Peers come out strongly in favour of reforming RE

3 February, 2023

A Bill to rename the English school curriculum subject of Religious Education (RE) to Religion and Worldviews (RW) has today passed its Second Reading in the House of Lords, and will now proceed to Committee Stage. The Bill would also make sure that the subject is taught in a way that is fully inclusive of non-religious worldviews such as humanism. Humanists UK has campaigned for inclusive RE for many years, and said it was delighted that a strong majority of peers spoke up in support of the long-awaited reform. However, it was disappointed that the Government opposed the Bill, damaging its chances of ultimately becoming law.

The Education (Non-Religious Philosophical Convictions) Bill is being proposed as a Private Members’ Bill by All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG) Vice-Chair Baroness Burt. If it does become law, it would in effect place an historic High Court judgment on RE from 2015, known as the Fox case, into primary legislation.

Opening the debate, Baroness Burt explained that the Bill would bring the English curriculum into line with established case law such as the Fox case. She made reference both to the RE Council’s support of the reform, as well as Wales having led the way through its Curriculum and Assessment Act 2021.

Methodist minister Lord Griffiths of Burry Port ‘wholeheartedly approved’ of the Bill, and also spoke of the importance of heeding the recommendations of the 2018 Commission on RE, which proposed exactly these changes. He referenced John Milton’s 1644 Areopagitica, and its argument that Christian views should be ‘out in the open’ and open to challenge from all possible worldviews.

The Bishop of Southwark was the only non-Government peer to be opposed to the Bill. He argued that, as the rest of the curriculum is secular, religious education should remain focused on religious worldviews. However, this line of argument fails to reflect that lessons that are not about religions are not therefore about non-religious worldviews. Indeed, there are many topics that could only covered in RE lessons, not least those such as: finding meaning in life, questions of ethics and morality, festivals, ceremonies, and other celebrations, beliefs about God and the afterlife, pastoral care, and what is humanism. All of those topics would benefit from non-religious worldviews being treated with equal respect to religions in the curriculum.

Former Liberal Democrats President Baroness Brinton welcomed the Bill, and echoed the view that the RE Council’s work had paved the way for legislative change. She expressed frustration that the current law is not providing children the necessary sure footing in understanding religions and worldviews that they need.

APPHG Co-Chair Baroness Bakewell spoke passionately about her humanism and said she supported the Bill wholeheartedly, stating that legislation was long overdue. She made reference to Matthew Arnold’s 1851 poem Dover Beach, where he spoke of the slow retreat of the ‘sea of faith’, to indicate for just how long demographics of religion and belief have been changing in this country.

Baroness Uddin spoke at length of the importance of RE giving equal respect to minority religions – but also non-religious worldviews, and stated her support for the Bill.

APPHG member Lord Cashman was a big supporter of the Bill. He stated that ‘we have everything to gain from inclusion… from open minds and not closed minds’.

Lord Davies of Brixton expressed his strong support for the Bill and urged reform to the law. He further highlighted recent Census figures which reflect the increasing proportion of non-religious people in society today.

Lord Addington also spoke up strongly in support, and reiterated that there is a direction of travel on RE reform: ‘we are going that way’.

Baroness Wilcox of Newport, for the Labour Party’s frontbench, spoke in support of the principle of the Bill, and referenced recent reform in Wales. She thanked Humanists UK for its work.

Responding for the Government, Baroness Barran stated that the legislation was unnecessary, because many schools and syllabuses already take a worldviews approach to the teaching of RE. This is a poor argument that Baroness Burt had already addressed in her speech: being able to do something is not the same as being required to do it, and unfortunately many schools don’t. Indeed, parts of Baroness Barran’s speech appeared to match what the Government said when it opposed an amendment last summer that was very similar to this Bill. At one stage the Baroness even inadvertently referred to the Bill as an ‘amendment’. Nevertheless, referring to the fact that humanists already sit on some local authority standing advisory councils on RE, she indicated that the Government was content that this was permitted by law.

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Robert Cann said: 

‘We are pleased that this visionary Bill has passed its second stage debate in the Lords today. If it becomes law, it would mark a significant victory for inclusive education, as well as for advancing the freedom of religion or belief of children and their families.

‘The vast majority of peers contributing to today’s debate expressed an appetite for change. But it was disappointing that the Government continues to claim that change is unnecessary. Once more we need to remind ministers that “can” is not the same as “must”, and for far too many it presently means “doesn’t”. Far too many schools still fail to teach a curriculum inclusive of humanism. The issue is not going away; the law must change.’


For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at or phone 020 7324 3072 or 020 3675 0959.

Read the transcript of the debate on Hansard.

Watch the debate on

Visit the Education (Non-Religious Philosophical Convictions) Bill page.

Read more about our work on religious education.

Read our article about the inclusive RE amendment to the Schools Bill.

Read our article about a parent successfully challenging his child’s school’s RE syllabus.

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