The British Humanist Association (BHA) has uncovered a pattern of systematic discrimination against the non-religious by members of Birmingham’s Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education (SACRE) – in order to prevent non-religious worldviews being taught about in lessons, but also extending to seemingly having made legal threats against the previous Government which apparently stopped it from endorsing the place of humanists as full members of SACREs. The efforts came to light through Freedom of Information requests to Birmingham Council and the Department for Education (DfE), which uncovered hundreds of pages of documentation. These include legal advice from a barrister who often represented the Christian Institute, which cost thousands of pounds for the Council to obtain, a ‘tracked changes’ version of the consultation draft of the Government’s 2010 non-statutory guidance for RE, deleting all references to Humanism (as well as positive endorsements of the Religious Education Council).
There are 173 SACREs in England and Wales, each of which has responsibility for the local RE syllabus in community, voluntary controlled and foundation schools. As things stand, most humanists who are members of SACREs are co-opted members. The BHA believes that humanists can legally be full members, just as representatives of religious organisations can be, and in recent years a large number of SACREs have accepted that. In 2010 the Government was going to endorse this in its own guidance (page 27), but following a threat of judicial review by individuals from Birmingham, this endorsement was removed (page 21). Birmingham SACRE itself takes the extremely rare position of refusing to even co-opt a humanist.
The papers reveal that the campaign against the inclusion of Humanism in RE and humanists on SACREs was conducted by the former Chair and Deputy Chair of the SACRE, Guy Hordern and Marius Felderhof, with support from Les Lawrence, who until 2012 was the Birmingham Cabinet member responsible for education, and the Church of England Bishop of Birmingham, David Urquhart.
The controversial Birmingham syllabus for RE is unusual in explicitly ruling out learning about non-religious beliefs like Humanism and is marketed under the name ‘Faith Makes a Difference’, a title that implicitly denigrates those who are not religious. Birmingham Council has been seeking to sell it to other local authorities and have it followed in schools in other areas.
All this contrasts with official government views on the subject. The Department for Education endorsed a new RE curriculum framework last year which includes non-religious beliefs equally to religious beliefs and only on Monday, in response to the recent findings in Birmingham community schools, Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove told the House of Commons that he would require all schools to promote ‘British values’. Independent schools are already required to respect them, and the Government briefed journalists that what this means is that schools should ‘Use teaching resources from a wide variety of sources to help pupils understand a range of faiths, and beliefs such as atheism and humanism.’ Such advice is the uncontroversial outcome of many decades of evolution in RE in England.
BHA Head of Public Affairs Pavan Dhaliwal commented, ‘We were astonished and appalled to discover the extent of these efforts, at both a local and a national level, to ensure that non-religious beliefs are not taught about in RE. The single-mindedness with which this issue has been pursued has passed into an active campaign of discrimination against humanists and to learn that the SACRE is now seeking to influence others in England to turn the RE clock back is appalling.
‘It is widely accepted – both within the RE profession and amongst the public at large – that if the subject is to be relevant and have integrity, non-religious beliefs must be taught about in schools alongside religious ones. Virtually all RE syllabuses now do so to some extent, as does the RE Council’s non-statutory national curriculum framework, which has government endorsement. For representatives of a local authority to resort to legal threats against the Government to try to prevent this from being the case massively undermines the role that good RE should play in improving community cohesion, including between the religious and the non-religious.’
John Edwards of Birmingham Humanists, who has repeatedly been refused membership of Birmingham SACRE, commented, ‘I have been trying to get Humanism represented on Birmingham SACRE for the last 5 years or so and am dismayed that, although they profess inclusiveness, they are only too ready to deny this when it suits them. I am happy for a member of any religion to tell children in RE lessons about their core beliefs, the reasons they believe these to be true and why they feel the need for these beliefs in their life, but I am affronted when I find there are people involved in education in Birmingham who are determined to deny the right of children to even hear about the existence of non-religious worldviews in RE lessons.
‘Our children need to know that it is OK to be an atheist, humanist or whatever, without the pejorative adjectives “militant” or “aggressive” being applied; that it’s possible to live a happy, moral life without being religious and that there are lots of people out there in the world like that. I don’t see why the hard-working people of Birmingham should have their taxes spent trying to prevent that.’
For further comment or information, please contact Richy Thompson on 020 7324 3072.
Read the Birmingham SACRE’s ‘tracked changes’ version of the 2010 non-statutory guidance for RE: https://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/08-8222-DCSF-Religious_Ed_in_Eng-consultation-FINAL.doc
Read more about the BHA’s work on RE: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/schools-and-education/school-curriculum/religious-education/
The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.
The BHA has a long history of work in education, children’s rights and equality, with expertise in the ‘religion or belief’ strand. It has been involved in policy development around RE for over 60 years and was a founder member of the REC in 1972. The BHA also provides materials and advice to parents, governors, students, teachers and academics, for example through http://www.humanismforschools.org.uk/ and our school volunteers programme. Its Chief Executive is a Trustee of the REC.
BHA members locally are involved in 80% of the Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education (SACREs) in England and Wales. The BHA supports and maintains the network of humanist representatives on SACREs.