In a new report, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) has urged schools to end religious selection for admissions in a bid to create a fair and inclusive education system.

While the National Secular Society (NSS) has welcomed these recommendations, Lizzie Harewood, executive officer for the Association of Christian Teachers (ACT), argues they are unjust and undermine the ethos of some schools.

“I would be concerned if these recommendations were enacted, faith-based schools already have largely restricted powers on selection and the faith-based values of schools actually make them very popular amongst parents. So I think that restricting them further would be unreasonable,” she tells YCW.

The CRC has also called for compulsory collective worship to be repealed and for the parental right to withdraw children from sex education to be scrapped.

“The Committee urges the State party to guarantee the right of all children to freedom of expression and to practise freely their religion or belief,” the report states. It recommends this be done by “repealing legal provisions for compulsory attendance in collective worship and establishing statutory guidance to ensure the right of all children, including children under 16 years of age, to withdraw from religious classes without parental consent” as well as by “preventing the use of religion as a selection criterion for school admissions in England”.

Harewood says these measures suggest an “agenda” to transform the education system to be secular and inclusive. She argues this is not achievable.

“Any school that any child attends, no matter where they are in the world, will be religious. And by that I mean, that it’s impossible to discuss education, and such matters neutrally.” 

Harewood believes children should not be forced to engage in prayer to a God they do not follow but that the Christian faith should be represented in educational institutions.

“For those for whom faith schools are a real priority, because they like the fact that they have a slightly toned down approach to certain issues of the curriculum, such as relationships and sex education, then it’d be a real shame if they missed out on being able to fulfil the rights of parents to choose the best place for their children to be educated places that align with their beliefs and values.”

The Equality Act 2010 prevents discrimination against someone because of religion or belief, or because of a lack a religion or belief. Under the act there are some exemptions, which enable faith schools to prioritise children from families of shared faith if the school is oversubscribed, but this is rare according to Harewood, who says the legislation ensures religious diversity and inclusivity.

The report also calls for the religious education syllabus in Northern Ireland to include “education on and respect for a diversity of religions”.

NSS head of campaigns Megan Manson welcomed the recommendations, saying “it’s disgraceful that such religious discrimination is permitted in the schools we all pay for.

“Compelling children to pray to gods they do not believe in has no place in schools.

“It’s high time our entire education system was transformed into a secular, inclusive one which equally welcomes children from families of all religions and beliefs. We urge the government to implement the CRC’s recommendations to make this a reality.” 

The routine report also addresses concerns for children’s well-being, including poverty, mental health services, domestic abuse, sexual exploitation and other forms of violence.