A High Court judgment in November has caused confusion over the new religious studies (RS) GCSE. Over the Christmas break, several contradictory reports of what schools must do were carried by the media

What schools must do

They must teach two religions in the new GCSE specification, which begins in September, with each weighted equally in the exam. They also have statutory requirements surrounding religious education (RE), such as a need for collective worship and the teaching of RE to pupils in every key stage (1-4).

Curriculums should be locally determined, but they do not have to mirror local or national populations.

In the main, schools are “free to determine their own approach to [its] teaching” but non-faith schools must also “reflect the fact that… religious traditions in Great Britain are, in the main, Christian whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain”.

Why the confusion?

Three parents took the Department for Education (DfE) to court over the wording of a paragraph in the new subject content for the RS GCSE, claiming that it “gave unlawful priority to the teaching of religious views as compared to non-religious views, including those of humanism”.

On November 25, Mr Justice Warby said in his judgment that the paragraph was indeed a “false and misleading statement of law, which encourages others to act unlawfully”.

He said the paragraph written by the DfE unlawfully suggested that schools could meet their legal duty to provide RE by just teaching the GCSE – which it might not if non-religious views were not included.

The parents were supported by the British Humanist Association (BHA), which said that the judgment was a “stunning” victory.

But the DfE said that it was a “narrow, technical point” with “no broader impact on any aspect of [RE and RS] policy”.

What does this mean for schools?

Adam Medlycott, a specialist researcher at The Key, a schools support service, said: “The DfE has clarified that the RS GCSE may play a part in meeting statutory requirements for the teaching of RE – but it won’t necessarily fulfil them alone.

“In practice, there’s no real change for schools to worry about. It is still the case that schools do not have to give
non-religious views equal rating with religious views, and their RE curriculum should continue to be determined by local needs while meeting statutory requirements for balance across the key stages.”

In a clarification issued by the government last week, schools without a religious character were told their curriculum “should reflect that Britain is predominantly a Christian country, while taking account of the teaching and practices of other principal religions represented here”.

What will happen next?

Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, said the organisation was “glad the DfE seems to have accepted that it stood no chance of winning an appeal against the judgment” but was concerned that it did not understand there had been an “error of law”.

The association is now consulting its lawyers about the clarification document.