Why do SACREs exist?
SACREs and Agreed Syllabus Conferences (ASCs) date from the 1944 Education Act, which was a historic compromise between the Anglican and non-conformist churches, in which the Roman Catholics were also appeased. For the first time, Religious Instruction (as it was then known) and a daily act of worship became legally required for all pupils (subject to parents’ right to withdraw their children). Of course, RI and worship had existed in schools before the Act, and the law had required that they should be non-denominational in mainstream state schools, but they had not been compulsory by law.
The sensitive task of drawing up local RI syllabuses was given to committees, Agreed Syllabus Conferences (ASCs), appointed by LEAs on which the denominations, local politicians, and teachers were represented. In Wales each group got one vote, but in England the C of E formed an extra group with its own vote. The act gave LEAs the permissive power to set up SACREs to advise them on RI and daily worship. In fact, only about ten SACREs were set up until the Education Reform Act of 1988 compelled LEAs to appoint them to oversee what was now called Religious Education. SACREs are standing bodies, whereas ASCs are set up each time the syllabus needs revising. In practice, they usually include the same representatives.
SACREs advise LEAs on matters connected with RE and religious worship. These include matters related to the quality of teaching: advising on teacher training; reviewing teaching methods and materials; discussing OFSTED reports on RE, collective worship, and spiritual, moral, social and cultural education. SACREs also consider questions relating to worship in schools, including requests from head teachers to hold collective worship that is not of a broadly Christian character (by way of “determinations”).
Who sits on SACREs?
The legal situation
From Circular 1/94 (10/94 in Wales – N B, the Welsh Office Circular paragraphs are numbered slightly differently, 103 becoming 102 and so on, and the Church of England is omitted in paragraph 103):
“Composition of SACRE and conference
…(paragraph 103) The 1993 Act, by amending the 1944 and 1988 Acts, alters the composition of both a SACRE and an agreed syllabus conference to include, in certain circumstances (paragraph 105), a fifth group or committee. A SACRE and a conference are each to comprise four or five groups or committees representing, respectively:
A. Christian denominations and other religions and religious denominations the number of whose representatives shall, ‘so far as consistent with the efficient discharge of the committee’s functions, reflect broadly the proportionate strength of that denomination or religion in the area’ (paragraphs 111-112);
B. the Church of England;
C. such associations representing teachers as, in the opinion of the authority, ought to be represented, having regard to the circumstances of the area;
D. the local education authority;
E. under certain circumstances (paragraph 105), the governing bodies of those grant-maintained schools equivalent to county or voluntary controlled schools.
On a SACRE, until Group E is formed, any such grant-maintained schools should appoint a person to represent them (paragraphs 106-107). A SACRE may also include co-opted members, who are not members of any of the five groups. There is no provision for an agreed syllabus conference to include co-opted members.
Representation on committee or group A of groups other than religions or religious denominations
(104) The inclusion of representatives of belief systems such as humanism, which do not amount to a religion or a religious denomination on Committee A of an agreed syllabus conference or group A of a SACRE would be contrary to the legal provisions referred to at paragraph 103.”
The then Department for Education and Science (now Department for Children, Schools and Families) in a Circular dated 27 August 1991 to all local authority chief education officers, said that legal challenges might be made to the appointment of humanists as full members of Group A of a SACRE. The DES went on to state that there is no reason why humanists should not be co-opted.
Circular 1/94 also refers to the legal position:
“(104) The inclusion of representatives of belief systems such as humanism, which do not amount to a religion or religious denomination, on Committee A of an agreed syllabus conference or Group A of a SACRE would be contrary to the legal provisions referred to at paragraph 103.”
DfES Circulars are guidance only, and do not have legal authority, unless there has been a court ruling on a particular aspect. To our knowledge, there has been no legal challenge to the inclusion of humanists in Group or Committee A. Circular 1/94 confirms that a “SACRE may also include co-opted members.” Circular 1/94 has been widely criticised and now badly needs revising and updating.
