May 09, 2017

Faith Schooling and Children’s Rights

By Peter Hemming (University of Cardiff)


Opponents of faith schools often draw on the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) to argue, usually from a theoretical standpoint, that faith-based education can undermine children’s rights. Article 14 is particularly well-cited – children’s right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion – and is typically discussed in the context of debates about pupil autonomy and indoctrination. However, I would suggest that there are a number of problems with such positions:

1) Assertions regarding indoctrination often seem to begin from the idea that religious indoctrination is the main kind that can exist within education, yet schools of all types are in the business of nurturing a range of attitudes and beliefs in pupils on a daily basis, whether through the official or the ‘hidden’ curriculum. Values promoted in schools can never be neutral and a judgement must therefore be made as to whether or not a given set of values are acceptable and respectful of children’s rights.

2) Article 14 of the UNCRC is actually more nuanced than critics often recognise. In its full form, the Article represents an unresolved tension between the developing right of the child to freedom of religion and the right of parents to provide religious guidance. Determining the extent to which this right is respected will therefore depend on specific judgements about the relative balance of the child’s views vis-à-vis their parents, something that is likely to change as the child grows in age and competence.

3) Commentators seem to assume that pupils are always willing to be indoctrinated, constructing children as passive and unable to develop their own point of view. However, research has shown that children are social actors in their own right, capable of demonstrating religious agency, albeit within structural constraints. As such, pupils may well resist or negotiate religious values and practices promoted and enacted in schools, through a variety of means.

Taking the above points together, I would suggest that the extent to which faith schools may or may not undermine children’s autonomy and right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion will be dependent on the particular values and practices of any given school, something that is likely to be highly variable. As such, the issue effectively translates into a question that can only be adequately addressed through empirical research rather than theoretical debate.

My recent work has taken this position as a starting point to explore religion and children’s rights through qualitative fieldwork in rural Anglican primary schools, with a specific focus on ethos values and religious practices. I found that whilst the former tended to find favour with a wide range of stakeholders due to their inclusive nature, the latter could cause problems for older, non-religious pupils, particularly in the case of prayer.

The full findings of the research are reported in: Hemming, P.J. (2017) ‘“No Offence to God but I Don't Believe in Him”: Religion, schooling and children's rights’, Ethnography and Education (latest articles).

Peter Hemming is a Lecturer in Social Science at the University of Cardiff.

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