in community schools in a context of human rights and anti-discrimination thinking and legislation. We believe this paper offers a positive and workable alternative to the present system with its growing fragmentation along religious lines. The paper argues for integrated schools that seek to prepare all children, of all beliefs and none, for life in a plural and democratic society, and which therefore:

  22.1  provide inclusive and inspirational school assemblies, but without prayers or worship, along with "beliefs and values education" that is impartial, fair and balanced, introducing children to religious and non-religious beliefs and related fundamental questions such as the roots of morality, but without the overwhelming detail of the current model syllabuses; and

  22.2  respect the wishes of some parents by offering the opportunity for religious communities to provide optional prayers and religious instruction in a particular faith for those who wish it (the parents of younger pupils, but the pupils themselves at KS4 and above).

  23.  We see these policies, on which we have consulted widely, as offering a constructive solution that seeks to meet not only the legitimate rights of parents and the rights of children, but also the requirements of an open and inclusive society towards its citizens.

7 October 2002

11   In the 1970s the BHA co-founded the Social Morality Council, now transformed into the Norham Foundation, and worked constructively through it with people from Christian and other traditions to seek agreed solutions to moral and social problems despite our disagreements on matters of fundamental belief. We were founding members of the Values Education Council and remain engaged in it. We have for many years been active in the Religious Education Council, in many Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education and Agreed Syllabus Conferences, in the National Association of SACREs and several other organisations. Back

12   Our view is exactly contrary to that of the Plowden report: "Children should not be taught to doubt before faith is established," Central Advisory Council for Education (England) (1967) Children and their Primary Schools (HMSO). Back

13   Religious schools-the case against, Humanist Philosophers' Group BHA, 2001. Back

14   This despite the fact that four out of five adults are opposed to the Government's policy of expanding the number of religious schools: this was shown both by a You-Gov poll of 6,000 people (The Observer-11/11/01) and by an NOP Solutions poll published in Bella in June 2000, which found that 79% said separating children according to religious belief was as wrong as separating them according to colour or accent, while 72% believed that children should never be excluded just because they were of a different faith, or of no faith at all, and 55% said that single-faith schools created a divided society. Back

15   For example, Oona Stannard, director of the Catholic Education Service, has said: "The CES supports the right of Catholic governing bodies to determine their own admissions criteria. We see no need to obligate new faith schools to take a percentage of pupils of other faiths. . . "-TES, 30/11/01. Back

16   We have been particularly struck by the views of younger people, who, in strong terms, emphasised the need to break down barriers by promoting knowledge and understanding of different cultures. Younger people were seen to be leading the process of transition and should be given every encouragement to develop it further. Many of those we spoke to preferred integration on many levels and those who had experienced schools with a mixture of faiths, races and cultures were very positive about that environment . . . The complete separation of communities based on religion, education, housing, culture, employment etc, will, however mean that the lack of contact with, and absence of knowledge about, each other's communities will lead to the growth of fear and conflict. The more levels upon which a community is divided, the more necessary and extensive will be the need to foster understanding and acceptance of diversity."-paragraphs 5.7.1, 5.7.2. Back

17   A survey published with the Ouseley report showed that sixth formers of all communities-especially girls-desire to mix across racial divides and are frustrated at "not knowing any Asians" or "not meeting many white people" (report in The Guardian, 11/7/01; while The Independent (13/7/01) reported that schoolgirls from Bradford's (predominately Asian) Grove school felt that their desires for multi-racial education were thwarted by parents who "through fear, not racism, sent them to Muslim schools". Back

18   Pupils say Government plans for more religious and specialist secondaries will increase racism and encourage them to play truant . . . Pupil discussion groups run by Save the Children reveal widespread opposition to more faith-based schools and confusion and scepticism about specialist schools . . . Pupils wanted to mix with and learn from classmates of other religions and backgrounds. One said: "I like all religions and faiths-this will increase racism. This is a very bad idea." Another said: "It would be a good idea if people from different faiths went to the same school so we could learn from each other."-Times Education Supplement, 17/9/01. Back

19   61% of 14-16 year olds described themselves as atheist or agnostic in a survey of 13,000 young people by Revd Professor Leslie Francis and Revd Dr William Kay. Trinity College Carmarthen (Teenage Religion and Values, Gracewing, 1995). Back

20   Kokkinakis v Greece: (1994) 17 EHRR 397; Human Rights Committee, 1993 (General Comment no 22 (48) (Art. 18) adopted on 20 July 1993, CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.4, 27 September 1993, p1.); Manoussakis v Greece: (1996) EHRR 387, para 47; McFeekly v UK: (1981), 3 EHRR 161; Campbell and Cosans v UK: (1982) 4 EHRR 293 para 36.  Back

21   re Crawley Green Road Cemetery, Luton-St Alban's Consistory Court: Dec 2000. Back

22   op. cit.  Back

23   The extent to which religious minorities suffer discrimination, not least in schools, was highlighted in Home Office Study 220: Religious Discrimination in England and Wales, by Paul Weller, Alice Feldman and Kingsley Purdam (Home Office, 2001). Back

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