Decision to deny humanists voice on RE in Southampton to be retaken after legal threat

7 April, 2021

Southampton Council has agreed to retake a decision blocking humanists from becoming full members of the local RE committee following a threat of legal action. The Council made the original decision following consultation with religious members of the committee, which saw a Church of England representative refer to the possible inclusion as ‘a Trotskyist move’.

Humanist Mary Wallbank first applied to be a full member of Southampton’s Standing Advisory Council on RE (SACRE) – the body that oversees RE in local community, voluntary controlled, and foundation schools – over two years ago. But, following consultation with religious members of the SACRE, in November the Council voted not to admit her.

Following the decision, and with the support of Humanists UK, Ms Wallbank began the process to take a legal challenge on the basis that her exclusion violates human rights law. By law, such challenges must be taken within three months of the actionable decision. However, anxious to make sure that Council resources were not overstretched during the pandemic, Ms Wallbank proposed pausing the case if the Council would reconsider the issue at a later date. The Council agreed and will retake the decision in November this year. There is no guarantee that the new decision will go in favour of admitting humanists to the SACRE as the Council still mistakenly appears to think this would be unlawful on the grounds that humanism is not a religion.

Appallingly, during an online meeting of the SACRE that fed into the November decision, a Church of England representative opposed to the addition said

‘the slight elephant in the room for me… without any disrespect to our humanist rep, the British Humanist Society [sic] are openly hostile to the existence of SACREs [sic] and are campaigning for their abolition [sic]. So it’s always seemed like a slightly Trotskyist move to me to be, to want to be a member of a committee that your society, association, whatever you want to call it, is openly opposed to.’

In fact, Humanists UK – which is a founding member of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales and has coordinated humanist membership of SACREs for many years – is not opposed to the existence of SACREs, as made plain by its relevant policy page. It has said that the decision flies in the face of human rights law, which has established that humanists must be included equally alongside religious representatives.

Ms Wallbank has been involved with Southampton SACRE since 2016. However, she is currently a co-opted member, which means, unlike religious representatives, she doesn’t get to vote on decisions made by the Committee.

Southampton humanist representative Mary Wallbank said: 

‘I was hugely disappointed that Southampton Council chose to block my bid to become a full member of the Committee, particularly given that many of the positions for religious representatives are vacant and have been for some time.

‘Southampton SACRE members say they recognise the contribution I make. Some even say that they would love to have a humanist member. If this is the case, I would ask that they reconsider their position and press Southampton Council to admit me as a full member when they revisit the issue later this year. Only this will ensure that the SACRE is properly representative and learners in Southampton get the well-rounded education they deserve.’

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Dr Ruth Wareham commented: 

‘It is outrageous that Southampton Council has said it won’t allow humanists equal involvement in local RE provision, particularly in light of the spurious allegation that we are “Trotskyists”. This exposes a lack of knowledge and understanding about humanism which only underlines the need for that inclusion. But it also reflects a lack of understanding of human rights law, which requires an inclusive approach.

‘We have always advocated in the strongest terms for the importance of good quality, inclusive education about religions and humanism. We hope that Southampton Council will drop this wrongheaded, discriminatory position and allow Ms Wallbank to participate as a full member.’

Human rights, SACREs, and the law

The Southampton case comes just as the Welsh Government is changing education law, via a recently passed Bill, to make it clear that, in line with the Human Rights Act 1998, non-religious representatives may be admitted to SACREs and the bodies that write the RE syllabus (known as Agreed Syllabus Conferences, or ASCs). The new law will also ensure that the curriculum is fully inclusive of humanism. It follows a successful legal challenge, backed by Humanists UK, of the Vale of Glamorgan SACRE, who also tried to block a humanist from becoming a voting member.

In England, where the law is identical, a humanist representative similarly successfully challenged her local SACRE, the Royal Borough of Greenwich, when it refused to admit her as a full member last year. In both cases, the argument ran that human rights law already requires humanists to be admitted as full members.

In 2018, the landmark final report of the Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) – an expert inquiry into how the subject should be reformed to make it fit for the 21st century – said that legislation around SACREs should be amended. It recommended that SACREs should include ‘religion, belief and other groups that support RE in schools or wish to do so’ and the name of the body should be changed to Local Advisory Network for Religion and Worldviews. All of the CoRE recommendations were supported by the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, the key body responsible for promoting religious education in the UK.

The decision not to amend the constitution of Southampton SACRE to include a humanist was taken in consultation with members of Group A of the committee – the group that is currently reserved for religious representatives. However, it is not standard practice to carry out such a consultation.

The final decision was made by Southampton Council at a full Council meeting in  November. Mary Wallbank was granted the opportunity to make the case for a humanist representative to the Council during that meeting. However, she was given no right to reply when councillors were told erroneously that a decision to admit her would be unlawful. Contrary to Southampton SACRE’s position, over 40 SACREs in England already have a humanist as a full member.


For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Dr Ruth Wareham at or phone 020 7324 3000 or 0772 511 0860.

Read the full Southampton SACRE meeting transcript.

Read our article on Greenwich council backing down after legal challenge to exclusion of humanist from RE body.

Read more about our work on Religious Education.

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