The Church of England has called for a blanket end to the right of withdrawal from Religious Education (RE) – the law allowing parents to opt their children out of the subject to avoid faith-based teaching when it conflicts with their own beliefs – claiming that the right is being ‘exploited’ by certain ‘interest groups’.
Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA) Andrew Copson has responded:
‘The Church of England is fond of saying how inclusive its schools are, disingenuously referring to them not as “faith schools for the faithful, but church schools serving the community”. But the fact of the matter is that Church schools have specific exemptions from equalities legislation allowing them to deliver faith-based RE, not to mention to religiously discriminate in their admissions and employment policies. The Church lobbied to have these exemptions introduced, and on no occasion has it ever called for them to be removed. We should all be very wary of an organisation that claims not to act in a certain way, but continues to defend its freedom to do otherwise. Indeed what we hear from parents about teaching within Church schools indicates that many schools do teach faith-based RE. The church cannot have its cake and eat it too.
‘And this is to say nothing of the Church’s claims that the right of withdrawal “aligns RE too closely with collective worship in the minds of the media and the public”. I wonder just how distinct they think RE and collective worship can be in the minds of children. Does the Church really think that it can teach a child RE in a balanced and objective way, encouraging them to come to their own conclusions on religion or belief, and then in the same school day proselytise to them in collective worship and encourage them to believe in Christianity alone?
‘We agree with the Church that RE is an important subject, and we agree that parents should not withdraw their children from it unless it is imbalanced or being used to push a particular set of beliefs. But as long as schools, faith-based or otherwise, continue to provide this kind of RE, the right to withdraw remains important in defending children’s freedom of religion and belief.’
Earlier this year the BHA responded to a call for evidence from the Commission on Religious Education, which over the next two years will ‘review the legal, education and policy frameworks for RE’. On the right of withdrawal, the response states:
‘We have set out above why we think RE is an incredibly important subject for all children and young people to study and to benefit from. If RE was genuinely educational (rather than confessional) and was delivered by schools in an inclusive, impartial, and balanced way, therefore, we do not see that there would be any more need for parents to have the right to withdraw their children from it than there would be for subjects like History, Science, or Maths.
‘However, it is still the case that religious schools are legally entitled to teach, if they wish, an entirely biased syllabus which favours one religion over all other worldviews. It is also true, as we have outlined above, that many syllabuses around the country are not as inclusive or impartial as they ought to be. As long as this situation endures, the right of withdrawal will continue to be important, not least for the many parents who have no choice but to send their children to a religious school, even if it does not cohere with their own beliefs.’
For further comment of information please contact BHA Education Campaigns Manager Jay Harman on firstname.lastname@example.org or 02073243078.
Read the BHA’s full submission to the Commission: https://humanists.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017-01-11-FINAL-BHA-submission-to-the-Commission-on-Religious-Education.pdf
Read the BHA’s pregious news item ‘BHA welcomes launch of Commission on Religious Education’: https://humanists.uk/2016/07/08/bha-welcomes-launch-of-commission-on-religious-education/
Read more about the BHA’s work on religious education: 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.
The BHA is a member of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, and its Chief Executive gave oral evidence at the first hearing of the Commission on Religious Education earlier this year.