Option to study humanism excluded from new GCSE and A level criteria; academics, teachers, parents call on Government to reconsider

7 November, 2014

Academics, teachers, and parents have today condemned the exclusion of study of the non-religious worldview of humanism from new English GCSE and AS and A level criteria published today by the Government. Together with the British Humanist Association (BHA) and the Religious Education Council of England and Wales (REC), they have urged the Government to think again.

The draft subject criteria for Religious Studies published for consultation by the Department for Education (DfE) were widely expected to include an optional annex on humanism alongside optional annexes on the six principal religions. This followed the publication of a new curriculum framework for RE last year, endorsed by the Secretary of State for Education, which included non-religious worldviews on an equal footing to each of the principal religions, as well as the issuing of Departmental advice recommending that schools meet the new requirement to promote British values by teaching about ‘beliefs such as… humanism’ as well as religions.

Instead, the draft subject criteria allow for some discussion of non-religious beliefs in general but not the systematic study of humanism. Only annexes on six world religions are included and an annex on humanism produced by the BHA at the request of the DfE was not included.

BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented, ‘We are deeply disappointed to see no annex on humanism in the criteria published by the DfE. Inclusion of an optional module on humanism would have been just that – optional – and schools could have decided to cover it or not. But under these criteria they won’t even have that choice. Forty years of progress in RE, including last year’s RE curriculum framework, make it clear that the systematic study of humanism contributes to making the subject both rigorous and relevant. What sense does it make for pupils following that new framework and studying humanism, to then be denied the chance to continue that study in their GCSEs, alongside the study of religions?’

The Religious Education Council of England and Wales (REC) has also condemned the exclusion

In a statement the REC reaffirmed its policy, ‘that Religious Education in schools and colleges should include the study of non-religious worldviews alongside religious traditions’ and REC Chair Dr Joyce Miller added, ‘The REC Board has agreed unanimously that the optional systematic study of a non-religious worldview should be introduced at GCSE level. We want to promote a rigorous and inclusive study of religions and beliefs that is relevant and challenging for young people of all faiths and none.’

Many RE specialists in schools and universities have added their own voices to calls for inclusion

Critics of the exclusion have been joined by over 90 academics, RE professionals, and children’s authors, who have signed an open letter to the Minister of State for School Reform, Nick Gibb, calling on him to include an annex on humanism in the new criteria, saying that to do otherwise is ‘proposing to turn the clock back, ignoring the experience of young people, the current practice of teachers, and the requirements of a rigorous education.’ The signatories include philosophers and RE professors, consultants, advisors and teachers, including professors from Britain’s top universities, leading national voices on RE, and classroom teachers already teaching their pupils about humanism and objecting to its exclusion in the draft criteria:

Dear Mr Gibb,

We are startled to see that the new GCSE and AS and A level Religious Studies criteria, currently being consulted on by the Government, do not propose to allow for the systematic study of non-religious worldviews. Annexes at GCSE prescribe content for each of the principal religions but there is no equivalent annex for Humanism, even though one was provided to the Department. This is completely out of step with Religious Education as it is taught in many schools today, which reflects the fact that while many young people nowadays hold religious beliefs, many others hold non-religious beliefs, and both religious and non-religious beliefs influence most young people.

The latest RE curriculum framework for teaching prior to GCSE level was produced last year and recommends the study of non-religious worldviews like Humanism alongside religions – a simple codification of the developing place of non-religious beliefs in RE which has evolved over many decades. It was endorsed by the then Secretary of State, who in his foreword made explicit approving reference to teaching non-religious worldviews.

Now the Government is proposing to turn the clock back, ignoring the experience of young people, the current practice of teachers, and the requirements of a rigorous education. We urge you to think again.

The BHA is urging all parents, teachers, young people and academics to respond to the consultation and call on the Government to include the humanism annex. Already many have come forward to do so:

Speaking to Academies Week, Director of 3FF (Three Faiths Forum) Stephen Shashoua commented, ‘The current suggestions don’t go far enough. Young people need an opportunity to learn about non-religious worldviews as well as religious, and develop an understanding of actual lived diversity in the UK, not just abstract facts.’

Ben Britton, Head of RE at Garth Hill College, Bracknell, commented, ‘I am supporting this as a Christian and I very much hope that no-one thinks that it is only humanists pushing for this change. Humanism sits well alongside other worldviews and is essential for pupils who sometimes struggle to connect with traditional religious ideas. If we value all belief systems excluding humanism doesn’t make sense to me.’

