A government claim which suggests schools can meet their legal duty to provide religious education with the content of one GCSE is “false and misleading”, the High Court has ruled.
Handing down a judgment on a judicial review brought against education secretary Nicky Morgan by six parents, Mr Justice Warby has ruled that an assertion made when the new GCSE was released in February was likely to lead schools to rely exclusively on the qualification to meet their legal obligations.
The three families which brought the legal bid were backed by the British Humanist Association, which was previously refused permission to bring a judicial review on the grounds that it “lacked standing”.
In its introduction to the new subject content, which was released on February 12, the government said: “By setting out the range of subject content and areas of study for GCSE specifications in religious studies, the subject content is consistent with the requirements for the statutory provision of religious education in current legislation as it applies to different types of school.”
Mr Justice Warby said that, in its “ordinary and natural meaning”, the assertion told its readers that delivery of the RS GCSE content “would fulfil the state’s legal obligations as to RE”.
He said: “That is likely to lead those responsible for RE syllabus content to rely exclusively on GCSEs specified in accordance with the subject content. That could be enough to meet the state’s RE obligations but, contrary to the assertion, it will not necessarily be so.
“GCSE specifications could be compliant with the subject content and yet fall short of delivering the RE obligations. In that event, the state would need to afford some additional educational provision or fail in its duties. The relief to be granted to reflect these conclusions will be a matter for discussion with counsel.”
Mr Justice Warby also made it clear his judgment only applied to the government’s dealings with non-faith schools.
The parents also claimed that the combination of the assertion and the content of the GCSE itself gave “unlawful priority to the teaching of religious views as compared to non-religious views”, but Mr Justice Warby did not give specific conclusions about this.
Teaching of the new GCSE content is not due to begin until September 2016, but the Department for Education (DfE) has not yet said how it will respond to the judgment. Schools Week understands an appeal has not been ruled out.
A DfE spokesperson said the new RS GCSE ensured pupils “understand the diversity of religious beliefs in Great Britain through the study of more than one religion”, which he described as “an important part of our drive to tackle segregation and ensure pupils are properly prepared for life in modern Britain”.
He added: “It is also designed to ensure pupils develop knowledge and understanding of both religious and non-religious beliefs.
“Today’s judgment does not challenge the content or structure of that new GCSE and the judge has been clear it is in no way unlawful. His decision will also not affect the current teaching of the RS GCSE in classrooms.
“We will carefully consider the judgment before deciding on our next steps.”