Religion, law and the constitution

Balancing beliefs in Britain


Last week, Amanda Spielman, England’s Chief Inspector for Schools made headlines by accusing “religious extremists” of trying to “pervert education”, arguing that school leaders should be more willing to actively assert a liberal agenda, rather than passively validating all perspectives.  Her remarks have been interpreted as a show of support of Neena Lall, a London head-teacher who tried to prevent girls under the age of eight from wearing a hijab in class, as well as religious fasting for young children. Moreover, around the same time as this story broke, a law banning intimate piercing for under eighteens came into force in Wales, a development which provoked a mixed response from the Welsh teenage population.  At first sight, these controversies might appear utterly unrelated, but a common thread connects them both.  How far should families be the ones to regulate the experiences and activities of children, and when should the law step in on behalf of wider society?

This is a perennial question, and one intimately connected to debates over values and beliefs.  Is the line between nurture and indoctrination real, or is it in the eye of the beholder?  Which ideas and lifestyle choices does our legal system privilege and protect, and which ones do we deem too harmful to tolerate?  The debate is currently being played out in relation to the Children and Social Work Act 2017, and a public consultation which is running on sex/relationships education. The statute places a duty on the Secretary of State for Education to make the new subjects of Relationships Education in primary schools and Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) in secondary schools mandatory. Nevertheless, schools will have the freedom to decide how they teach these subjects, they must ensure that their approach is sensitive to the needs of their pupils and, in the case of faith schools, in accordance with the tenets of the relevant faith. Furthermore, parents will have a right to withdraw their child from the sex education element of RSE in secondary schools, and if a primary school chooses to teach sex education, parents will be able to withdraw their child from the relevant class.

Despite these concessions, some conservative religious voices have expressed deep concern. For example, the pressure group ‘Coalition for Marriage’ is campaigning for the parental right of withdrawal to extend to all teaching on relationships, not just the sexual element.  They demand that heterosexual, monogamous marriage should be seen as the ‘gold-standard’ for relationships, and forcefully insist that ‘there is no “age-appropriate way to teach primary school children about same-sex marriage or transgenderism”. Clearly, in light of the introduction of same-sex marriage in 2013, and the provisions of the Equality Act 2010 with regard to gender identity, the Coalition for Marriage are undoubtedly out of step with the values enshrined in the current legal framework. It is legally uncontroversial that individuals and groups should be free to hold countercultural opinions, and be protected in doing so, but should this liberty extend to the right to keep their children away from alternative perspectives?   It is very difficult to see how this can be the case.

There is room for debate about the extent to which parents should be allowed to compel, or even permit, young children to participate in religious practices, where these may involve some objectively identifiable harm or risk.  However, in most circumstances this will not be the case, and children certainly do have a positive interest, recognised by Articles 8 and 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, in joining in with the life of their familial faith community.  This is part and parcel of their developing sense of identity, personal belief system and self-expression.  However, it is very hard to appreciate how they have a positive interest in being insulated from alternative perspectives and objective information.  There is the argument that such influences might make it harder for them to feel comfortable and settled within their natal religious community, but this must surely be outweighed by the benefit of an opportunity to make autonomous and individual choices.

In the United Kingdom, parental rights exist for the benefit of children, not parents, as the Children Act 1989 makes abundantly clear.   Whilst this position is not immune from academic critique, the Strasbourg Court has considered the provisions of the Children Act on numerous occasions, and has not deemed the paramountcy of children’s interests to in any way violate the human rights vested in parents.   Given that parents have decision-making capacity solely in order to further their children’s needs, it only makes logical sense to limit this from being used in ways which are contrary to young people’s welfare, and access to information and ideas is, in general, positive for human beings of any age.   As a democratic society, we have deemed it entirely possible to talk to children about various kinds of relationships in all sorts of age-appropriate ways.   For example, the opening of “Pengy”, a play based on the story of two male penguins who adopted and raised an abandoned chick (the now famous ‘Tango’), is being greeted with eager anticipation as a piece of children’s theatre.

Learning at school that not everybody subscribes to parental opinion is in no way harmful.  There is scope for disagreement about what children may or may not be allowed to do, but when it comes to keeping them away from ideas which society in general considers mainstream and desirable, there must surely be less latitude for parental preference.

Related Articles

It’s stupid: young people on Wales’ intimate piercing ban The Guardian (2/2/18)

Religious extremists ‘trying to pervert education’ BBC News  (1/2/18)

Wales bans intimate piercings for under-18s over health fears  The Guardian (1/2/18)

It’s absurd and prejudiced to say that the hijab sexualises girls The Guardian (20/11/17)

Changes to the Teaching of Sex and Relationship Education and PHSE Department for Education (19/12/17-12/2/18)

Call for Evidence on Teaching of Sex and Relationship Education and PHSE-A Guide for Marriage Supporters Coalition for Marriage


Children and Social Work Act 2017

Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013

Equality Act 2010

Children Act 1989