Government rejects consensus of subject experts, public, and religious leaders, marginalises Humanism in GCSE and A levels

12 February, 2015

Publishing its final version of the revised subject content for GCSE, AS and A level Religious Studies (RS) in schools in England, the Department for Education (DfE) has excluded the Annex on Humanism, in spite of majority public support (including almost 90% of consultation respondents) for its inclusion.

The British Humanist Association (BHA), Religious Education Council of England and Wales (REC), and others had expressed concern about the almost complete exclusion of non-religious worldviews such as Humanism from the content, and asked that it be made possible to systematically study a non-religious worldview alongside a religion. Although including references to Humanism, the revised content – in defiance of almost 90% public support expressed in the consultation – maintains the exclusion of an Annex on Humanism to sit alongside the annexes on religions. The BHA has expressed deep regret at the ongoing discrimination but welcomed the small progress that has been made.

At GCSE level, the subject content specifies that pupils must systematically study two religions and annexes set out detailed content for each of the six major religions. At the invitation of civil servants the BHA worked with experts to produce an equivalent annex on Humanism, which was the subject of its own consultation which the BHA carried out. As well as being supported by the REC, the National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE) also made similar calls. Last year 113 leading philosophers, RE academics, consultants, advisors and teachers, and children’s authors signed a letter to Minister of State for School Reform Nick Gibb calling for the annex to be included; and this month 28 religious leaders, including former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, signed a second letter making the same call.

In spite of this, the annex has not been included in the finalised subject content. The rest of the subject content includes some new inclusive references, such as the need for GCSE specifications to ‘develop students’ knowledge and understanding of… non-religious beliefs, such as atheism and humanism’, and to ‘require students to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the fact that… religious traditions in Great Britain are diverse and include… non-religious beliefs, such as atheism and humanism’. But overall the content remains exclusive in nature. Throughout the content students will be required to study in detail two religions at GCSE and at least one at A level and cannot choose to study a non-religious worldview in this way. There is no detailed content for a non-religious worldview as there is for each of the principal religions.

BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented, ‘While we welcome the more inclusive nature of some aspects of the revised qualifications, we are bitterly disappointed that Humanism is to be largely excluded. With each generation being less religious than the previous one, it is vital that Humanism be included and there is barely anyone apart from the Conservative part of the Coalition Government that disagrees. Today’s political decision is unfathomable and time will prove its futility.

‘Thankfully, many teachers across the country will continue to include Humanism in their teaching. They are dedicated professionals who understand better than this Government the requirements of education about beliefs and values in today’s Britain. We look forward to working with them and with exam boards and schools to support their teaching at all levels and also ensure that the most is made of those opportunities that the subject content does provide.

‘We would also like to thank the thousands of our members and supporters and friends within the RE and philosophy worlds who have spoken out on this issue, including those many religious people of good will and commitment to good education who have taken a stand. It is very sad that the Government has let down both them and all our children with today’s decision.’


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

Read the outcome of the consultation:–2

Read the equality analysis:

Read the new GCSE RS subject content:

Read the new AS and A level RS subject content:

Read the first open letter:

Read the second open letter in the previous BHA news item, ‘Rowan Williams heads religious leaders in call for fair study of Humanism in schools’:

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 is normally included in Religious Education nowadays, 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.