A new law requiring parental consent before children attending state schools may receive religious instruction has come into force in New Zealand. Humanists UK – which has long campaigned for an end to faith-based instruction in state-funded schools in the UK – has welcomed the reform, calling it a significant step in the worldwide campaign for inclusive education.
Under the Education and Training Act 2020, the parents of children attending state primary and intermediate schools will have to sign a consent form in order for those children to be enrolled in Bible study lessons. Previously, children were automatically included in these lessons unless a parent or guardian chose to opt them out. This is similar to the current laws in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, where parents have a right to withdraw their children from faith-based RE and collective worship but it is generally assumed that children will participate and parents are not routinely informed of their rights.
The decision to amend the law in New Zealand was taken to bring the new Education Act into line with the Human Rights Act. According to the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists, it was partially motivated by a long-running court case brought by a campaign group the Secular Education Network, which has now been dropped. Humanist NZ, Humanists UK’s sister organisation in New Zealand, produced a detailed submission to the New Zealand government in favour of moving to an opt-in system.
In July, the Welsh Government laid a Bill before the Senedd that will give parents of pupils in faith schools the right to demand objective lessons in Religion, Values, and Ethics (RVE), instead of faith-based religious instruction. However, there aren’t as yet any plans anywhere in the UK to explicitly require parents to make a choice regarding the RE provision their children receive – something which Wales Humanists said should be the case in their recent response to a consultation on the reforms.
Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Dr Ruth Wareham commented:
‘The new law in New Zealand marks a significant step in the worldwide campaign for inclusive education. Everyone has a right to freedom of religion or belief, but that right is undermined by laws that simply assume participation in faith-based activities like religious instruction and collective worship.
‘Unfortunately, in the UK it is still the case that children attending religious schools are automatically included in partisan lessons that teach from one faith perspective. What’s more, participation in collective worship is the default in all state schools. Wales is moving in the right direction on these issues, with the new curriculum Bill proposing a parental right to demand inclusive RVE in faith schools, instead of faith-based teaching. However, it has so far refused to repeal collective worship laws and does not seem to be considering an opt-in system for religious instruction. And in England and Northern Ireland there has been no change to these archaic laws at all.
‘We urge the governments of all the nations of the UK to follow New Zealand’s lead by making sure explicit consent is sought – either from parents or, once they are mature enough, pupils themselves – before involving children in faith-based lessons and activities. Each country should also ensure that, irrespective of background, all children receive objective teaching about all the major religions and humanism. This would not only be good for the rights of children and their families, but would pay real dividends in terms of integration and social cohesion.’
For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Dr Ruth Wareham at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 020 7324 3000 or 07725 110 860.
Read our most recent article on reforms to RE in Wales.
Read more about our work on religious education.
Read more about our work on collective worship.
Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 85,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.