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 non-religious worldviews such as 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 non-religious worldviews, 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 worldviews. 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.
The recently concluded RE Subject Review, organised by the RE Council for England and Wales, produced a new curriculum framework that, for the first time, puts the teaching of non-religious worldviews such as Humanism on an equal footing to the teaching about religions. This reflects a growing number of local authority RE syllabuses that are similarly inclusive.
However, the Government’s subsequent revision of GCSE and A level Religious Studies subject content largely saw non-religious worldviews and Humanism excluded from study – in spite of support for inclusion from most of the sector and even from religious leaders like Rowan Williams. We are currently exploring what further steps we can take to work towards inclusion.
You can support our work in this area by getting involved in RE provision locally. In particular, you could also become a member of your local SACRE, if there isn’t already a humanist representative, or could become a school volunteer.
We want a subject on the curriculum which helps young people to form and explore their own beliefs and develop an understanding of the 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. Recent surveys show that between a half and two-thirds of young people today do not have a religion, and it is vitally important that the beliefs and values of these young people are awarded equal curriculum time 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 a non-religious ethical approach to life) and opposing any confessional 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) given according to a syllabus 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 Religious Education’ (SACREs). This antiquated system is becoming increasingly irrelevant, especially at secondary school level, as Academies (including Free Schools) are not bound by the syllabus set by the ASC, and a strong majority of secondaries are now Academies. We want to see this system abolished and prefer a national syllabus drawn up by educational and other experts. 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
Humanists UK works through cooperation with others involved in RE and the persuasiveness of our arguments. We have a good working relationship with officials in the Department for Education (DfE). We regularly respond to relevant Government consultations, we send briefings and write regularly to MPs, peers and the DfE, and we are well respected and active members of many RE organisations, including the Religious Education Council for England and Wales, an organisation of which we were a founding member in 1973, and our Campaigns Manager is currently the Treasurer.
As well as helping to keep reform of Religious Education high on the Government’s agenda, we have successfully assisted measurable reforms in RE. In 2004, after we participated on the steering committee for the National Framework for RE, Humanism was included as a recommended area of study for all pupils. 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 (abandoned) level descriptions and key stage 1/2 non-statutory programme of learning, in 2010; and the 2010 non-statutory guidance.
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. However we were disappointed when the UK Government’s 2015 revision of GCSE and A level Religious Studies subject content saw non-religious worldviews largely excluded from study – contradicting the Government’s previous endorsement of the 2013 framework.
The Welsh Government is currently consulting on a new Curriculum for Wales, and we are similarly calling for RE to include Humanism, as well as to be added to the national curriculum.
We have also been working hard to increase the number of humanists on SACREs. Currently about six-sevenths of SACREs have a humanist either as a member or applying to join.
Away from our policy work, we also dedicate significant resources to producing classroom materials to support RE (such as the website Understanding Humanism) and to training RE PGCE students at a number of initial teacher training providers across England. Humanists UK was a donor to the Celebrating RE month in March 2011.
We’re currently fundraising to keep our dedicated campaigner on ‘faith’ schools and education – the only full-time campaigner on these issues in the UK. We’ve not yet raised his salary for 2016 – you can help us do so by donating at http://www.justgiving.com/nofaithschools.
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.