Humanists UK campaigns for reform of religious education (RE) because we believe that all pupils in all types of school should have the opportunity to consider philosophical and fundamental questions, and that in an open society we should learn about each other’s beliefs, including humanism.
We work for RE to become an inclusive, impartial, objective, fair, balanced, and relevant subject allowing pupils to explore a variety of religions and humanism, sitting alongside other humanities subjects in the curriculum and with the same status as them. It should include the historical and social contexts of the emergence and development of religions and humanism. We want this subject to be a national entitlement for all pupils and not, as currently, drawn up on a local basis by each individual local authority, diocese, or faith school.
In 2018, we welcomed the publication of the Commission on Religious Education’s (CoRE) landmark final report which proposes to rename the subject ‘religion and worldviews’ in order to make explicit that humanism must be taught on an equal footing to religions. Wales was the first to move on this. In 2021, the Senedd passed the Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Act which requires schools to teach humanism equally alongside religions and admit humanist representatives to the bodies that develop and oversee the syllabus. It is renaming the subject ‘Religion, Values, and Ethics’ to reflect this broader scope. Before the CoRE report, the most recently concluded RE Subject Review, organised by the RE Council for England and Wales in 2013, produced a curriculum framework that was similarly inclusive. As a result, an ever-increasing number of local authority RE syllabuses now include humanism.
Despite this, the UK Government’s position on reforms to RE in England has remained stubbornly exclusivist. A 2015 revision of GCSE and A level Religious Studies subject content largely saw non-religious worldviews and humanism excluded from study. As a result, we supported three humanist families in successfully challenging this exclusion through the courts, leading to a High Court ruling which established that religions and non-religious worldviews had to be afforded equal respect in RE syllabuses.
We want a subject on the curriculum which helps young people to form and explore their own beliefs and develop an understanding of beliefs and values different from their own; enriches pupils’ knowledge of the religious and humanist heritage of humanity and so supports other subjects such as History, English Literature, Art, Music, and Geography; and allows pupils to engage with serious ethical and philosophical questions in a way that develops important skills of critical thinking, reasoning, and inquiry.
The usual contemporary justifications for the subject of ‘Religious Education’ (RE) in the school curriculum – its contribution to social cohesion and mutual understanding, its presentation of a range of answers to questions of meaning and purpose, its role in the search for personal identity and values, and its contribution to understanding history and culture – can best be served by including humanist perspectives and non-religious students. The 2018 British Social Attitudes survey shows that 70% of young people do not have a religion, and it is vitally important that the beliefs and values of these young people are afforded equal respect to the ‘six world religions’.
In practice, our work in RE focuses on ensuring non-religious perspectives are included (e.g. atheism taught about clearly when beliefs about god are being taught, and humanism taught about as the exemplar non-religious ethical approach to life). We oppose faith-based teaching in state schools, where pupils are instructed in a particular religion, or instructed on the benefits of a ‘religious life’, and denied their entitlement to a balanced and objective syllabus.
At present, in many schools RE is (meant to be) provided according to a syllabus that is locally agreed by an ‘agreed syllabus conference’ (ASC), comprising committees representing the Church of England, other religions, beliefs and denominations, teachers, and the local authority. There are 173 ASCs in England and Wales, and the syllabuses are overseen by a similarly-composed network of bodies called ‘standing advisory councils on RE’ (SACREs). This antiquated system is becoming increasingly irrelevant, especially at secondary school level, as academies and free schools are not bound by the syllabus set by the ASC, and a large majority of secondaries are now academies. We want to see ASCs abolished, with a national syllabus drawn up by educational and other experts. This position was also endorsed by the Commission on Religious Education.
Until such reform is achieved, we want humanists to be admitted as full members of ASCs and humanism to feature on the syllabuses. We are willing to see SACREs continue as a channel for consultation between teachers and local religion and belief communities, and want to see humanists included equally with religious people on these bodies, as many increasingly are.
You can read more about why we think Humanism should be included in ‘RE’ on the Understanding Humanism website.
