Revised Religious Observance guidance for schools falls short of UN recommendation

Date: 14th April 2017
Category: Respect for the views of the child, Education, Leisure and Cultural Activities

Together has concerns that the revised guidance still falls short of fulfilling the recommendation from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

Together have recently taken part in a Scottish Government consultation, through the Humanist Society Scotland (HSS), on updating the guidance on Religious Observance in schools.

The updated guidance was developed in response to call for a Judicial Review lodged by Humanist Society Scotland at the Court of Session that aimed to secure rights for non-religious young people in Scotland's schools. Currently in Scotland, all young people require parental permission to withdraw from Religious Observance, unlike England and Wales where sixth form pupils (typically aged 16-18) have the right to opt-out.

The Concluding Observation issued by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2016 stated in respect of religious observance in schools:

'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.'

The new guidance will ask headteachers to ensure students views are considered when discussing their involvement in religious observance at school. It does not, however, provide an independent statutory right for young people to opt out of Religious Observance such as that enjoyed by senior pupils in England and Wales.

Commenting on the new guidance, Gordon MacRae, Chief Executive of Humanist Society Scotland said:

"Today's updated guidance gives young people in Scotland a voice, but not yet a choice, when it comes to their participation in Religious Observance in state schools.

"Scottish Ministers are to be congratulated on this new guidance and for responding positively to the Court decision to consider our Judicial Review last year. We were happy to agree a pause proceedings last December to allow them to take action and today's guidance is a clear step in the right direction in the protection of young people's human rights."

"Today's updated guidance only came about due to the legal action undertaken by Humanist Society Scotland and funded by our members and supporters.

"We remain disappointed that Court has not had an opportunity to consider our view, backed by expert legal opinion, that the current religious observance requirements in the classroom is incompatible with young people's article 9 human rights to freedom of thought, belief or religion. HSS is now working with a number of young people to seek the earliest possible opportunity to support representations based on this human rights argument."