An amendment to the Government’s Schools Bill that would have reformed religious education (RE) in schools without a religious character was defeated in the House of Lords last night. Humanists UK has long called for changes to the law in this area, and worked with members and supporters of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group to see the amendment tabled. However, during last night’s report stage debate there was strong opposition to the plans from both the Bishops’ bench and the Government. That meant the amendment was defeated at the vote by 145 to 82.
The amendment, tabled by crossbencher Baroness Meacher, would have made it explicit that RE outside of faith academies must be inclusive of humanism – in line with what is already required by case law; and renamed the subject accordingly to ‘religion and worldviews’.
The principle of the reform was 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, this change had also been the policy of both the RE Council and the National Association of Teachers of RE. In other words, it was what the RE profession has wanted for four years now.
However the Bishop of Durham, speaking up against the amendment, felt that it was too soon for reform:
‘It is purely a matter of timing that we disagree on, rather than the direction, I think. It is very important that the content of the RE curriculum in schools with a non-religious character be given attention, but I think it is better to wait for consensus about that content to be reached before mandating it in this way.’
Humanists UK has also been told that the Catholic Education Service opposed the reforms at a more fundamental level.
Making RE explicitly inclusive of humanism and teaching it in an objective, critical, and pluralistic manner, would also provide legal clarity for what is already in case law, through the 2015 judgment Fox v Secretary of State for Education. That case was taken under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (freedom of thought, conscience, and religion) and Article 2 of the First Protocol (right to education). Following on from that judgment, the Welsh Government recognised that RE needed to be inclusive in these ways, and through the Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Act 2021 changed primary legislation accordingly. This principle was also used in a recent case in Worcestershire where a school backed down under legal pressure from a humanist parent, in order to make its RE curriculum inclusive of non-religious worldviews.
Baroness Meacher alerted the Government to both cases, and also stressed that Wales was taking a lead in amending primary legislation:
‘The 2015 judgment R (Fox) v Secretary of State for Education was a landmark decision, which requires the subject to be inclusive of humanism and to be objective, critical, and pluralistic, in order to comply with human rights under Article 9 of the European Convention regarding freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
‘Following that judgment, the Welsh Government introduced the Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Act 2021, which ensures that RE will be inclusive in these ways in Wales… surely, we do not want to be left behind by Wales.’
The Liberal Democrats whipped in support of reform. Lord Storey, Liberal Democrat education spokesperson, stated that:
‘we live in a multicultural, multifaith community, and we make that successful by respecting each and every one of us’.
Baroness Wilcox for the Labour Party set out why she felt the amendment was important:
‘The aim of Amendment 30 is to ensure that cultural education is balanced and non-exclusionary. In a modern society where children are exposed to all kinds of views, particularly online, it could provide an opportunity to discuss a variety of topics and issues.’
Unfortunately all this support was not enough to sway the House, and a number of other peers spoke up in opposition to the reform. Responding for the Government, Baroness Penn claimed that the reform was not required:
‘The Government believe that this amendment is unnecessary because it places into primary legislation what is already in academy trusts’ funding agreements about teaching religious education… worldviews can already be taught as part of religious education.’
However, academy funding agreements don’t explicitly require them to teach RE in an inclusive manner. All this amendment would have done was to widen the scope of the curriculum to be more inclusive of humanism, and ensure it was taught objectively in schools without a religious character.
The Government’s intention to achieve full academisation over the next ten years has met strong opposition from all sides during the passage of the Schools Bill in the House of Lords. Many clauses have been dubbed as a ‘power grab’ by the Secretary of State for Education to take over the existing freedoms for academies to choose their own curriculum. As a result, the Government has been forced to think again about its approach. Therefore Baroness Penn stated that the religion and worldviews amendment would also not be in line with their decision to reflect over the summer on how prescriptive they should be about what academies can and cannot teach.
The Government’s intentions to think again about part one of the Bill does leave open the possibility that a revised Bill in the autumn could provide another opportunity to introduce religion and worldviews.
Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Robert Cann said:
‘It’s massively disappointing that the House of Lords felt unable to support this important amendment on religion and worldviews. The Government’s insistence that schools can teach inclusive RE is not the same as guaranteeing it, and is a poor excuse for not taking action. Such an amendment would be a gamechanger, finally reflecting the evolving demographics of England, where more than half the population consistently reports that they are non-religious. It would keep the school curriculum relevant to non-religious pupils.
‘Furthermore, the provision of inclusive RE is already required through case law, but schools and local authorities can’t reasonably be expected to understand that – and indeed many don’t. The Government is therefore blocking much-needed clarity. Nevertheless, we hope to keep up the pressure if this Bill makes it into the House of Commons after the summer recess. The issue is not going away.’
For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.
Read more about our work on religious education.
Visit the Schools Bill page on the Parliament website.
Rear our recent article about a humanist parent successfully challenging non-inclusive RE.
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