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Landmark Bill published to bring humanism into RE

A new bill has been published that proposes to make explicit that religious education (RE) in England must be fully inclusive of non-religious worldviews such as humanism. It also proposes to rename the subject to ‘religion and worldviews’. The Education (Non-religious Philosophical Convictions) Bill is sponsored by Liberal Democrat Peer Baroness Burt of Solihull, who is Vice-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG). She has been supported by Humanists UK, which has long campaigned for wholesale reform of RE – for example by recently working with peers to table amendments to the Government’s Schools Bill along similar lines.

The Bill is what is known as a private member’s bill, and as such its timetable is determined by ballot. It was drawn 22nd in the ballot, so the second reading (during which the first debate takes place) will happen later in the parliamentary year, and is yet to be scheduled. If it receives sufficient support in both Houses of Parliament, it will become law. However, there is typically less time set aside for debating such bills compared with those introduced by the Government.

The Bill will introduce an explicit requirement for RE in England to give equal weight to non-religious worldviews such as humanism. This would in effect place an historic High Court judgment on RE from 2015, known as the Fox case, into primary legislation. Since the Fox case, the UK Government has not acted to change primary legislation accordingly, but such a move would prevent ongoing confusion by educators as to the status of humanism.

There will also be a fresh name for the new, more inclusive, subject: ‘religion and worldviews’. And since the RE curriculum is for many schools set and agreed locally, the Bill also stipulates that people representing non-religious worldviews such as humanism must be included on local Agreed Syllabus Conferences (ASCs) and Standing Advisory Councils on RE (SACREs), which are the bodies that decide and oversee each local RE syllabus. Humanists UK currently campaigns for such representation, and aims to challenge any refusal on human rights grounds of freedom of religion or belief; achieving the change through primary legislation would make a big difference.

These changes are in line with the recommendations of the 2018 report of the Commission on RE. The Commission was convened by the RE Council – the subject association for RE – to review the legal, education, and policy frameworks for RE, and was made up of 14 experts from different fields and of varying religions and beliefs. Its Chair was the Very Rev Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster and former Chief Education Officer for the Church of England and its commissioners included the previous Ofsted lead on RE, the CEO of the National Governors’ Association, and the Director of the Centre for Research and Evaluation in Muslim Education. Since the Commission report was published, these changes have also been the policy of both the RE Council and the National Association of Teachers of RE. In other words, they are what the RE profession wants.

However, the Bill will not affect the standard RE offer in faith schools: most such ‘schools with a religious character’ teach RE according to the tenets of their religious foundation, and that will continue. Nor will the new ‘religion and worldviews’ subject abandon the current starting point of all RE curriculums in England: it will still ‘reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian’. Humanists UK would like to see these things change too, but the Bill doesn’t alter them, as it is hoped that a more limited approach will be more widely supported.

Nevertheless, the Bill does allow that where parents request their child is withdrawn from confessional RE in faith schools, that school must provide the more inclusive religion and worldviews education instead.

This Bill would bring England broadly into line with Wales, which has recently reformed RE by renaming it ‘religion values and ethics’ (RVE), and stipulating that the subject must teach about all religions and worldviews impartially, with humanism on an equal footing to religions.

Humanists UK’s Education Campaigns Manager Robert Cann said:

‘We are delighted to see the publication of Baroness Burt’s RE Bill. This is an excellent opportunity to bring RE in schools outside of the faith system into line with modern British demographics, where surveys consistently report that at least 50% of the population have no religion.

‘Why should children in schools with no religious character, which make up two-thirds of state schools in England, have to study a narrowly-focused RE curriculum that may well contain no references to humanism whatsoever? Similarly, we know that many children at faith schools do not come from the same faith background as their school. These children deserve the opportunity to study a more broad and balanced curriculum.

‘This excellent Bill will right both of those wrongs’.

Notes:

For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at press@humanists.uk or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.

Read more about our work on religious education.

Read more about our work on faith schools.

Visit the Education (Non-religious Philosophical Convictions) Bill’s page on the Parliament website.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

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