The answers to many of the questions that follow depend upon the ‘establishment type’ of the school concerned, as well as whether or not it is legally designated with a religious character. You can look these things up for your school by searching for the school on Edubase, the Government’s schools database, or by asking us to help identify it for you.
My school’s RE is unbalanced, biased or ‘confessional’ – is this legal?
If the school is legally designated with a religious character and is a Voluntary Aided school, a Free School, a sponsored Academy, or an Academy that converted to Academy status having previously been a Voluntary Aided school, then the school can teach RE ’in accordance with the tenets of the religion or religious denomination specified in relation to the school’ – i.e. if it is a Christian school, teach that Christianity is true and all other faiths are false. In this sense, the teacher is acting lawfully by teaching unbalanced and biased RE. The same is true in private schools that are designated with a religious character.
In all state funded schools without a religious character, in Voluntary Controlled and Foundation schools with a religious character, and in Academies with a religious character that converted to Academy status having previously been either a Voluntary Controlled or Foundation school, the RE curriculum must be neutral on matters of religion and belief. Therefore, if the teacher is teaching from a faith-based perspective, they are breaking the law.
With that said, the law also requires that the RE syllabus in these schools ‘reflects the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian while taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain’, so Christianity can be taught to a greater extent than other religions or non-religious worldviews.
Can I opt myself/my child out of attending RE?
In all state funded schools parents can opt their children out of RE if they wish, and in some schools, make arrangements for alternative RE.
For all state funded schools, the law specifies that if a parent requests that their child be ‘wholly or partly excused’ from RE provision, then regardless of the nature of that provision, the school must allow it. However, this is in no way an ideal situation as it can lead to children feeling excluded, or being singled out and victimised by their peers. Any decision to opt a child out of RE must therefore be considered carefully.
If the school is legally designated with a religious character and is a Voluntary Aided school, a Free School, a sponsored Academy, or an Academy that converted to Academy status having previously been a Voluntary Aided school, then RE will by default be taught in a faith-based, confessional manner. However parents with children at these schools can request that their child be taught according to the (neutral) locally agreed syllabus, and the school itself must provide this teaching. UK law says that pupils cannot opt themselves out of RE – this right rests with their parents. Similarly, neither pupils nor parents can opt out of RE in private schools – this being justified by the fact that the parents can always choose to send their children to a state school instead (an option not available to the pupil themselves).
However, if a young person in either a state or private school is sufficiently mature enough to make their own informed decision on the question at hand, then human rights-based case law known as ‘Gillick competence’ suggests that that young person should in fact have the right to opt themselves out of RE. The fact that this right is not recognised in UK law has not been challenged before and is something we would be very keen to take on, as we think we could force a change in the law – if you are a young person in such a circumstance, please get in touch with us about this.
Assemblies at my/my child’s school are being used for proselytising and religious collective worship – is this legal?
In England and Wales, all state funded schools must provide for a daily act of collective worship. If the school is legally designated as a faith school (of any kind), then this worship must be held in accordance with the trust deeds of the school, i.e. in line with its religious character. If the school is not legally designated as a faith school, then the law requires that the daily worship is ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character.’ This means that a majority of assemblies have to have a broadly Christian theme. Many schools do not adhere to the law in this area and there has been no attempt by either local authority or central government to enforce it. It is nonetheless a legal requirement that schools should, by the letter of the law, follow, and regrettably many do.
Finally, many state schools with no religious character have chosen to apply to their local authority or the Secretary of State for Education for a ‘determination’ to change the character of their worship for some or all of their pupils from Christian to another faith. This cannot be changed to humanist, or inclusive, as it must still be worship, but can be changed to spiritual, or multi-faith. It is still not ideal from our point of view, but is at least better than Christian worship. You could argue that such a determination would be more inclusive of the diversity of beliefs in the school.
As for private schools, they are not required to hold any act of collective worship, but can choose to do so and can choose the nature of this worship as they wish.
Can I opt myself/my child out of attending collective worship?
In state schools, as with RE, first of all, parents do have the right to opt their children out of collective (or indeed any other) worship – but unlike with RE, this right transfers from parent to pupil once the pupil reaches the sixth form. Note that pupils can also be partly opted out, so it should in theory be possible to remove a pupil from worship, while ensuring they do not miss any assemblies that are conducted in an inclusive way, or indeed the parts of an assembly that are not spent worshipping.
But this is not an ideal solution as it could lead to a pupil feeling excluded or being singled out and victimised by their peers. Further, without some cooperation from the school itself, it could lead them to miss out on important parts of the day, such as school notices, that also take place during assemblies. In addition, the school does not have to arrange an alternative activity – many children end up being sent to the library, and some have to sit outside the assembly in the corridor. You can ask for something more appropriate, however.
UK law says that pupils who are not yet in sixth form cannot opt themselves out of worship this right rests with their parents. Similarly, neither pupils nor parents can opt out of worship in private schools – this being justified by the fact that the parents can always choose to send their children to a state school instead (an option not available to the pupil themselves).
However, if a young person in either of these circumstances (state school but not yet sixth form, or private) is sufficiently mature enough to make their own informed decision on the question at hand, then human rights-based case law known as ‘Gillick competence’ suggests that that young person should in fact have the right to opt themselves out of worship. The fact that this right is not recognised in UK law has not been challenged before and is something we would be very keen to take on, as we think we could force a change in the law – if you are a young person in such a circumstance, please get in touch with us about this.
What if the school doesn’t let me opt out myself/my child from RE or collective worship?
