First GCSE, now British values: Government again deletes atheism and humanism from study

1 December, 2014

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.’ In 2013, the Department for Education (DfE) published advice stating that ’There are many different actions that schools can take to meet this part of the standard, such as: …Use teaching resources from a wide variety of sources to help pupils understand a range of faiths, and beliefs such as atheism and humanism.’ However, in updated advice  on meeting this same standard, the DfE has removed ‘and beliefs such as atheism and humanism’ from the preceding sentence.

Earlier this month the DfE launched a consultation on new GCSE and A level religious studies subject content. This does not allow for the systematic study of non-religious worldviews such as Humanism, a fact that has led to widespread opposition to the content. In its briefing on why Humanism is typically studied in RE, and repeatedly in its correspondence with DfE ministers, the British Humanist Association (BHA) has pointed to the recommended study of Humanism in the 2013 guidance and the resultant inconsistency of excluding such study at GCSE and A level.

Other parts of the new guidance are also uninclusive. For example, one part says ‘Pupils must be encouraged to regard people of all faiths, races and cultures with respect and tolerance’ – but has no similar reference to respect and tolerance of those with no religious beliefs. Other parts refer to ‘faiths and beliefs’, and the term ‘belief’, in equalities legislation, is typically taken to mean non-religious beliefs. But one part refers to ‘an acceptance that other people having different faiths or beliefs to oneself (or having none) should be accepted and tolerated, and should not be the cause of prejudicial or discriminatory behaviour’ – implying that apart from this one reference, ‘belief’ may not refer to non-religious beliefs. And only the now-amended sentence refers to actually learning about other faiths.

BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented, ‘It is vital that every young child learns about a wide range of religions and non-religious beliefs. All the usual contemporary justifications for the study of religions in schools – its contributions to community cohesion, building mutual understanding between those of different backgrounds, the historical, literary and cultural knowledge it presents, and its role in helping young people answer life’s big questions – all logically also apply to the study of non-religious worldviews as well. With an ever growing proportion of young people having no religion, this inclusion is becoming ever more important, but instead non-religious worldviews are increasingly being shut out by Government. The promotion of British values needs to reflect the reality of British life and if it does not, it will fail as an educational initiative.’


For further comment or information, please contact Andrew Copson on 07534 248596.

Read the 2013 guidance, Improving the spiritual, moral, social and cultural (SMSC) development of pupils: Departmental advice for independent schools, academies and free schools

Read the newly published supplement, Improving the spiritual, moral, social and cultural (SMSC) development of pupils: supplementary information Departmental advice for independent schools, academies and free schools This supplementary guidance withdraws and replaces parts of the 2013 guidance, including the part that previously referred to atheism and humanism.

Read the newly published guidance, Promoting fundamental British values as part of SMSC in schools: Departmental advice for maintained schools This new guidance also reproduces the section that previously referred to atheism and humanism, but whilst omitting the reference.

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

Read the BHA’s briefing on why Humanism is included in RE:

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.