What we’re doing
- In 2018, we welcomed the publication of the Commission on Religious Education’s landmark final report which proposes to rename the subject ‘religion and worldviews’ in order to make explicit that humanism must be on an equal footing to religions. The Commission was launched by the Religious Education Council of England and Wales to review the legal, education, and policy frameworks for RE, and we fed extensively into its work.
- In 2015 we supported three humanist parents and their children in legally challenging the UK Department for Education over its exclusion of Humanism in the religious studies GCSE subject content. The High Court ruled that RE in schools without a religious character must be ‘objective, critical, and pluralistic’ and a syllabus that covered religions in detail but did not give pupils the opportunity to learn similarly about a non-religious worldview like humanism would not meet this requirement. ‘The state must accord equal respect to different religious convictions, and to non-religious beliefs’, the judge ruled. The ruling has extensive implications for the way RE is taught in schools and the content of locally agreed RE syllabuses.
- In Wales, the Welsh Government is currently consulting on a new Curriculum for Wales, and is proposing to legislate to make explicit that RE must include humanism on an equal basis to the major religions. This change follows from a successful challenge to the Vale of Glamorgan Council’s decision to refuse a humanist representative permission to become a full member of the local SACRE, which prompted the Welsh Government to issue guidance to ensure that these bodies are fully inclusive. Our Wales Coordinator is a member of the Curriculum for Wales Strategic Stakeholder Group advising on the reform.
- In October 2019, we welcomed the Welsh Government’s move to consult on renaming RE to ‘Religions and Worldviews’ to be more inclusive. Education Minister Kirsty Williams said it ‘better reflects teaching practice within the new curriculum, and allows for the exploration of a range of religious and philosophical beliefs, as well as other beliefs and worldviews, including non-religious worldviews.’
- As part of the same announcement, the Welsh Government also announced it was planning to consult on removing the rights of parents to withdraw from RE, including instructional, ‘faith-based RE’. We raised serious concerns about this proposal, adding that it could lead to indoctrination of pupils in religious schools.
- In 2019 we mounted a successful challenge against the Royal Borough of Greenwich Council who had rejected a humanist representative’s application to become a full member of the SACRE. Following the issuing of legal proceedings, the Council backed down and conceded that there is a legal basis for including humanists on SACREs in England.
- We regularly cooperate with a variety of RE stakeholders. For instance, we are well respected and active members of many RE organisations, including the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, an organisation of which we were a founding member in 1973, and have consistently had someone on their Board since then. We also have a good working relationship with officials in the UK and Welsh Departments for Education (DfE) and regularly respond to relevant Government consultations, provide briefings, and sit on working groups related to the subject.
- As well as helping to keep reform of religious education high on the Government’s agenda, we have successfully assisted in all other recent measurable reforms in RE. In 2012-13 we were on the steering group for the RE Council’s RE Subject Review, and were pleased that the final curriculum framework it produced for English schools is as inclusive of teaching about humanism as it is of religions. Similarly, we were members of the steering groups that developed the further English non-statutory programmes of study and attainment targets for key stage 3 and key stage 4/5 RE in 2007; the level descriptions and key stage 1/2 non-statutory programme of learning, in 2010; and the 2010 non-statutory guidance.
- In Northern Ireland we also continue to call for a more inclusive approach to the core syllabus for RE and the RS GCSE, both of which exclude not only humanism, but minority religions as well.
Away from our policy work, we also dedicate significant resources to producing classroom materials to support RE (such as the website Understanding Humanism), to providing school speakers, and to training RE PGCE students at a number of initial teacher training providers across England.
We’re currently fundraising to keep our dedicated campaigner on faith schools and education. We’ve not yet raised her salary for the year ahead – you can help us do so by donating to our crowdfunder.
You could become a member of your local SACRE and help to ensure that children and young people in your area get taught a balanced and inclusive RE curriculum. There might be a vacancy in your area; if you are interested in finding out more, then please email us. Or, alternatively, you could become a school volunteer.
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.