If the school is a state school, this is unlawful. Section 55(2) of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 plainly states:
(1) If the parent of a pupil at a community, foundation or voluntary school requests that he may be wholly or partly excused from receiving religious education given at the school in accordance with the school’s basic curriculum, the pupil shall be so excused until the request is withdrawn.
(1A) If the parent of any pupil at a community, foundation or voluntary school other than a sixth-form pupil requests that he may be wholly or partly excused from attendance at religious worship at the school, the pupil shall be so excused until the request is withdrawn.
(1B) If a sixth-form pupil requests that he may be wholly or partly excused from attendance at religious worship at a community, foundation or voluntary school, the pupil shall be so excused.”
This rule also applies to Academies and Free Schools through their funding agreements.
In terms of how to get the school to face up to its legal obligations, first of all you should pursue its internal complaints procedure. Beyond that, the next step is to complain to either the local authority (if the school is a maintained school – i.e. not an Academy or Free School), or the Department for Education. On the former, each local authority will have its own complaints procedures, but on the latter, the DfE’s guidance on complaining is on its website.
If the school is a private school, then UK law does not require opt-outs to be offered. This is justified on the basis that the parent can choose to send their child to a state school, where opt-outs are provided. But pupils do not have this option and so it may mean that their human right to freedom of religion or belief is infringed. This is because human rights-based case law known as ‘Gillick competence’ suggests that if a young person in these circumstances is sufficiently mature enough to make their own informed decision on the question at hand, that young person should in fact have the right to opt themselves out of RE or worship. The fact that this right is not recognised in UK law has not been challenged before and is something we would be very keen to take on, as we think we could force a change in the law – if you are a young person in such a circumstance, please get in touch with us about this.
What if the school doesn’t allow me to opt out my child without sending them home?
That would be unlawful. Section 71(3) of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 states that pupils can be withdrawn from a state school if a parent has made arrangements for them to have worship/religious education elsewhere, and therefore implicitly a pupil must not otherwise be withdrawn from school – as the duty of care still rests with the school. Helpfully, this is made explicit in the current guidance on the matter, Circular 1/94 in England and Circular 10/94 in Wales, which both state in paragraph 84 that ‘A school continues to be responsible for the supervision of any child withdrawn by its parent from collective worship.’
My child’s primary school teaches the creation story – is this legal?
State schools should absolutely not teach pseudoscientific ideas such as young earth creationism or intelligent design as scientifically valid, as they are not scientifically valid and so to do so would break laws requiring the curriculum to be ‘balanced’. This extends to a ‘teach the controversy’ approach which treats creationism and evolution as equivalently valid theories. The law is clear in this area, and the UK Government has been equally so in various statements it has made. So if this is what a state school is doing, then it should be directed to the law and these statements, and then you might want to report it to the Government – the UK Department for Education has asked to be made aware any such examples we come across so that they can investigate. We would be happy to assist you on this.
With all that said, many primary schools simply teach about the creation narrative as a central narrative in the Bible, which is perfectly legal. Primary school children are not used to being taught about beliefs as opposed to being taught them as true, so this subtlety may be lost in the delivery. If this is what is happening, then the school needs to be more careful about its teaching.
Private schools are legally entitled to teach pseudoscientific ideas like creationism as scientifically valid. Many do, and Ofsted does not mark them down for doing so.
My child’s faith school is teaching abstinence-only sex education – what can I do?
Other than the sex education elements of the National Curriculum in science, primary schools in England and Wales do not have to provide any sex and relationships education. The situation is the same in secondary schools, except that some teaching about STIs and HIV/AIDS must also be provided (other than in Academies and Free Schools). This leaves the door open for schools to either teach no meaningful SRE, or to teach an abstinence-only approach.
However, parents have the right to withdraw their children from all SRE not contained in the National Curriculum.
Additionally, in England, it is illegal for any state-funded school to allow any view or theory to be taught as evidence-based if it is contrary to established scientific or historical evidence and explanations. Whilst this has, to our knowledge, never been formally tested with SRE, the consequence is that if a state school, in the course of teaching abstinence-only SRE, misinforms children about the efficacy of contraception in preventing pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections, it is breaking the law. If you have any material that suggests this is taking place, do let us know.
My child has been refused admittance to the local school due to being of the wrong/no religion – what can I do?
Unfortunately, UK law allows ‘faith’ schools to religiously discriminate in admissions, typically for up to 100% of pupils. There are specific exemptions from the Equality Act to allow the school to do this, and there’s very little that can be done in individual cases to get round this.
You may wish to contact your local councillors, MP or newspaper to raise awareness of your concern, and to try to place this issue onto the political agenda.
My child has been discriminated against in admissions by being allocated a place at a faith school – what can I do?
Unfortunately, UK law does not allow parents the right to not have their child sent to a faith school, and historically parents trying to avoid this situation through the admissions appeals process have not been particularly successful. However, if you wish to appeal, there is an argument you could use.
The School Admissions Appeals Code includes the statement:
“Human Rights Act 1998
The Human Rights Act 1998 confers a right of access to education. This right does not extend to securing a place at a particular school. However, admission authorities and appeal panels need to consider parents’ reasons for expressing a preference when they make admission decisions and when making decisions on appeals. These reasons might include, for example, the parents’ rights to ensure that their child’s education conforms to their own religious or philosophical convictions (as far as is compatible with the provision of efficient instruction and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure).”
It may be helpful to use this if arguing in front of an appeals panel.