The British Humanist Association advocates a genuinely inclusive school system in which all pupils are educated together, not separately according to the beliefs of their parents. We believe that the rights and entitlements of both the religious and the non-religious can be respected within community schools.
Our education policies arise out of humanist principles and our concern for the common good and social cohesion, as well as our awareness of the needs of non-religious people and experience of working with members of religious groups. Our objectives, described in more detail below, are:
- Inclusive, integrated community schools, and an end to state-funded religious schools, which are unnecessary, discriminatory, and potentially very divisive.
- Inclusive school assemblies, not compulsory “collective worship”.
- Reform of “Religious Education” to be an objective fair and balanced education about religious and non-religious beliefs and values.
- A broad education that prepares young people for adult life in a pluralist society, including sex and relationships education, values and citizenship education, and the development of curiosity, thinking skills and creativity.
What do we want?
We want all schools to include and educate pupils of all beliefs together, so that they can learn about and from each other. Because we doubt that religious schools can contribute to social cohesion or fully recognise the rights of all their pupils, we strongly oppose Government plans to expand the number and variety of state-funded religious schools. Instead, we propose that state-funded religious schools are phased out by absorption into a reformed community school system in which religious young people are offered facilities for voluntary worship and other “accommodations” in line with developing anti-discrimination law. We do not campaign for humanist schools.
How are we doing?
We have researched and collated a mass of evidence in support of our arguments on religious schools and our briefings and policy papers have been widely disseminated – to policy-makers, to ministers, MPs, peers and civil servants, to education journals and the media, and at education conferences and seminars. Our views are respected and there is considerable support for our arguments, but also resistance to the radical changes we are demanding.
The expansion of state-funded religious schools, if it happens, will be piecemeal and local. Opposition will continue at local level, with BHA support.
School Assemblies and Collective Worship
What do we want?
We are strongly in favour of inclusive school assemblies, which can help to build shared values and a sense of community. We oppose acts of collective worship in school, since these exclude many, and believe that the parental right of excusal is not a proper solution. We would like to see changes in legislation to give schools much more flexibility about how they conduct assemblies, the immediate withdrawal of Circular 1/94 (which insists on a narrow interpretation of the legal requirement for “broadly Christian” worship) in favour of new guidance from the DCSF recommending inclusive assemblies, suitable for all. This should be followed by repeal of the legislation requiring acts of worship in schools. Schools should, however, provide time and space for optional worship for those who want it.
How are we doing?
The BHA provides advice to teachers and parents on the law on collective worship, and resources and guidance on inclusive school assemblies. Many schools, especially secondary schools, do provide good inclusive assemblies, thus technically breaking the law and attracting criticism from Ofsted. BHA has been in the forefront of lobbying for change and expressing the objections of non-religious parents, pupils and teachers, and has much support for its views. A growing number of Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education ( SACREs) and educational publishers provide sound advice on inclusive assemblies.
BHA continues to press for changes that would legitimise good practice. However, the Government regularly uses the right to excusal from collective worship, and the apparent lack of consensus for change, to justify its policy of no change.
What do we want?
We believe that in a pluralist society we should learn about each other’s beliefs, including humanist ones. The reformed religious education that we propose would be called Belief and Values Education, or Philosophy, or (as in Scotland ) Religious and Moral Education / Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies, and would be characterised by inclusiveness, impartiality, objectivity, fairness, balance and relevance.
Specifically, we would like to see:
- A broader study of belief systems, including the principal non-religious life stance, Humanism, and its beliefs, history, contemporary practices and perspectives – acknowledging the common ground between humanists and religious believers, especially common human values, as well as Humanism ‘ s alternative and contrasting perspectives on many issues.
- More on the social and historical context of belief systems, and on how they are related, what they share, and where they differ.
- Concentration in depth on the core values, doctrines and cultural practices of religions and worldviews.
- Omission of much of the incidental detail that currently clutters up syllabuses, which should be based on a realistic assessment of how much an outsider needs to know and understand about other people ‘ s beliefs. Detailed religious instruction for insiders belongs in voluntary faith-based classes, in or out of school, not in the main curriculum.
