Campaign supports choice on religious observance in schools

Date: 21st August 2017
Category: Freedom of thought, conscience and religion

The Humanist Society Scotland's Enlighten Up campaign aims to promote a fair and inclusive education system where pupils are not discriminated against because of religion or belief.

This includes provisions for children and young people to choose whether to take part in religious observance in schools, in line with UN recommendations.

Currently, all state-funded schools are under a statutory duty to provide 'religious observance' and 'instruction in religion' to students, unless the local education authority passes a resolution, which goes on to be approved by the electors in that area. There is no statutory definition of either 'religious observance' or 'instruction in religion'. Scottish Government guidance includes the following definition of religious observance: acts which aim to promote the spiritual development of all members of the school's community and express and celebrate the shared values of the school community.

It is noted that observance must take into account the existence of pupils and staff who practice a non-Christian faith or who have no faith, and that it should take place at least six times in a school year.

A 2015 Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) report criticises the use of the term 'religious observance', pointing out that it is arguably contradictory for the government guidance to demand religious observance that includes pupils of all beliefs. This lack of coherence leaves schools without a clear understanding of how to implement the religious observance required by the legislation.

While the right to withdraw children from religious observance and instruction is available to parents, no independent right of withdrawal is available to pupils. In October 2016, it was reported that a group of non-Catholic students at a Scottish school were punished with a week's worth of detentions after refusing to attend a religious service.

The imposition of compulsory religious activities in schools may infringe students' right to freedom of religion or belief and may result in discrimination. It may also cultivate division and isolation by separating children with minority or no religious beliefs from their classmates. This experience of segregation is potentially negative both for children who withdraw from religious observance and for those who do not.

The AHRC report argues that the right of parents to withdraw their child may not be adequate to protect against breach of these rights. In not giving children the right to withdraw themselves from religious observance, in accordance with their age and capacity, the legislation may not adequately respect the rights of children to have their views heard and taken account of in decisions affecting them. If a child has a view concerning withdrawal from religious observance/instruction at variance with that of the parents, the lack of an exercisable right of withdrawal by the child may mean their right to freedom of religion or belief is not respected. This may infringe on the standards imposed by Standards in Scotland's Schools etc. Act 2000, in that due regard is not given to the views of the child in a decision that could been seen to significantly affect that child.

In March 2016, the Humanist Society Scotland (HSS) formally requested that Scottish Government review its policy regarding religious observance, to conform with policy in England and Wales that allows pupils aged 16 and above the right to withdraw. Scottish Government responded that it 'does not consider it necessary to update its guidance in the form of a new circular to Headteachers, at this time'.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child have issued a recommendation that the legal provisions for compulsory attendance at collective worship in publicly funded schools is repealed and that children can independently exercise the right to withdraw from religious worship at school.

The Enlighten Up campaign seeks to obtain provisions for children and young people to choose whether to take part in religious observance in schools. This would give children and young people the choice to opt-in, or to opt-out of religious observance in school, independent of parental choice and in line with their evolving capacities.