UN calls out UK for education bias

East London Humanists opinion piece spotlights UK Government’s dismal response to a UN Human Rights Committees concerns over our children’s freedom of religion and belief. Published Ilford Recorder 29.6.23, Romford Recorder 4.7.23.

Its trite but true to say children are our future. How depressing then that the United Nations has just called out the UK for its discriminatory education policies. This is not a left right issue. It simply concerns the rights of children and the sort of country we aspire to be.

Schools are a key opportunity for children to learn tolerance and respect for those of other faiths and the importance of mutual understanding and cooperation. And assemblies are a key part of the school day. In May the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) questioned, among other things, the archaic UK law which makes it compulsory for all state schools to hold a daily act of collective Christian worship. Humanists UK have long campaigned for assemblies to be inclusive so that no child is side-lined.

This country signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child under a Conservative government in 1991, along with around 200 other countries. The push for the treaty began in 1979, the year Margaret Thatcher was first elected PM, and UK officials participated in the lengthy negotiating process. The Convention also set up a Committee (CRC) to monitor implementation.  This May, over 30 years later, the UK’s education policies came under the CRC spotlight.  Officials from the UK Governments of England, Wales and Northern Ireland took part.

The CRC pointed out that compelling children to attend acts of Christian worship is at odds with Article 14 which states countries must respect children’s rights of freedom of religion or belief. Although parents have the right to withdraw children, those under 16 cannot withdraw themselves. Government officials were intransigent when the glaring bias of our law was pointed out. They told the CRC there are no plans for reform.

The CRC also drew attention to narrow Religious Education curricula where, for example, non-religious world views are not given equal respect. And to our discriminatory state-funded faith school admission system. Research shows this leads to social and economic inequality and that educating children separately based on parents’ beliefs undermines social cohesion in our multi-cultural society. 

The UK Government did not respond. The Government’s discriminatory education policies are at odds both with the ‘British values’ they say they hold dear and with the internationally agreed norms to which they are signed up.  

Paul Kaufman
Chairperson, East London Humanists

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