- Less reliance on faith communities when drawing up syllabuses (whether national or local) and more on educationalists and teachers. However, while this reliance remains we would like to see humanists on every national and local committee or working party on RE (including SACREs and Agreed Syllabus Conferences (ASCs), from which Circular 1/94 currently attempts to debar humanists), to provide balance and representation for the many non-religious people in the community and in schools.
- More and better qualified RE teachers, able to recognise and teach about the full range of beliefs in their classes, and to address philosophical and ethical issues with knowledge and confidence.
- This open and inclusive subject could take its place in the National Curriculum, as an entitlement for all pupils, though not necessarily as a compulsory core subject up to Key Stage 5. If it were genuinely educational (as opposed to confessional), impartial, fair and balanced, there would no longer be any need for the right to be excused on grounds of conscience from RE, though if this were to be retained, it should be transferred to the young person concerned in Key Stage 4 (KS4) – that is, at approximately 14.
How are we doing?
The BHA is a respected and active member of many RE organisations, including the Religious Education Council and the Association of RE Advisers, Inspectors and Consultants, and it is regularly included in national consultations and debates, for example those held by the DfES and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). It was involved in the development of the National Framework for RE (QCA, 2004), which recommends the study of Humanism for all pupils.
BHA publishes (on its website and on paper) widely used resources for schools, and takes every opportunity to promote its ideas and services to RE teachers, through articles in the journals they read, in-service training, and its own newsletter for teachers, Edlines. BHA also assists textbook publishers and writers to include Humanism, and many now do.
RE is a very different subject from the one taught 40 or 50 years ago, and the BHA has played its part in achieving this.
- RE is now wider in scope, less confessional, and more concerned with contemporary moral issues.
- Many local syllabuses and some text books do include Humanism, and the QCA and public examination boards explicitly recognise the existence and requirements of non-religious pupils.
- Humanism features in Scottish school syllabuses. There is growing awareness and knowledge of Humanism amongst educationalists.
Locally, over 40 SACREs include humanists, and BHA supports humanists applying to join and working on SACREs and ASCs. Some BHA members also speak in schools, and BHA provides guidance to humanist speakers and contact details to schools.
The Broader Curriculum
What do we want?
The BHA supports the moral education of pupils across the curriculum, both formal and informal, and wants an end to the still widespread assumption that morality depends on religious belief. Values education that recognises shared human values should be part of Citizenship Education, Personal, Social and Health Education, and Sex and Relationships Education.
Schools should develop their pupils’ thinking skills through teaching critical thinking and philosophy. They should provide opportunities for non-religious “spiritual development” and for creativity, culture and the arts.
How are we doing?
The BHA is a respected and active member of many organisations working in the areas of personal, philosophical, and values education, for example in Sex and Relationships Education, Citizenship Education, and Philosophy for Children. We represent the humanist perspective to organisations such as the Values Education Council and the Sex Education Forum, and publicise their work to teachers. We have been consulted by Ofsted on its guidance to inspectors on Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural development (a cross-curricular requirement of the National Curriculum). We respond to every relevant Government consultation on education, and have always supported developments that encourage critical thinking and creativity in our submissions.
The BHA also provides resources lists and materials to help teachers and advisers, and advice or support to a wide range of individual enquirers, including parents, governors, students, teachers, teacher trainers, and academics.
Religious Schools: the case against is a publication from the BHA’s Humanist Philosophers’ Group. The HPG explores the historical background to religious schools and systematically details the philosophical arguments against them.
For more on our education work…
Most of the BHA’s policy papers, articles and resources for schools and students can be found elsewhere on this website. See our Schools campaigns and Understanding Humanism. All our briefings for schools are freely photocopiable.
- A Better Way Forward (BHA, 2006)
- Faith schools – why not?
- Collective worship and school assemblies
- Ideas for inclusive assemblies
- Issues in RE for humanist pupils
- Edlines – the BHA’s education newsletter
- Spiritual Development in schools – some issues for humanists (coming soon)
- BHA submission to Commons Education and Skills Committee Inquiry on Citizenship Education(PDF) (Oct 2006)