Rowan Williams heads religious leaders in call for fair study of Humanism in schools

5 February, 2015

28 religious leaders, including former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and former Bishop of Oxford Richard Harries have called on schools minister Nick Gibb to reverse the Government’s decision to exclude an annex on Humanism from new Religious Studies (RS) GCSEs and preclude similar systematic study from AS and A levels. Their call comes as humanists fear that the Government is about to announce that the criteria for new GCSEs and A levels will not include such an annex or such study.

This political decision is expected in spite of a call last year from over 100 theologians, teachers, and philosophers for the annex on Humanism to be included, and a public consultation that showed a vast majority in support of it. It is also in spite of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales (REC) calling for the annex, saying, ‘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.’

The Department for Education (DfE) went so far as to invite the British Humanist Association (BHA) to produce the content, which was authored by a number of RE experts, and has made the subsequent decision, according to the BHA, ‘all the more inexplicable’.

The letter, sent to Minister of State for School Reform Nick Gibb MP, reads:

As religious leaders we are writing to express our support for proposals to allow students to have the option for systematic study of Humanism in GCSE, AS and A level religious studies, and for an annex setting out content on Humanism to be added alongside existing GCSE annexes on the principal world religions. Such a change would not compel anyone to systematically study non-religious worldviews or make it possible to do so for the whole of a qualification, but it would allow young people to study a more representative sample of major worldviews that are common in Britain today. It would reflect how RE is taught in many schools, the position taken by an increasing number of locally agreed syllabuses, and the 2013 curriculum framework. It would also match the positions of the RE Council for England and Wales and the National Association of Teachers of RE. In short, it would be fair, popular, and add rigour to the subject; we see no reasonable or persuasive argument to oppose it.

Welcoming the letter, BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson said, ‘It is great to see religious leaders of good will join us in calling for the detailed study of Humanism to be included as an option. A Government decision not to include the annex will make a joke of the idea that Religious Studies will be accessible to every child, undermines the contemporary relevance of the qualification, and reduces the meaningfulness and rigour of the subject. It is completely inexplicable to us why the Government would take this arbitrary and counter-educational decision in the face of public opinion and professional support.’

Dr Farid Panjwani, Director of the Centre for Research and Evaluation in Muslim Education at the Institute of Education,  commented, ‘I am fully supportive of the demand to add the option to systematically study Humanism in GCSE, AS and A level alongside the existing modules on major world religions. Such an inclusion would contribute to promoting intellectual autonomy among students by giving them opportunity to learn about a broader range of ways in which humans have grappled with existential questions.’

Many teachers are also worried about the proposed narrow curriculum. Andrew Lloyd, a Head of RE in Nottinghamshire, recently contacted the BHA to say, ‘With regards to the content on Humanism that you have produced, I can only say that it is inspiring and I’m sure my pupils will feel the same. Combined with a systematic study of a faith (in my school Christianity) this will make for a much more relevant and balanced curriculum. The current proposals will alienate many pupils and prevent us from facilitating proper understanding and from having time to discuss and explore issues that are fundamental to our existence.

‘I am the Head of RE and Initial Teacher Training Coordinator at a school in South Nottinghamshire and I know from ten years of experience that the current proposals will not develop or engage pupils appropriately. I would love the chance to teach the content that you include in your annex and I know the other member of staff in my department (a committed Christian) feels the same.’

Another source of controversy about the new curriculum has been the reduction of content on philosophy and ethics, which on Sunday led to independent school headteachers also criticising the new subject content.

The full list of signatories

The Rt Revd and Rt Hon Dr Rowan Williams, Baron Williams of Oystermouth
Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge and former Archbishop of Canterbury

The Rt Revd and Rt Hon Richard Harries, Baron Harries of Pentregarth
Former Bishop of Oxford

Rev Keith Ward
Regius Professor Emeritus of Divinity, University of Oxford

Simon Barrow
Co-Director, Ekklesia

Jonathan Bartley
Co-Director, Ekklesia

Rabbi Larry Becker
Sukkat Shalom Reform Synagogue

Revd Richard Bentley
St Edmundsbury Cathedral

Revd Jeremy Chadd
St Chad’s, Sunderland

Mark Chater
Director of a Christian educational charity supporting research, development and innovation in RE and former Senior Adviser for RE, Qualifications & Curriculum Development Agency (2006-10)

Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok
Emeritus Professor of Judaism, University of Wales Trinity Saint David

Trevor Cooling
Professor of Christian Education and Director of the National Institute for Christian Education Research, Canterbury Christ Church University

Rev Steve Dick
Executive Director, International Council of Unitarians and Universalists

Rev Marie Dove
Methodist minister in West Yorkshire and former Religious Studies teacher

Rabbi Dr David J Goldberg OBE
Rabbi Emeritus of The Liberal Jewish Synagogue, London

Rabbi Dr Margaret Jacobi
Birmingham Progressive Synagogue

Rev Janice Jones
Pontprennau Community Church and Church of the Resurrection St. Mellons and Trustee, All Faiths and None

Derek McAuley
Chief Officer, General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches

Revd Iain McDonald
United Reformed Church

Alan Murray
Chair, All Faiths and None and former Adviser on Education, Archbishops’ Council

Martin Pendergast
Chair, Centre for the Study of Christianity and Sexuality

Revd Michael J Reiss
Professor of Science Education, Institute of Education, University of London

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain
Maidenhead Synagogue

Revd Christopher Rowland
Dean Ireland’s Professor of Exegesis of Holy Scripture, University of Oxford

Raheed Salam
Development Manager, All Faiths and None, Council member, National Council of Faiths and Beliefs in Further Education and Trustee, Interfaith Youth Trust

Harjinder Singh
Consultant to the Sikh Federation UK, Council member, National Council of Faiths and Beliefs in Further Education and Trustee, All Faiths and None

Rev Stephen Terry
St Leonard’s Church, Hove

Revd Keith Trivasse
St Thomas Church, Bury

Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers
Community Educator, Movement for Reform Judaism


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

The earlier letter, published in November, was signed by some 113 leading philosophers, RE academics, consultants, advisors and teachers, and children’s authors as well as the positions of both the RE Council for England and Wales (REC) and National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE). In November, the REC issued a statement in which it 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.’

Read the earlier letter:

Read the DfE’s consultation:

Read the BHA’s response:

Read the annex on Humanism:

Read the BHA’s consultation on what the annex should look like:

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

Read the previous BHA news item, ‘BHA calls for inclusion of Humanism in responses to consultations on GCSE, AS and A level 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. 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 and a comparative level of inclusion as with the principal religions. 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 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) and agreed syllabus conferences (ASCs) have had humanist representatives (in some cases for decades), including as Chairs and Vice-Chairs.  Recent years have seen a rise in the number of humanists who are on SACREs, as documents such as the 2010 RE guidance and 2013 national framework have referred to teaching about non-religious beliefs such as Humanism. As a result almost six out of seven English SACREs now have a humanist representative, the vast majority of locally agreed syllabuses include Humanism to some extent, and many do so to a high level of depth.

Read more about the BHA’s work on 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.