Three humanists and their children are going to court tomorrow, supported by the British Humanist Association (BHA), to challenge the Government’s decision to exclude non-religious worldviews from the latest subject content for GCSE Religious Studies (RS). The content, on which exam boards in England must base their specifications, was published earlier this year and failed to allow for the in-depth study of a non-religious worldview such as Humanism, despite widespread support for such an option being included. The parents, all of whom have children that are set to take their GCSEs in the next few years, are judicially reviewing the Government’s decision.
The original decision of the Government in November 2014 to exclude Humanism was almost universally condemned, including by 113 leading philosophers, RE academics, teachers, consultants and advisors, and also by 28 religious leaders, including former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.
Both the Religious Education Council of England and Wales (REC) and the National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE), which reaffirmed their support for non-religious worldviews being taught in detail alongside religions, also opposed the Government decision to exclude Humanism, as did 85% of the public in response to the Department for Education’s subsequent consultation.
One of the three parents acting as a claimant in the case, Kate Bielby, said ‘I completely recognise the importance of children learning about the different religions, especially in our increasingly diverse society. What I object to is the lack of parity between religious beliefs and non-religious worldviews in the school curriculum, which in the eyes of children may well lead to the belief that religion, in whatever form, has a monopoly on truth and on morality. This is not accurate, it reflects neither the views of the population nor the traditions of the country, and we shouldn’t be encouraging our children to believe it.’
BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson said ‘The law is clear that when teaching about religions and beliefs, schools should follow a broad and balanced syllabus which includes both religious and non-religious worldviews like Humanism on an equal footing. The Religious Studies GCSE is therefore incompatible with the rights of non-religious parents and the entitlement of young people to an education that does not indoctrinate them, even by omission. It amounts to a breach of the Government’s obligations and that is what we are seeking the Court to affirm, in line with overwhelming public and professional opinion.’
For further comment or information, please contact BHA Education Campaigner Jay Harman on firstname.lastname@example.org or 020 7324 3078, or BHA Campaigns Manager Richy Thompson on email@example.com or 020 7324 3072.
What is being challenged by the parents?
The three parents and their children are challenging the priority given in the GCSE Religious Studies subject content to religious views (in particular to each of Buddhism, Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism) over all non-religious worldviews, which they believe to be discriminatory and not in keeping with the Government’s obligations with regard to freedom of religion and belief.
On what grounds is the challenge being made?
Subject to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and corresponding case law, the State is obliged to treat different religions and beliefs on an equal footing and in a non-partisan way, an obligation which extends to teaching in the State’s schools, and requires that religions are not elevated above non-religious worldviews in the curriculum. Despite this, that is precisely what the Government proceeded to do. Explaining the decision, the Secretary of State said ‘as these are qualifications in Religious Studies, it is right that the content primarily focuses on developing students’ understanding of different religious beliefs’. In other words, priority was given to religious beliefs simply because they are religious, which the claimants believe to be unlawful.
When will the judge’s decision be made?
Whilst the exact date of the decision cannot be known, the case is scheduled for a one-day hearing in the High Court on 10 November, and a ruling will be made within a few months.
What will happen if the legal challenge is successful?
If the challenge is successful it is unlikely that the court will require the Government to amend or withdraw the current GCSE subject content, nor the exam boards to modify their specifications. Rather, the court is likely to affirm that, due to the unlawful relegation of non-religious worldviews, the current RS GCSE cannot form the entirety of the Religious Education syllabus provided to children at Key Stage 4 in state schools with no religious character, Voluntary Controlled schools, and Foundation schools.
The reason that this is the most likely outcome is that the relegation of non-religious worldviews in the GCSE would not necessarily be an issue (legally speaking) if the GCSE curriculum was simply a part of the overall RE syllabus delivered in schools to the relevant age group. However, for a variety of reasons, the RS GSCE almost invariably forms the entirety of schools’ RE syllabuses at Key Stage 4, and relegating non-religious worldviews in the GCSE therefore amounts to relegating them in RE provision as a whole. Given this, the court may demand that the Government issues a statement to both schools and the committees responsible for setting RE locally (SACREs/ASCs) clarifying how their obligations can be met in light of the ruling.
The three parents and their children are being represented by Matrix Chambers and Maxwell Gillot.
Read the new GCSE RS subject content: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/gcse-religious-studies
Read the DfE’s consultation on the subject content: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/gcse-and-a-level-reform-religious-studies
Read the BHA’s previous news item ‘Government rejects consensus of subject experts, public, and religious leaders, marginalises Humanism in GCSE and A Levels’: https://humanists.uk/2015/02/12/government-rejects-consensus-subject-experts-public-religious-leaders-marginalises-humanism-gcse-levels/
Read the BHA’s briefing on why Humanism is now normally included in Religious Education syllabuses: http://humanismforschools.org.uk/guidance/why-humanism-is-included-in-religious-education-re/
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.