Appendix 2: Letter from the National Secular Society
re: Mandatory Collective Worship - Enforcement and Human Rights
I enclose a letter the Society sent today to Rt Hon
Alan Johnson MP as Secretary of State for Education and Skills.
In Section 3 we have raised matters which seriously impinge on
pupils' human rights. The most pressing of these relates to the
inability of older, "Gillick-competent", pupils to "excuse"
themselves (as opposed to being "excused" as a result
of a representation by their parents) from Collective Worship.
Some of these pupils will thus be forced to take part in collective
worship against their conscience, in contravention of their Article
9 right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
I hope the Committee will be prepared to examine
this issue as soon as possible on the following grounds:
a) The scale of the problem. There are around 3 million
pupils in secondary schools in England. This suggests around 2
million non-believers. Some are over 18 and the high proportion
of the remainder will nevertheless be able to claim the protection
of Article 9
b) The considerable pressure being applied to the
Secretary of State by the church leaders. If he acts as they seem
to be demanding, the problem, in human rights terms, will deteriorate
In light of this urgency, if the matter does not
fall within any current or imminent work in progress, could I
ask whether this matter could be examined at least briefly in
its own right, please?
16 June 2006
MP, SECRETARY OF
WORSHIP - ENFORCEMENT
I am writing in connection with the representation
you have recently received from a number of national church bodies
setting out, as they see it, the benefits of Collective Worship,
and calling on you to increase still further pressure on schools
to perform the statutory daily act of mainly Christian Collective
As you may be aware, the National Secular Society
seeks to secure equal rights for the non-religious. Our Honorary
Associates are listed at the foot of this page, and the Society
was founded in 1866. As recommended in the Home Office's guidelines
on Governmental consultation Working Together, we are normally
consulted when religious groups' views are sought.
In the 60 years since Collective Worship became a
statutory requirement, religious belief and adherence have fallen
dramatically. Anglican membership, for example, has dropped by
more than half.
For this reason we are convinced that the Government should not
be responding to church leaders' requests to increase compliance
with the law on Collective Worship. On the contrary, the Government
should be taking steps to remove the compulsion, and making it
easier for pupils themselves to opt out of any Collective Worship
that takes place. Our rationale is as follows:
1. It can no longer be justified to continue this
mandatory Collective Worship to a captive audience in schools,
given that the majority of pupils - in secondary schools at least
- are not religious. According to a National Centre for Social
Research study on the Department's website:
"Two thirds [of 12-19 year olds] did not regard themselves
as belonging to any religion". The long and continuing decline
in religious belief has reached a point where in many schools
any collective worship is embarrassing to pupils and teachers
An indication of just how much pupils can dislike
Collective Worship comes from St Luke's Sixth Form College in
where adults were posted at the exits to discourage pupils from
leaving collective worship, and punishing them severely if they
did. I have even been told that on one occasion pupils were actually
locked in to make them observe mass. I. have reproduced below
one of several local press stories on this topic.
2. We cannot see any evidence to justify the claims
which the church leaders make in respect of collective Worship,
and nor do they cite any. They claim educational benefits in paras
2-6 of their letter e.g. "it provides a means of developing
an appreciation that goes beyond the material world, fostering
a concern for others and providing a forum for exploring shared
values." The educational or ethical/moral benefits they dubiously
claim for Collective Worship could be achieved to much greater
effect by being taught in a secular way. Less time spent on Collective
Worship advocated by the religious lobby would free time up for
pupils to be taught more about, for example, relationships and
ethics, and philosophyhow to think more clearly for themselves.
Several of the claims made in the religious leaders'
letter come under the heading of "to help promote tolerance"
(the phrase the CofE uses in its summary of their letter to you).
We do not think there is any evidence that emphasising pupils'
different religions (or absence of religion), as collective worship
must do, contributes to tolerance. We think it does the opposite.
A. far better way of promoting tolerance would be to emphasise
what pupils have in common, such as their shared humanity. Nor,
as we explore in 4. below, do we believe the evidence suggests
that the approach called for by the churches will result in the
best grounding on moral/ethical issues.
Your Department claims to support evidence-based
policy making. We invite you to inform us of any evidence the
Department has which would justify moving in the direction that
the church groups propose. In particular, we seek evidence to
justify that teaching non-doctrinal matters through the medium
of religion, as the church leaders suggest, is more effective
than teaching them in a secular way.
3. Legal advice that the Society has obtained indicates
that the inability in law of older pupils - those "Gillick
competent" to make their own decisions about personal matters
- to withdraw themselves from collective worship contravenes their
rights under the Human Rights Act in relation to their freedom
of thought, conscience and religion. I am therefore asking you
formally to review this aspect of the law, and take steps to amend
it if, as we believe, it is in breach of the HRA. I am copying
this letter to the Joint Committee on Human Rights.
4. The Society recognises that it is important for
ethical issues to remain a key part of assemblies. Given the high
level of scepticism of pupils to religion in general, we believe
it would be far more effective to teach them ethics by reference
to pupils' common experience than by calling for obedience to
what some regard as sacred texts. Few pupils have any knowledge
of or interest in these texts, far less regarding them as any
source of authority.
The positions advocated by some religious leaders
on ethics, particularly on sexual matters such as contraception
and homosexuality, are widely disregarded by their own adherents
and regarded with incredulity or even hostility by many others.
Seeking to instil those religious moral codes which are outmoded
and unrealistic runs a serious risk of making no impact whatsoever.
Moral discussions based on common experience rather than dogma
are, we believe, much more likely to make a positive and lasting
impression on pupils. We also invite you to produce evidence to
confirm that the continuance of moral teaching in a religious
context during Collective Worship is more effective than a secular
The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, has acknowledged
the indifference referred to above of the young to the Church's
teachings. He has just written about a large "mismatch"
between the Church and the views of those aged 15 to 25 as revealed
by a survey called Making Sense of Generation Y. He concedes
that: "The research suggests young people are happy with
life as it is, that they have felt no need for a transcendent
something else and regard the Church as boring and irrelevant".
He described the survey as an "urgent" wake-up call
for the Church, and I suspect this is the motivation behind the
letter you have received.
We would welcome the opportunity to meet you to discuss
these issues, as doubtless you will be meeting representatives
of the churches whose demands have prompted this letter.
We look forward to your response, and the results
of your inquiries on the compatibility of the law to the HRA on
16 June 2006
91 UK Christian Handbook: Religious Trends Pub Christian
Research Ed Dr Peter Brierley Back
Not printed here Back
http:/www.timesonline.co.uk/article/O..2-2169809.OO.html The Times
8 May 2006 quoting Dr Sentamu commenting on the study Making Sense
of Generation Y Back