MPs call for national plan for religious education

1 November, 2022

This morning in Parliament, MPs debated ‘religious education in modern Britain’ in Westminster Hall. The hour and a half backbench business debate, which was sponsored by Martin Vickers MP, saw widespread support for the idea of a national plan for RE, and better teacher training. Humanists UK said it was pleased to see the subject gain some Parliamentary scrutiny but was disappointed by some of the tone of the debate.

When taught well, with a curriculum that is fully inclusive of non-religious worldviews such as humanism, RE is a vital tool for promoting mutual understanding and challenging prejudice in modern Britain. However, without a coherent national framework for RE, the narrowly focused RE often on offer can be worse than no RE at all: young people will question the relevance to their day to day lives. It was therefore not surprising that MPs this morning bemoaned the decreasing popularity of the subject: opening the debate, Martin Vickers explained that a fifth of schools do not teach any RE at all in Year 11, and that provision is a ‘postcode lottery’.

Contributions from other MPs extolled the positive benefits of good RE, including its potential to increase mutual understanding between children from different backgrounds, and to help promote freedom of religion or belief. It was also heartening to see some MPs, including the Government minister Nick Gibb, use the inclusive phrase ‘religion and worldviews’ to refer to the subject: Baroness Burt’s Bill to reform RE in this manner and make it fully inclusive of humanism is currently awaiting second reading in the House of Lords.

Luke Pollard MP made the important point that RE is not the same as worship. Children should be encouraged to learn about different religions and worldviews objectively, but this should not take the form of religious instruction.

Disappointingly, some MPs also used the debate to promote faith schools as providing a better education than schools without a religious character. Claims like this fail to acknowledge the imbalance in the system caused by faith schools’ discriminatory privileges. Better exam results may well be as a result of selection by stealth. For example last year Humanists UK’s report, Careless or uncaring? How faith schools turn away children who are or were in care, found that 76% of Catholic secondary schools and 100% of Jewish secondaries discriminate by de-prioritising children who are or were in care in their admissions policies, via their powers to select pupils on faith grounds. Moreover, the teaching of RE should take place in a critical, objective, and pluralistic manner. This can happen anywhere, but is arguably more easy to achieve in schools without a religious character, since they are legally not permitted to teach the subject from the point of view of one particular faith. Some faith schools, on the other hand, are able to teach RE in a biased manner, from the point of view of the religious character of the school.

Good quality RE will, in line with existing case law, afford humanism and other non religious worldviews the same respect as religions. Resources for including humanism in RE can be found on Humanists UK’s Understanding Humanism website.

Education Campaigns Manager Robert Cann said: 

‘It’s great that some parliamentary light has been shone on the patchy provision of RE across the country. We agree with the majority of MPs who spoke today, in that we need a national framework for RE. This would help to make sure that future RE provision, taking an inclusive worldviews approach, is available for all pupils, no matter what kind of school they attend.

‘However it was sad to see some of the same old tropes trotted out that faith schools are inherently “better” than schools without a religious character. There is no evidence to suggest that faith schools are better, especially when taking into account their continued discriminatory privileges that enable them to game the system by selecting their intake by religion. This is clearly unfair, and has to stop.

‘We will be writing to re-appointed Schools Minister Nick Gibb to ask if he will stick to his hinted wish for a “religion and worldviews” approach to the curriculum’.

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.

Watch the debate on the Parliament TV website.

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.