Humanists UK has always been heavily involved in education, and in addition to our education policy work and our work in providing education resources, our education campaigns – from state-funded ‘faith’ schools to the school curriculum – are a major part of our campaigning work as a whole.
Schools are where many people – parents, children, and teachers – first encounter religion and discrimination by certain religious groups; school-related requests for help, advice, and guidance constitute the largest single category of requests that Humanists UK receives from the public. We have campaigned and lobbied for over a century for the rights and interests of humanists and other non-religious people in education, for non-religious beliefs to be respected in schools, and for a genuinely inclusive school system where all pupils receive a rounded education and are taught together, not separately according to the beliefs of their parents.
We have a dedicated Campaigns Manager for our faith schools and education campaigns – the longest-standing full-time campaigner on these issues.
We are interested in education for three reasons:
- we aim for the UK to be secular state with no privilege or discrimination on grounds of religion or belief. The continuing religious discrimination in our state school system is therefore a concern for us
- we aim for humanism to be better understood as an ethical and fulfilling non-religious approach to life and so we have an interest in ensuring that it features on the school curriculum on equal terms with religions
- humanists believe that all children have a right to receive a broad and balanced education and to access accurate, evidence-based information, free from undue influence
We concentrate on laws and policies that are discriminatory and violate principles of human rights or equality in state-funded schools, or on matters where we have a distinctive humanist view. For example we work for:
- an end to religious discrimination in school admissions
- an end to religious discrimination in school employment
- progressive reform of the school curriculum, including Religious Education, Science (in particular around the teaching of evolution and creationism) and Personal, Social, Health and Economic education (including Relationships and Sex Education)
- inclusive assemblies in place of mandatory religious collective worship
- action to crackdown on illegal religious schools in the UK
- stricter standards for private faith schools
Some of the issues we work on are specific to state-funded religious schools (popularly known as ‘faith schools’ in England and Wales and denominational schools in Scotland and Northern Ireland) while others apply to education more generally.
What we’re doing
- We work closely with parliamentarians and other key decision makers. We advised on the Welsh Government’s new curriculum and worked on the UK Government’s guidance and regulations on Relationships and Sex Education. As an active member of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, we have also been doing a significant amount to champion the recommendations of the Commission on Religious Education.
- We have also been campaigning hard to make faith schools more inclusive. In 2018, we were successful in overturning a Government proposal to drop a 50% cap on religiously selective admissions in new academies and free schools. And, in 2019, we have been working hard to stop a wave of new 100% selective voluntary aided faith schools from opening, including via a letter to the Secretary of State for Education signed by over 180 high-profile campaigners, politicians, academics, religious leaders, and humanists.
- In 2013 we co-founded the Fair Admissions Campaign, which published a groundbreaking map of how religiously and socio-economically inclusive every English secondary school is. In 2015, we published An Unholy Mess detailing how virtually all the religiously selective schools in England had breached the school admissions code and were therefore acting unlawfully. Since 2017, we have also published two significant reports on how faith schools discriminate against those who do not share the faith of the school: No Room at the Inn (showing the level of discrimination in admissions in Church of England schools) and Non-religious Need Not Apply (which shows the level of discrimination against non-religious pupils in faith school applications).
- Where necessary, we have also taken legal action to challenge unlawful, discriminatory practices in education. For example, in 2019 we supported two parents who had withdrawn their children from collective worship to take a legal case to establish that pupils in this situation should be provided with an educationally meaningful alternative. And, in 2015, we similarly supported three humanist parents to successfully challenge the Government’s decision to exclude non-religious worldviews from the GCSE syllabus; a decision which the judge said was ‘an error in law’ amounting to ‘a breach of the duty to take care that information or knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in a pluralistic manner.’
- In 2015, we successfully established that the religious admissions criteria of the London Oratory school were in breach of the School Admissions Code, first via the Office of the Schools Adjudicator, and later through a judgment in the High Court – meaning that the school had to remove flower arranging, amongst other things, from its criteria. In 2013, we won an Information Tribunal case against the UK Government over its refusal to publish a list of the names, locations and religions of groups applying to set up Free Schools. And, in 2012, we triggered a European Commission investigation into employment laws for UK faith schools.
- Over the years, our ‘Teach evolution, not creationism’ campaign has also had a string of victories, including evolution being added to the primary National Curriculum in England, academies and free schools having to teach evolution, and state schools being banned from teaching pseudoscience such as creationism.
- In 2014 we were heavily involved in the so-called ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal in Birmingham, facilitating the initial whistleblowers at Park View School, the school at the centre of the scandal, in raising their concerns and speaking out. The outcome had a sizeable impact on the place of religion in education, with new rules introduced in order to prevent the issues from reoccurring.
- We are also a founding member of the Accord Coalition – a wide coalition of organisations working for reform of state funded schools to make them more inclusive in matters of religion or belief. Accord brings together religious and non-religious supporters of change as well as teaching unions, human rights organisations and high profile individuals.
You could research and take up one of these issues with your MP and/or local authority, or write to a newspaper. Our Take Action Toolkit has advice on how to go about this.
If there is anything in these pages that you need more information or advice on, please contact our Education Campaigns Manager on 020 7324 3000.
You can also support Humanists UK by becoming a member. That helps in itself, and you can help even more by supporting our campaigns in the ways suggested above. But campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we also need financial support. You can make a donation to Humanists UK.