Shammi Rahman, an RE Teacher in Milton Keynes, commented, ‘As a Muslim and an experienced RE teacher, I think it is appalling that humanism is not being included. I have always taught non-religious perspectives in my lessons and will continue to do so. Those calling for inclusion have my support.’

16-year old Aneira Carter, from Hackney, commented, ‘I’m in year twelve so have just finished my GCSEs. I enjoyed Religious Education very much in lower school, however I felt the curriculum was very limited in its exploration of non-religious viewpoints. This was the main reason for why I decided not to take Religious Studies at GCSE. I think that RS is a very important subject and is key in helping children understand the world and help them develop into understanding and respectful adults. However as a humanist I think that the GCSE RS course does not include my views and the views of many other atheists and humanists wanting to study religion and we feel excluded by the lack of education about our beliefs. RS needs to be taught to my generation but the current curriculum is just not representative of our beliefs today.’

Natalie Raja, a parent from Richmond-upon-Thames, commented, ‘My husband is a Muslim but I am a humanist and it seems crazy, to me, that our children will be able to systematically study his beliefs at school but not mine. Both our worldviews are well thought out and compassionate outlooks on life – so why the discriminatory treatment?’

Simon Blackburn, former Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, commented, ‘It is impossible to get a complete view of the religious landscape without also studying non-religious beliefs. The non-religious have so much to say about religions that to take one without equally taking the other is to deny all pupils – whether religious or not – a full understanding of this vital subject.’

Dr Peter King, Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Oxford, commented, ‘Humanism is not a religion but at the same time, it is clear that Religious Education is the natural home on our current curriculum for the study of non-religious worldviews. This is because the justifications given for RE’s importance, such as its contributions to community cohesion, to understanding those different from ourselves, and to being able to address life’s big questions, only make sense if RE is fully inclusive of all major worldviews, whether religious or not.’

Richard Norman, Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Kent, commented, ‘Religious Education is not just a matter of learning about religions. Its deeper purpose is to help young people to articulate and explore their own beliefs and values, especially when they reach GCSE age and are gaining the confidence to think for themselves and reach their own conclusions. Two-thirds of teenagers have no religious beliefs. If the GCSE syllabus does not help them to examine and deepen their understanding of humanist and other non-religious beliefs, it will be failing the majority of our young people.’

Full list of signatures

Philosophers and other academics (non-RE):

  1. Dr Catharine Abell, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Manchester
  2. Dr Arif Ahmed, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Cambridge
  3. David Archard, Professor of Philosophy, Queen’s University Belfast
  4. Helen Beebee, Samuel Hall Professor of Philosophy, University of Manchester
  5. Simon Blackburn, former Professor of Philosophy, University of Cambridge, Fellow, Trinity College Cambridge, and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, UNC-Chapel Hill
  6. Margaret A. Boden, Research Professor of Cognitive Science, University of Sussex
  7. Dr Stephen Burwood, Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Hull
  8. Dr Peter Cave, Lecturer in Philosophy, Open University
  9. Andrew Chitty, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Sussex
  10. Michael Clark, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of Nottingham
  11. Antony Duff, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of Stirling
  12. John Dupré, Professor of Philosophy of Science, University of Exeter
  13. Dr Nicholas Everitt, Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy, University of East Anglia
  14. Simon Glendinning, Professor of European Philosophy, LSE
  15. A. C. Grayling, philosopher and Master of the New College of the Humanities
  16. Dr Peter King, Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Oxford
  17. Dr Brendan Larvor, Reader in Philosophy and Head of Philosophy, University of Hertfordshire
  18. Dr Stephen Law, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Heythrop College, University of London
  19. Ardon Lyon, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, City University London
  20. D. H. Mellor, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of Cambridge
  21. Peter Millican, Gilbert Ryle Fellow and Professor of Philosophy, University of Oxford
  22. Richard Norman, Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy, University of Kent
  23. Eric Olson, Professor of Philosophy, University of Sheffield
  24. David Papineau, Professor of Philosophy, King’s College London
  25. Derek Parfit, Professor of Philosophy, University of Oxford
  26. Duncan Pritchard, Professor and Chair in Epistemology, University of Edinburgh
  27. Janet Radcliffe Richards, Professor of Practical Philosophy, University of Oxford
  28. Jonathan Rée, philosopher and author
  29. Theodore Scaltsas, Professor and Chair of Ancient Philosophy, University of Edinburgh
  30. Peter Simons, Professor of Philosophy, Chair of Moral Philosophy and Head of the School of Social Sciences and Philosophy, Trinity College Dublin
  31. Tom Sorell, Professor of Politics and Philosophy, University of Warwick
  32. Dr Tanja Staehler, Reader in Philosophy and Head of the Department of Philosophy, University of Sussex
  33. Thomas Uebel, Professor of Philosophy, University of Manchester
  34. Dr Nigel Warburton, philosopher and author
  35. Keith Ward, Regius Professor Emeritus of Divinity, University of Oxford
  36. John White, Emeritus Professor of the Philosophy of Education, Institute of Education, University of London
  37. Stephen Wilkinson, Professor of Bioethics, Lancaster University

