Religious education

Religious education: A test case for humanist views

Schools have a lot of leeway over their curriculum for religious studies but a recent case means humanism simply can't be excluded, writes Dan Rosenberg

Schools have a lot of leeway over their curriculum for religious studies but a recent case means humanism simply can't be excluded, writes Dan Rosenberg

29 Jul 2022, 5:00

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We live in an increasingly diverse society. The understanding of others’ religious and non-religious views of the world is not only an admirable trait but a foundational characteristic on which a more inclusive community can be built.

Schools play a pivotal role in driving that agenda by providing a safe space in which children can learn, ask questions and explore their own and others’ perspectives. Religious education is central to this and needs to reflect the world as it now is.

These issues arose in a recent case in which I was instructed by a humanist parent of a year 9 student. His child attended a Worcestershire school without a religious character, which had communicated to parents that all year 10s would, going forwards, be ‘studying Religion, Philosophy and Ethics (RPE) at GCSE’. 

This narrowed the curriculum choice, as it was (effectively) at the expense of an optional GCSE subject; Pupils could only choose three optional subjects rather than four and there was no option to withdraw children to partake in an alternative or equivalent class. The result of withdrawing a child from RPE would be that they had access to one less GCSE course than their peers.

Religious Education – in key stage 4 as well as throughout the rest of the curriculum – needs to be pluralistic, with equal respect for religious and non-religious worldviews. But my client’s school was planning to follow an accredited religious studies GCSE course as the entirety of its religious education in KS4. 

In most schools, of course, doing a GCSE in religious studies would be optional. All pupils regardless of their exam options would follow a course of religious education devised by the school, usually in line with the syllabus agreed by the local Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (SACRE). 

Religious Education needs to be pluralistic

But this was not the case here as a result of the school’s decision. On close examination, the course and options the school intended to follow were focused exclusively on religious worldviews or taught from a religious standpoint.

And given that this was effectively mandated for all pupils at a school without a religious character, and that the GCSE would form the entirety of its RE provision, it was perhaps unsurprising that issues were raised by a parent with a non-religious view of the world.   Among his concerns was that the proposed course content included no equivalent consideration of non-religious worldviews, and these concerns were shared by Humanists UK.

Attempts to resolve the matter directly with the school without engaging solicitors having failed, the matter landed on my desk.

To their credit, the school (faced with a potential judicial review, and with the help of its lawyers) engaged fully with issues.

It agreed to drop one of the religious themes it had chosen and to replace it with the (only) non-religious theme in that GCSE course. Additionally, in recognition of the fact that this was still only a very small part of the course, they agreed to put together two additional blocks of teaching on humanist and non-religious worldviews in each of the two years of KS4.

My client is pleased that the case has been resolved in a way that enables his child to be taught RE in a more inclusive way. But it should not have required the threat of legal action to resolve this. His hope is that no other parent will be put in this position going forwards.

Those holding non-religious worldviews of course are likely to disproportionately send their children to non-faith schools, and therefore religious education in those schools in particular needs to be pluralistic.

Equal respect, however, does not need to mean equal time. As matters stand, religious education in non-faith schools will continue to reflect the fact that religious traditions in the UK are in the main Christian. 

A large degree of leeway is of course given to schools to choose what their children will study. But as this case show, whatever schools do choose it is not open to them to provide no or minimal exposure to humanism or other non-religious worldviews through their curriculum.

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