In response to a call for evidence by the House of Commons Education Committee on the purpose and quality of education, the British Humanist Association (BHA) has called for the education system to better protect the rights of children in England, specifically identifying the narrow Religious Education (RE) curriculum and discriminatory admission policies in many ‘faith’ schools as an obstacle to the fulfilment of those rights. Focussing on what are considered to be three of the most fundamental and important purposes of education, the BHA stresses that, at the very least, schools should ‘encourage children to think critically and for themselves’, ‘ensure children’s health and wellbeing’, and ‘promote understanding of and respect for other cultures, religions, beliefs, and traditions’.
Variously referring to the rights afforded to children by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and the Human Rights Act 1998, the response echoes a suggestion previously put forward by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England (OCC), that a ‘rights-based approach’ is the best way to ensure that a minimum standard of education is provided for.
The submission draws particular attention to the requirement laid out in the UNCRC, and reflected in the Government’s ‘British values’ guidance, which states that education should be directed to ‘the preparation of the child for a responsible life in a free society’, encouraging ‘friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin’. However, the BHA warns that such a spirit ‘cannot be achieved without some level of mutual understanding too’, and claims that ‘both the curriculum and diversity of intake at a large number of “faith” schools, and particularly religiously selective schools… does not adequately support or promote that understanding.’
Speaking on the nature of the RE curriculum specifically, the response states that ‘faith’ schools should be no less obliged to uphold a child’s legal right to hold their own opinions or receive information and ideas from a broad range of sources than is a school with no religious character, and criticises the confessional, faith-based RE that ‘faith’ schools are permitted to provide. The continued denial of a child’s right to opt themselves out of such RE once they are old enough to make up their own minds about their beliefs is also called into question, with the BHA arguing that current rules leave children ‘powerless in the face of what may very well be narrow and doctrinaire teaching’.
Finally, the important role that schools play in ensuring the health and well-being of their pupils is also pointed to, a role which according to the BHA ‘goes well beyond the simple duty of schools to ensure that their pupils are safe, but rather entails a positive duty on schools and other educational settings to equip children with accurate information and knowledge on how to stay healthy’. In light of this, the BHA repeats its call for comprehensive, age-appropriate personal, social, health, and economic education (PSHE), including sex and relationships education (SRE), to be made compulsory in all schools, in line with the recommendation made by the Education Committee, among others, last year.
BHA Education Campaigner, Jay Harman, said: ‘If it does nothing else, an education system must surely enable children to enjoy all the rights and protections to which they are entitled. The fact that “faith” schools are legally able not only to discriminate against children on the basis of their religion, but also to limit their access to a broad and balanced curriculum, is therefore an ongoing scandal, and effectively amounts to the state sanctioned denial of children’s basic rights. We hope the Committee will take on board the comments we’ve made in this submission, and we will certainly continue to campaign on all of these issues until our education system is as fair, inclusive, and beneficial to children as it ought to be.’
For further information or comment please contact the BHA’s Education Campaigner, Jay Harman, on email@example.com or 0207 324 3078.
Read the BHA’s full response to the call for evidence: https://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016-02-04-FINAL-Purpose-and-Quality-of-Education-BHA-response.pdf
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The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.