RE professionals (other than teachers):

  1. David Aldridge, Principal Lecturer in Philosophy of Education and Programme Lead for Professional Education, Oxford Brookes University
  2. Maxine Beech, RE teacher and research fellow, Farmington Institute
  3. Revd Kevin Blogg, RE consultant and SACRE advisor, Norfolk
  4. Revd Robert Boulter, Associate Principal Lecturer in Primary Education, Leeds Trinity University and consultant, Leeds SACRE
  5. Alan Brine, former HMI and National Lead for Religious Education within Ofsted (2007-2014)
  6. Roger Butler, RE consultant and SACRE advisor, London
  7. George Casley, Lecturer and religious education consultant
  8. Andrew Copson, Chief Executive, British Humanist Association and board member, Religious Education Council for England and Wales
  9. Trevor Cooling, Professor of Christian Education and Director of National Institute for Christian Education Research, Canterbury Christ Church University
  10. Dr Wendy Dossett, Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies, University of Chester
  11. Dr Nigel Fancourt, Lecturer, Department of Education, University of Oxford
  12. Dave Francis, education consultant and SACRE advisor
  13. Brian Gates, Emeritus Professor of Religion, Ethics & Education, University of Cumbria and former Chair of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales (1984-90 and 2002-11)
  14. David Harris, education consultant and Senior Member, Wolfson College, University of Cambridge
  15. Paul Hopkins, Lecturer in Education, University of Hull
  16. Alex Howard, former Visiting Lecturer in Philosophy at Newcastle University and former RE teacher
  17. Robert Jackson, Professor of Education and former Director, Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit (1994-2012)
  18. Phil Leivers, board member and Chair of Professional Development Committee, Religious Education Council for England and Wales
  19. Nora Leonard, education consultant and SACRE advisor, London
  20. Lesley Prior, RE consultant, SACRE advisor, and Senior Lecturer in Religious Education, University of Roehampton
  21. Revd Michael J Reiss, Professor of Science Education, Institute of Education, University of London
  22. Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, Maidenhead Synagogue
  23. Alastair Ross, RE Consultant and SACRE advisor, West Yorkshire
  24. Stephen Shashoua, Director, 3FF (Three Faiths Forum)
  25. Dr Jacqueline Watson, Visiting Fellow in Education and former Director of the Centre for Spirituality and Religion in Education, University of East Anglia

RE teachers:

  1. Joanne Bagnall, RE Co-ordinator, Nook Lane Junior School, Sheffield
  2. Hayley Bennett, RE Teacher, City of Bradford
  3. Dr Robin M. Bevan, Headteacher, Southend High School for Boys
  4. Ben Britton, Head of RE, Garth Hill College, Bracknell
  5. Katie Brook, RE Teacher, Bracknell
  6. Ellen Chisman, RE Teacher, Kirklees
  7. Shirley Dang, RE Coordinator and Early Years Teacher, Hackney
  8. Ms L Douglas, Philosophy and Ethics Teacher
  9. Andrew Duffield, Humanities Co-ordinator, Haltwhistle Community Campus, Northumberland
  10. Peter Gray, Primary Teacher, Derbyshire
  11. Mike Harrison, former ESOL teacher, London
  12. Helen Hodgson, RE Teacher
  13. Laura Harvey, Head of Religious Studies, Newstead Wood School, Bromley
  14. Amy Hyde, Teacher of Belief and Ethics, Suffolk
  15. Jon Knight, Head of Philosophy and Ethics, Worcestershire
  16. Ben Maddison, RE teacher, Southend High School for Boys
  17. Alexandra Maxted, RE teacher, Hampshire
  18. David Moffat, RE Teacher, Kingsbury High School, Brent
  19. Clare O’Brien, RS & Philosophy teacher and teacher trainer, Graveney School, Wandsworth
  20. Margaret O’Sullivan, Head of RE, St. John’s School, Episkopi, Cyprus
  21. Iain Paterson, former HMI with responsibility for religious education
  22. Shammi Rahman, RE teacher, Milton Keynes
  23. Claire Sadler-Penn, Deputy Head Teacher, Nottingham
  24. Alice Severs, former Deputy Head Teacher
  25. Louise Stinchcombe, RE Teacher
  26. Francesca Thomas, Secondary Teacher of RE and Philosophy, Cornwall
  27. Rebecca Ward, Head of Department for Philosophy and Theology, Graveney School, Wandsworth
  28. Richard Woffenden, Ethics, Religion, Ideas and Citizenship Teacher, Royds Hall Community School, Huddersfield
  29. Hannah Yearsley, Teacher of Religious Studies, Humanities and Citizenship, Kent


