THE HEADTEACHER of a religiously diverse infant school has claimed the law forcing her to hold mandatory Christian 'collective worship' for pupils is a breach of their human rights.

Jo Conner has sought to invoke a UN Convention so that her school can become exempt from the requirement, claiming it is inappropriate as 'two-thirds' of pupils' families do not identify as Christian.

Ms Conner applied to overturn the legal requirement for Christian collective worship sessions, saying it hinders Poulner Infant School from providing 'inclusive' assemblies.

The school on the outskirts of Ringwood argued the very reason some parents choose it is as an alternative to nearby faith schools.

However, a religious advisory board has rejected the application on the basis that Christianity still forms the largest single religious group at the school, with a third of pupils' parents identifying as Christian.

They also pointed out that the school, which has around 250 pupils and is rated as 'good' by Ofsted, hadn't received any complaints from parents about the worship sessions.

In her argument for exemption, Ms Conner cited the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) - which has called on the UK Government to repeal the legal requirement for collective worship.

Currently, the law states that 'all maintained schools must provide religious education and daily collective worship for all registered pupils and promote their spiritual, moral and cultural development'.

Guidance for schools says that RE syllabuses must 'reflect the fact that religious traditions in the country are in the main Christian whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of other principal religions'.

It adds: "Collective worship in county schools and equivalent grant-maintained schools must be wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character, though not distinctive of any particular Christian denomination."

Parents are allowed to withdraw their children from collective worship sessions, but children themselves cannot choose to withdraw until they are in sixth form.

The UK is understood to be the only western democracy to legally impose worship in schools and this has been challenged by the UNCRC.

Citing this and providing statistics showing the religious diversity of her school, Ms Conner applied to the Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education (SACRE) for Poulner to become exempt.

SACRE said it was not aware of any other school in the country becoming exempt and has rejected the application, saying it could only be approved by Parliament.

Responses to a question asking parents which religion they belonged to when their children first joined Poulner Infant School showed 55.8 per cent of parents said they had no religion.

A third (34.2 per cent) said they were Christian, whilst less than one per cent (0.8 per cent) said they were Muslim and 1.3 per cent said they were of other religions.

Another 7.9 per cent of parents refused or did not respond.

Ms Conner, who has been the school's head since 2015, explained that, based on this evidence of the school's religious diversity, an exemption or determination was required.

In a document sent to the SACRE committee, she said: "A determination is required because it is not appropriate for collective worship to be wholly or mainly reflective of the broad traditions of 'Christian belief'.

"This is particularly so bearing in mind the family backgrounds of the pupils at our school: two-thirds of parents do not identify as Christian.

"We find that parents increasingly exercise their choice by seeking out our community school as an alternative to nearby faith schools.

"We also embrace the rights-respecting approach promoted by The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

"The UNCRC has called on the UK Government to repeal the legal requirement for collective worship.

"As long as the legal requirement for collective worship remains in place we feel a determination provides the best opportunity for us to provide inclusive assemblies."

But a report from the Hampshire branch of SACRE, which considered the case for Hampshire County Council, rejected the school's application.

The report stated: "The key question SACRE had to answer in making the determination was whether it was appropriate for the requirement for Christian collective worship to apply to Poulner Infant School, having due regard to the circumstances of the family backgrounds.

"It was noted that, according to the application, 34 per cent of parents at Poulner Infant School identified themselves as Christian, the largest religious group.

"Furthermore, that any parent had a right to withdraw their child from collective worship but no withdrawals had been recorded by the school.

The report added that any amendment to the current laws could only be made by Parliament.

Mrs Conner, who describes herself as a humanist, today said she believes it is important that existing guidance on collective Christian worship, which dates back to 1994, is reviewed as it no longer reflects many school communities.

The headteacher said: "I think it's a breach of children's rights.

"The Department of Education guidance hasn't been reviewed in about 28 years and our school profile has changed and our school community has become more diverse.

"I am not anti-religion and we are not against religious education.

"We hold daily assemblies - and we might read a passage from the Bible - but we do not feel they should be predominantly Christian-based.

"We use the No Outsiders curriculum which is based on the ethos of everyone included and everyone welcome. We look at gender, sexuality, disabilities and different viewpoints and we share with the children that it doesn't matter who you are, you are welcome.

"We see the value in collective worship but we want it to be reflective of the beliefs of the children here. Parents who said they have no religion are actually the largest single group."

Mrs Conner, who has been a headteacher since 2010, said parents send children to Poulner because it is not a designated faith school, unlike nearby Ringwood Church of England Infants School.

She believes they are working within the current law while talking about humanism and other religions, but added: "There should not have to be a Christian slant to the assemblies or 'Christian values'.

"We wanted an exemption to give us the freedom to deliver broader assemblies and it would allow parents to better understand what our vision is here."