Head teachers vote to end parental right of withdrawal from RE

6 May, 2016

The National Association of Head teachers (NAHT) has passed a motion calling for an end to the right of parents to withdraw their children from Religious Education (RE) in schools, citing concerns over the ‘divisiveness’ of such opt outs and the way they are sometimes used by parents in order to shield their children from being taught about particular religions and worldviews. The British Humanist Association (BHA) has a long history of campaigning in favour of RE that is inclusive, impartial, and balanced, allowing pupils to explore a variety of religious and non-religious worldviews, and believes the right of withdrawal will remain important until RE in all schools meets this standard.

All state funded schools are required by law to teach RE. Schools with no religious character must teach RE in a neutral manner, without promoting any one religion or worldview over the others, but ‘faith schools’ are free to teach RE from a faith-based perspective (something which some schools with no religious character have also been known to do despite this being unlawful). The opt out has historically been used by parents to avoid such faith-based teaching when it conflicts with their own beliefs, but the NAHT claims that parents have been exercising their right to withdraw their children from RE selectively, specifically to avoid teaching about religions such as Islam and Hinduism. This has contributed to the worry that children can leave school without vital knowledge that would allow them to understand and respect others and ‘contribute to wider society and life in Britain.’

BHA Faith Schools and Education Campaigner, Jay Harman commented ‘The BHA endorses the idea that learning about other people’s beliefs, including non-religious beliefs like Humanism, is beneficial to children living in an increasingly multi-cultural and diverse society, particularly one in which the proportion of people who identify as non-religious is rising.

‘What worries us is that RE teaching varies from local authority to local authority, and from teacher to teacher. While it can be inclusive, impartial, and balanced, it can also be almost indistinguishable to proselytising, particularly in schools which are not bound by the requirement to teach RE in an impartial manner.

‘While we sympathise with the worries that NAHT raise, given that some schools are allowed to teach an entirely biased curriculum which favours one religion over all other worldviews, and given that some parents have no choice but to send their children to a faith school, even if it does not cohere with their own beliefs, RE must be reformed before the opt-out can be ended. Only when all schools are required to teach RE in a way that respects the diversity present in modern society can the parental right to withdrawal be removed, and we have met with the Department for Education to communicate this view.’


For further comment or information, please contact BHA Education Campaigner Jay Harman at jay@humanists.uk or on 020 7324 3078.

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.