  1. Jonathan Emmett, children’s author
  2. Matt Haig, writer, children’s author and journalist
  3. Natalie Haynes, writer, children’s author and broadcaster
  4. Michael Rosen, children’s author, poet and former Children’s Laureate
  5. Alom Shaha, author, The Young Atheist’s Handbook


For further comment or information, please contact Andrew Copson on 020 3675 0959.

Read the consultation: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/gcse-and-a-level-reform-religious-studies

The British Humanist Association has produced a briefing setting out the reasons why Humanism must be included in Religious Education, but in summary:

  • All the usual contemporary justifications for the subject of RE in the school curriculum – its contribution to social cohesion and mutual understanding, its presentation of a range of answers to questions of meaning and purpose, and its role in the search for personal identity and values – can best be served by including humanist perspectives and non-religious students.
  • Humanism has long been part of Religious Education and the Religious Education Council has long supported this inclusion. Successive Government documents have recommended the inclusion of non-religious worldviews such as humanism, and the 2013 Curriculum Framework is as inclusive of teaching about non-religious worldviews as it is of teaching about religions. This is also reflected in locally agreed syllabuses, the vast majority of which include the teaching of humanism with many having extensive modules dedicated to its study. The REC’s vision is that ‘Every young person experiences a personally inspiring and academically rigorous education in religious and non-religious worldviews’.
  • It is vital that Religious Education remains relevant to young people and with surveys suggesting that between 31% and 65% are not religious, this means including non-religious worldviews. RE struggles to engage these young people when their beliefs are excluded.
  • International agreements all recommend the inclusion of non-religious worldviews alongside religious beliefs and in fact the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief specifically recommended it in her last report on the UK.
  • The BHA has long played an active part in the RE Council including at the Board level and has been involved in the steering groups of all relevant government and quango reviews for the last decade. Almost six out of seven English SACREs now include a humanist.
  • The Independent School Standards require schools to ‘actively promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.’ Departmental advice recommends that schools meet this standard by using ‘teaching resources from a wide variety of sources to help pupils understand a range of faiths, and beliefs such as atheism and humanism.’

The BHA has been involved in policy development around RE for over 60 years. It is a founding member of the RE Council for England and Wales, and our Chief Executive has been a Trustee of that organisation since 2006. In recent years, the BHA has also been on the Department for Education steering groups which developed the 2004 non-statutory national framework (to which we gave our named support); the non-statutory programmes of study and attainment targets for key stages 3-5 in 2007; the abandoned level descriptions and key stage 1/2 non-statutory programme of learning in 2010; and the 2010 non-statutory guidance, and on the steering group of the 2013 RE Subject Review. Andrew has also sat on similar bodies with Ofsted, Ofqual and the QCDA. We helped to develop Ofsted’s guidance on spiritual, moral, social and cultural development.

We provide materials and advice to parents, governors, students, teachers and academics, for example through http://www.humanismforschools.org.uk/ and our school volunteers programme. We have made detailed responses to all recent reviews of the school curriculum, and submit memoranda of evidence to parliamentary select committees on a range of education issues.

Our support for RE is also reflected by the fact that many standing advisory councils on RE (SACREs) have had humanist representatives for a long time now, including as Chairs and Vice-Chairs of both SACREs and agreed syllabus conferences (ASCs). Recent years have seen a large rise in the number of humanists who are on SACREs, as documents such as the 2013 national framework, programmes of study and RE guidance have referred to teaching about non-religious beliefs such as humanism. Almost six out of seven English SACREs now have a humanist.

Read more about the BHA’s work on RE: https://humanists.uk/campaigns/schools-and-education/school-curriculum/religious-education/

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.