Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, it is parents who have a prior right to choose the kind of education their children receive. This clause was specifically added to save children from being indoctrinated in the ideology of any particular State government. The authors were very mindful of the indoctrination to which children were subjected in the pre-war German education system and wanted to make sure that never happened again.
The subsequent European Convention on Human Rights and British human rights legislation demand that pupils be educated in accordance with their parents' wishes and require the State to respect the right of parents to ensure children are taught and educated in conformity with the religious and philosophical convictions of their parents.
An important example of this right is enshrined in the Education Act 1996. It gives parents the right to withdraw their children from sex education classes (except for National Curriculum science). However, new draft Regulations concerning relationships, sex and health education, placed before Parliament during Spring 2019, would undermine this right.
Contrary to what some 'sexual rights' activists might wish, children belong to - and are the responsibility of - their parents, not the State. It is for parents to decide the type of education their children receive.
The relevant legislation:-
- Under Article 26(3) of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children. This is made even clearer by the French version: "Les parents ont, par priorité, le droit de choisir ..." which translates as "Parents have, by priority, the right to choose..." In other words, what the parents want takes priority, has precedence, over what the State might want.
- The European Convention on Human Rights of 1950 was signed by the United Kingdom on 4th November 1950 and came into force on 3rd September 1953. It requires that “In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions” (Article 2, Protocol 1, on page 34).
- The Education Act 1996 underlines this principle, imposing a duty on the Secretary of State for Education and local authorities to have regard to the general principle that “Pupils are to be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents” (Section 9). The only qualification to that duty is one of compatibility with "the provision of efficient instruction and training and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure."
- Following the European Convention on Human Rights, the Human Rights Act 1998 requires that “In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions” (Schedule I, Part II, Article 2).
The Equality Act 2010 and Protected Characteristics
"Religion or belief" is a “protected characteristic” under the Equality Act 2010. In practice, it seems there is a hierarchy where other protected characteristics e.g. "gender reassignment" and "sexual orientation" are given greater weight. But in law all the protected characteristics are of equal legal standing.
The Education Act 1996 and the right of withdrawal
Under Section 405 of the Education Act 1996, parents have the right to withdraw their children from sex education lessons:-
“If the parent of any pupil in attendance at a maintained school requests that he may be wholly or partly excused from receiving sex education at the school, the pupil shall, except so far as such education is comprised in the National Curriculum, be so excused accordingly until the request is withdrawn.”
The Draft Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education and Health Education (England) Regulations 2019
Under these Draft Regulations, the right of withdrawal would be significantly diminished.