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Former Education Secretary calls for new settlement on religion and state schools in England

In a report, published today by Westminster Faith Debates, former Secretary of State for Education Charles Clarke and Linda Woodhead, Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Lancaster University, have called for radical reform of the current place of religion in the state education system in England. The British Humanist Association (BHA) has welcomed their call for an end to compulsory worship and for a new national curriculum for education about religious and non-religious beliefs but questioned the report’s conclusions on faith schools.

Arguing that the current relationship between religion and schools, originally set out in the 1944 Education Act, is now badly out of date, the pamphlet sets out a series of recommendations aimed at improving the system. Encouragingly, a large number of the report’s recommendations have long been advocated by the BHA. These include:

  • Replacing the current system of locally agreed RE syllabuses with one national curriculum, determined by the Secretary of State for Education in collaboration with representatives of both religious and non-religious organisations
  • Considering the introduction of legislation that would require all schools, regardless of their religious status, to adopt the nationally-agreed syllabus
  • Retaining the current system of Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education (SACREs), giving them a new role in overseeing local RE provision, ensuring quality and promoting RE as a means of achieving community cohesion
  • Considering the use of the phrase ‘Religious and Moral Education’ rather than ‘Religious Education’, as is the case in Scotland
  • Abolishing the requirement for all schools to hold a daily act of collective worship, with the government providing guidance to schools on practical alternatives for use of the time
  • Considering the removal of ‘faith’ schools’ ability to have their own inspection process for the content of collective worship and denominational education
  • Strengthening the inspection regime to ensure that all schools, faith or otherwise, contribute to the promotion of community cohesion.

Additionally, the report documents a number of problems with the current system of allowing ‘faith’ schools to religiously discriminate in their admissions criteria, and also alludes to the socio-economic discrimination that it often causes. Despite this, however, the report recommends that ‘faith’ schools be allowed to continue discriminating in this way, as well as expressing support for the ability of ‘faith’ schools to religiously-discriminate in the employment of staff. These recommendations are at odds not only with the weight of academic research in this area, but also the vast majority of public opinion, as evidenced by a number of recent polls.

Commenting on the report, BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson said: ‘It is over seventy years since the place of religious and non-religious worldviews in our state education system was last given any systematic legislative attention. In those seven decades, the demography of England has changed beyond recognition and yet the education system is fossilised, failing to make its full contribution to developing the inner life of our young people in line with their beliefs and values and to equipping them for life in today’s actual society. Every area of our education system that intersects with questions of religion or belief needs urgent review and that is what this pamphlet does systematically and with acuity. No one will agree with all of it, but it is an informed and valuable contribution to what should be one of the biggest education debates of our time’.

BHA Education Campaigner Jay Harman added: ‘An official review of the place of religion in our state school system is long overdue and today’s report is right to highlight the urgent need for this to be rectified.  The calls for both a nationally-agreed syllabus on beliefs and religions and an end to compulsory worship are in tune with longstanding public opinion.

‘That said, it is disappointing to see continued support for faith-based discrimination in school admissions and employment, especially given the very public calls from within religious communities for these practices to end. No doubt the report’s publication will provoke intense debate within the education sector over the coming months and weeks, and we look forward to contributing to that.’

Notes:

For further comment or information, please contact BHA Education Campaigner Jay Harman at jay@humanism.org.uk or on 07970 393 680.

Read more about the BHA’s campaigns work on schools and education: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/schools-and-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.

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