Students aged over 16 will be able to opt out of collective worship in schools for the first time, the Government confirmed this week.
The concession - the first significant reform of laws governing religious assemblies in 60 years - follows a report in last week's TES, which revealed students at a Roman Catholic college in London were suspended after refusing to attend Mass. In the past, all pupils have only been allowed to sit out collective worship with parents' consent. But campaigners claim that this contravenes the human rights of pupils.
Baroness Walmsley, the Lib Dem peer, said in a House of Lords debate on Tuesday: "It would be strange for a young person to be old enough to work, pay taxes, manage his own money, get married, have children, fight for his country and possibly even vote, but not be competent to absent himself from an act of collective worship."
Responding, Lord Adonis, the schools minister, said that the forthcoming education Bill would be amended so that "pupils aged over 16 should be able to withdraw themselves from collective worship rather than it being a matter for parental consent." He said the proposal would be discussed with faith groups, although no further amendments would be made to the laws on collective worship.
Churches wrote to Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, last month asking him to resist any relaxation in the current position.
Canon John Hall, chief education officer for the Church of England, said:
"Students have always been able to withdraw from these sessions with parental consent and we understand that a more flexible approach for those in sixth form may be appropriate."
Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, which has campaigned for a change, said: "This is very good news indeed. It has seemed intolerable to us that young people are being forced to worship at school, sometimes against their will. It is self-evidently a breach of their human rights."