Faith leaders support systematic study of humanism

A group of 28 faith leaders has written to schools minister Nick Gibb expressing support for proposals for “systematic study of humanism” in new GCSE and A level religious studies exams.

The signatories, including former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams and Rabbi Dr Margaret Jacobi of Birmingham Progressive Synagogue, are calling in the letter for an “annex setting out content on humanism to be added alongside existing GCSE annexes on the principal world religions”.

Their move comes as the British Humanist Association (BHA) says it fears the Government is about to announce that systematic study of humanism will not be included in the new GCSE and A levels, and that an annex on humanism will not form part of the GCSE.

A consultation by the Department for Education on reforms to GCSE and A Level Religious Studies closed at the end of December, with the new specifications to be taught from 2016.

Previously students could pass the GCSE qualification by studying only one religion, but now they will need to systematically study two religions. Ministers have, however, decided against the inclusion of non-religious worldview studies, such as humanism, as one of the systematic studies.

The letter says the proposals the signatories support “would not compel anyone to systematically study non-religious world views or make it possible to do so for the whole of a qualification”.

They add: “But it would allow young people to study a more representative sample of world views than are common in Britain today.” The change would also “reflect how RE is taught in many schools, the position taken by an increasing number of locally agreed syllabuses, and the 2013 curriculum framework”.

The BHA welcomed the letter. It added the “political decision is expected in spite of a call last year from over 100 theologians, teachers, and philosophers for the annex on humanism to be included, and a public consultation that showed a vast majority in support of it”.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education told Schools Week the new GCSE “requires students to have an understanding of the beliefs, teachings and practises of two religions but still allows them to spend up to 50 per cent of the course studying philosophy and ethics; which can include studying humanism and other non-religious beliefs”.

In relation to the new A level, they said humanism “would be part of the study of philosophy and ethics, but as yet the proportion of material on humanism has not been confirmed”.