Changes to the law clarifying that humanism must be taught on an equal footing to the major religions in religious education are vital to ensure the rights of non-religious children and their families are respected, Wales Humanists has told a Senedd committee.
In oral evidence to the Children, Young People, and Education Committee, Wales Humanists Coordinator, Kathy Riddick, and Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager, Dr Ruth Wareham, said that the new Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Bill ‘will make Wales a world-leader in inclusive Education’.
The Committee is responsible for scrutinising the changes laid out in the Bill and recommending amendments to Welsh Government.
During a broad-ranging discussion, Ms Riddick said that the current RE curriculum is ‘outdated and fails to reflect the diversity of religions and worldviews in Wales today, particularly those of the 57% of people who are non-religious’. She said that the explicit inclusion of humanist representatives on the bodies that develop and oversee the RE syllabus (known as SACREs and ASCs) is extremely important, as, despite a letter issued by the Minister for Education in 2018 explaining that humanists may legitimately become full members these committees, ‘humanists still face opposition’ when attempting to join, and are only fully represented in 6 out of 22 local authorities.
Dr Wareham explained that all children have the right to access a ‘broad and balanced education’ in religious and non-religious worldviews and expressed disappointment that the inclusive agreed syllabus would not be available to every pupil. She nevertheless acknowledged that the introduction of a parental right to demand a meaningful alternative to faith-based RE in faith schools represented a ‘significant step in the right direction’.
Wales Humanists also highlighted the importance of employing teachers who are qualified to provide non-partisan RVE and who know the key differences between this and a faith-based version of the subject. In an earlier evidence session held by the Committee, representatives of the Church in Wales and the Catholic Education Service maintained that their RE provision was ‘already objective, critical, and pluralistic’. Dr Wareham pointed out that this is a ‘very high bar to satisfy in law’ and that such objectivity can’t be achieved ‘if you teach from a faith perspective’. She also noted that some religious groups, notably the Catholic Education Service, had called the introduction of non-religious worldviews in the subject ‘dumbing down’. In June, the head teachers of all the Catholic schools in Wales wrote to the Government to complain that the proposed reforms would ‘dilute’ their RE provision and threatened community cohesion and tolerance.
On this basis, Wales Humanists told the Committee there should be independent inspection of the proposed alternative to faith-based RE in faith schools. Independent inspection by Estyn would prevent obvious misunderstandings about what it means to teach the subject objectively from infringing on the freedom of religion or belief of children and their families. Faith-based RE is currently inspected by religious bodies, but Dr Wareham said that allowing them to inspect their own schools’ ability to deliver agreed syllabus RVE would amount to ‘marking their own homework’.
About the Bill
The Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Bill requires that teaching and learning in religious education – which will be renamed religion, values, and ethics (RVE) – must ‘reflect the fact that a range of non-religious philosophical convictions are held in Great Britain’ in addition to teaching about Christianity and other ‘principal religions’. It also makes provision for ‘a committee of persons representing… non-religious philosophical convictions’ to join Standing Advisory Councils on RE (or SACREs), the bodies that oversee RE and the development of the syllabus at local authority level. These changes are designed to clarify the law in line with the Human Rights Act, according to which religious and non-religious worldviews must be given equal treatment.
As well as clarifying that humanism should be fully included in RVE, the Bill also seeks to ensure that as many pupils as possible receive the subject in a pluralistic, non-partisan way. All children in schools without a religious character will be taught objective RVE in line with the locally agreed syllabus, but parents whose children attend voluntary aided faith schools – and who have previously been forced to choose between indoctrinatory faith-based RE and opting out altogether – will now be given the right to demand lessons taught in accordance with their locally agreed syllabus too.
Following a Committee report, the Bill will pass through three further stages before being granted Royal Assent, where the Queen formally agrees to pass it into law. If successful, this is scheduled to happen in April 2021.
The Bill will also introduce a statutory code for relationships and sexuality education (RSE) which will set out the key subjects that must be covered – including rights and equity; relationships; sex, gender, and sexuality; bodies and body image; sexual health and wellbeing; and violence, safety, and support – as well as a requirement for the Welsh Government to publish two further codes on key curriculum concepts (the ‘what matters code’) and progression over time (the ‘progression code’). It is hoped that these codes will help to prevent schools avoiding their duties to teach important subjects, for example evolution, which Wales Humanists had been concerned could be left out of the curriculum, particularly in some faith schools, if too much flexibility was allowed.
For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Ruth Wareham at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 020 7324 3000 or 077 2511 0860
Read Wales Humanists’ written response to the call for evidence.
Read our most recent article on Welsh Government introducing new Bill requiring Religion, Values, and Ethics lessons to be fully inclusive of humanism.
Read more about Wales Humanists’ work on RE.
Wales Humanists is a part of Humanists UK. Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 85,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.