Religious studies: Humanism vs Christianity, What should schools teach?

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.

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


  1. The court case was technically (as the DfE says) about their claim that the statutory entitlement to RE at KS4 could be met by the new-style GCSE. But the reason that claim was wrong was that ANY religious education in non-faith schools mandated by law in a Council of Europe state must be “objective, critical and pluralistic”. As Mr Justice Warby said at para 39 of his judgement:

    “Taken overall, the human rights jurisprudence establishes the following points of relevance to this claim. In carrying out its educational functions the state owes parents a positive duty to respect their religious and philosophical convictions; the state has considerable latitude in deciding exactly how that duty should be performed, having regard among other things to available resources, local conditions and, in particular, the preponderance in its society of particular religious views, and their place in the tradition of the country; thus, the state may legitimately give priority to imparting knowledge of one religion above others, where that religion is practised or adhered to by a majority in society; but the state has a duty to take care that information or knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in a pluralistic manner; subject to certain threshold requirements, immaterial here, the state must accord equal respect to different religious convictions, and to non-religious beliefs; it is not entitled to discriminate between religions and beliefs on a qualitative basis; its duties must be performed from a standpoint of neutrality and impartiality as regards the quality and validity of parents’ convictions.”

    That is not a mere technical finding but a fundamental statement of the law that requires complete re-examination of the way RE is delivered at all key stages, implying substantial change in many agreed syllabuses and the schools using them.

    In pretending that the judicial review has no wider implications the DfE is burying its head in the sand. It will be unable to maintain that undignified position for long.

    • Very much agree David.

      Not only is the DfE “burying its head in the sand”, it is now defying the law as judged by Mr Justice Warby.

      Whatever their religious viewpoint, most people in this country believe that British Values include upholding the law. If the DfE believes its standpoint is correct, it should appeal against the legal decision.

      If the DfE can ignore the law it is a dangerous precedent.