In a landmark judgment handed down in the High Court today, a judge has ruled in favour of the three humanist parents and their children who challenged the Government’s relegation of non-religious worldviews in the latest subject content for GCSE Religious Studies. In his decision, Mr Justice Warby stated that the Government had made an ‘error of law’ in leaving non-religious worldviews such as humanism out of mandatory teaching, amounting to ‘a breach of the duty to take care that information or knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in a pluralistic manner.’ The British Humanist Association (BHA), which was responsible for bringing the case and has supported the three families throughout, has welcomed the decision.
While the Government will not be immediately compelled to change the GSCE, religious education syllabuses around the country will now have to include non-religious worldviews such as humanism on an equal footing, and pupils taking a GCSE will also have to learn about non-religious worldviews alongside the course.
In his judgment, Mr Justice Warby said, ‘In carrying out its educational functions the state owes parents a positive duty to respect their religious and philosophical convictions… the state has a duty to take care that information or knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in a pluralistic manner… the state must accord equal respect to different religious convictions, and to non-religious beliefs; it is not entitled to discriminate between religions and beliefs on a qualitative basis; its duties must be performed from a standpoint of neutrality and impartiality as regards the quality and validity of parents’ convictions.’
He found that GCSE specifications drawn up along the lines recommended ‘would give priority to the study of religions (including some with a relatively very small following and no significant role in the tradition of the country) over all non-religious world views (which have a significant following and role in the tradition of the country)’ and would therefore risk being unlawful.
Finally, he found that, if schools relied on the GCSE to deliver their legal obligation, ‘the state would need to afford some additional educational provision [which included non-religious worldviews such as humanism] or fail in its duties.’
The Department for Education will now have to take action in response to the judgement against it. Further meetings will now take place between the parties to decide what steps must now be taken to ensure non-religious worldviews such as Humanism are included.
Kate Bielby, one of the parents acting as a claimant in the case, commented, ‘My daughter and I are delighted by today’s decision and the clear statement that it makes in support of equality of religion and belief. It is long past time that the beliefs of the non-religious were treated on an equal footing with religions in the school curriculum. I am confident that whatever changes are introduced on the back of this judgement, Religious Studies will be a fairer, more inclusive subject, benefitting all children whatever their religious or non-religious background.’
BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson said, ‘We have made the case for many decades that the school curriculum on religions should include major non-religious worldviews such as humanism. It is great news that the Court has now said the law is with us. This is a stunning victory for the three humanist families who stood up to the Government on this issue. It is also a victory for the vast majority of people who believe in the importance of a religious education curriculum that is inclusive, balanced, and pluralistic, and which contributes to mutual understanding between people of all religions and none.
‘We look forward to working with the Government to ensure that the changes required by the judgement are implemented and hope they will use this as an opportunity to improve the GCSE for the benefit of all children. Continuing to exclude the views of a huge number of Britons, in the face of majority public opinion and all expert advice, would only be to the detriment of education in this country and a shameful path to follow.’
For further comment or information, please contact BHA Education Campaigner Jay Harman on email@example.com or 020 7324 3078/07970 393 680; or Campaigns Manager Richy Thompson on firstname.lastname@example.org or 020 7324 3072/07815 589 635.
Read the full judgement here: https://humanists.uk/wp-content/uploads/R-Fox-v-SSfE-2015-EWHC-3404-Admin-251115.pdf
Listen to Andrew Copson discuss the judgment on the BBC Today programme on 26 November:
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 ‘Parents sue Government over exclusion of Humanism from GCSE curriculum’ https://humanists.uk/2015/11/09/parents-sue-government-over-exclusion-of-humanism-from-gcse-curriculum/
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.