FREEDOM OF RELIGION: Opting out of religious education: the views of young people from minority belief backgrounds

In the UK, as in many other countries where religious education has a place in the education system, the right of parents to withdraw their children from such teaching (and related activities such as school worship) on grounds of conscience is enshrined in domestic law and in international human rights law. Such law considers that the existence of a right to opt is sufficient to respect and protect the freedom of thought, conscience and belief of these students and parents.

However, parental decisions to withdraw their children from religious education sets students from minority belief backgrounds (including those who do not belong to any religion) apart from their peers during the school day. This division has the potential to shape young people’s relationship with their school and the wider community as well as their religious understanding. In addition, it can impact on their relationship with their parents and their belief community.

The research aims to examine the views and experiences of young people of minority belief with respect to opt-out policies and provision in schools and to explore the extent to which they believe that their right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion is thereby protected. The research addresses the following questions:

1.Do young people from minority belief backgrounds feel that opt-outs respect their right to religious freedom?

2.To what extent do young people feel that opting out impacts negatively or positively on their sense of belonging to their school and religious community?

3.Do parents and communities consider that opt-outs in schools protect religious freedom?
These questions will be explored through interviews with young people from minority belief backgrounds (aged 13 to 18). Additional interviews will be held with at parents and minority belief community leaders. Attention will also be paid to possible gender issues as well any conflicts that may have arisen at school, within families and within faith (or non-religious) communities as a result of opt-outs.

The approach will be interdisciplinary, drawing on researchers from a legal, educational and social science background. The research is intended to inform international and domestic human rights bodies as well as educational practitioners and policy-makers. It will provide an evaluation of the adequacy of current opt-out policy and provision in protecting religious freedom of religious minority belief youth in schools. On the basis of this, recommendations for policy and educational practice will be proposed.

The research is based on a fundamental principle of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, namely that young people should be consulted on a matter that directly affects them. This principle has particular relevance to this project as the voices of young people from minority belief backgrounds have not been considered in developing human rights standards on religious freedom in schools.


Researchers: Dr Alison Mawhinney, Dr Ulrike Niens and Norman Richardson, Queen’s University Belfast.

For more information contact: Alison Mawhinney at

The project is funded by the AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society Programme.


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