Secular schools must allow children to pray, says children’s commissioner

Dame Rachel de Souza speaking at the Allen Hall Roman Catholic seminary. Image credit: RMC

By Catherine Pepinster

Secular schools should be as concerned with the pastoral needs of children as faith schools — including providing them with spaces for prayer, says the children’s commissioner.

Dame Rachel de Souza believes there has been a misunderstanding expressed in Britain that the education system in non-faith schools is akin to the French secular one, but this is not the case.

Asked at the end of a lecture given at the Allen Hall Roman Catholic seminary in southwest London, whether more secular schools should give children the space to pray, she answered: “That’s an easy one. Yes.”

Her remarks were made weeks after a Muslim student at a school in northwest London lost a High Court challenge against its ban on prayer rituals. Head teacher Katharine Birbalsingh refused a prayer room at the Michaela Community School in Wembley, which the child said was discriminatory. The High Court ruled that the child, in attending the school, had agreed to restrictions on practising her religion.

But Dame Rachel said: “I was an RE teacher and the Education Act tacitly says we need to deal with the children’s spiritual, social and moral development.

“There has been a misunderstanding with some of the discussions I’ve seen around some of these areas recently that we have some kind of secular French education system, but I always say ‘thank goodness for the Anglicans’ because [without them] we would not have had a school system at the turn of the century. Our system has always had a pastoral system and been concerned with children’s spiritual and moral needs.” 

During her lecture, The Big Ambition: A Million Children’s Stories, Dame Rachel reflected on research she commissioned into children’s lives and how they feel about growing up in Britain today.

It revealed that many children who experienced deep isolation during the pandemic lockdowns and disruption to their education have still not recovered.

“Post lockdown there has been a tsunami of anxiety. One in five of half a million children put mental health and anxiety as their main concern,” she said. “Every level of children’s mental health has worsened.”

She also highlighted the extent to which children’s lives are being shaped by their access to online material through their phones, including pornography, saying: “Children cannot escape from bullying: from things that go wrong in the day, it’s on their phones at night.”

Dame Rachel, who spent her career as a teacher, head teacher and founder of a 14-school trust in Norfolk, was appointed children’s commissioner for England in 2021. Like other public servants, she is currently “in purdah”, during the general election campaign, but told the audience that as she has already made her feelings clear to ministers, she could reiterate her concern about the two-child welfare benefit cap.

She also mentioned the plight of migrant children coming across to Britain in small boats, “who have lost everything, families and possessions, who’ve faced incomparable pain, victims of trafficking, organ harvesting, rape, they have nothing, drenched in sea water”.

“We have an opportunity to treat these children with the love and dignity they deserve,” she added. “We have the ability to choose to treat children with love, that they feel that much is possible.”

She told the audience that when she first began her work with children, she thought that education was the priority but now, she said, the family was the bedrock of society and so “a loving family is the foundation of everything else”.

And while society needs statutory services to step in, she believed that churches and other voluntary organisations had a significant role to play in supporting families: “The voluntary sector can be there and is often highly valued and trusted.”

Dame Rachel also highlighted how worried she was by what was happening to children and young people who did not have support to develop mature relationships. Children needed boundaries.

And she was “furious” with the schools inspectorate, Ofsted, for failing to rigorously oversee relationships and sex education (RSE). For the past seven years, she said, it had not looked at RSE. “There is a curriculum in place but we don’t really know if it has been taught well,” she believed.

She revealed that the chief medical officer, Sir Chris Whitty, had contacted her to warn that the incidence of gonorrhoea and syphilis were at their worst since the post-war highs of 1918 and 1945, and that the second most infected group were young people up to the age of 21.

“Part of the issue is down to medical services being not back to where they were before Covid,” Dame Rachel said, “but I do think that the quality of RSE just isn’t where it should be. Children need to learn about how to be an adult.”


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