Humanists UK believes that the Human Rights Act (HRA) supports the inclusion of humanists on SACREs. Section 3 of the HRA requires that legislation previous to the HRA be interpreted to meet its requirements; so that, for example, references to “religion” should be interpreted to mean “religion and belief”. Thus a case could be made for humanists to be full members of Committee A (which includes “other religions”).
The Actual Position
Co-option to SACREs
Paragraph 103 of Circular 1/94 explains the composition of the different groups or committees that make up a SACRE. Humanists used to sit on Group A, by a tactful stretching of the meaning of the word “denomination”. However, the Christian Right secured the inclusion of an additional stipulation (paragraph 104) in an attempt to eliminate humanist representation. Despite this, the SACREs of many authorities exercise their power of co-option to include humanists, and a few invite humanist to be full members (see below).
Most humanist representatives are co-opted. The decision to co-opt is taken by the whole SACRE. Usually the decision in favour has been unanimous, but sometimes a vote is taken. SACREs vote by groups. It is therefore necessary for three out of the four groups (A, B, C and D) to vote in favour of co-option.
On being a co-opted member of a SACRE
Co-opted members do not have a vote, but can influence discussion and decisions. Because co-opted members are co-opted to the whole SACRE, they are not members of any of the constituent groups, which in many SACREs have separate pre-meetings to discuss the items on the agenda and decide positions. On the other hand, some SACREs are so small and informal that they never break up into groups and rarely vote.
Co-opted members may be invited to sit with one of the groups, but some co-optees have simply turned up at the meetings of Group A. Those involved in education (as teachers, lecturers or governors, for example) might be welcomed by Group C. Those involved in local politics, or who are councillors, might be invited to sit with Group D.
Full membership of SACREs
A few SACREs have ignored the DfEE circulars and allowed humanist representatives to retain full membership of Group A. They have taken the (correct) view that Circular 1/94 is only advice and that the matter has not been tested in court.
Two SACREs have appointed humanists to sit as full members of Group D, the local authority group. Some SACREs have appointed a humanist as Chair of the SACRE.
What can a humanist do on a SACRE?
The termly meetings of SACREs are mainly concerned with the overall management of RE and collective worship in local schools, including their contribution to Spiritual, Moral, Social, and Cultural Development (SMSCD). SACREs discuss the relevant parts of reports from OFSTED and national bodies such as NASACRE, and draft guidelines for collective worship. Humanists can act as representatives for a substantial group in the community, including many school pupils, who do not believe in a god and whose ethical beliefs are humanist, even though (because of the past failings of the education system) they may never have learnt about Humanism. There will be opportunities to draw attention to the problems facing schools in implementing the law on collective worship, and to raise awareness of the needs of non-religious pupils and teachers. Humanists can make a contribution to in-service training (INSET) on RE.
Humanists UK acknowledges that well taught RE can make a useful contribution to children’s understanding of the world around them, but also insists that it should be impartial, fair and balanced. This should involve an open-minded attitude to people of no religion, both in the classroom and on the SACRE. Humanists can challenge misconceptions about the non-religious and defend their right to be heard. Although SACREs have to operate within the law, humanists can voice objections to the legal framework and work towards a more inclusive syllabus in their LEA.
What are humanist aims for RE syllabuses?
Ideally, every child should know something about Humanism and Humanists UK by the end of KS3-4. Agnostic and atheist students should know that their beliefs are shared by many reasonable people and that Humanists UK exists to represent humanist views. They should know about humanist ceremonies. They should have been taught that most moral values are shared by those of all faiths and none, because they arise out of human nature and society. Humanism sgould be taught as a belief system alongside the major religions, with its beliefs, values, practices and history given appropriate attention.
Within a subject called Religious Education, this can prove difficult, though the non-statutory National Framework for RE (QCA, 2004) recommends that all pupils have the opportunity to study Humanism – but at the very least humanists can demand an RE syllabus which uses inclusive language. If the syllabus includes non-theistic beliefs, Humanism can be introduced as a major and well organised example, with officiants, speakers, and educational resources available through Humanists UK .
How to get onto your local SACRE
Humanists interested in Religious Education and prepared to work within the system to make it more impartial, fair and balanced, and relevant to the non-religious pupils in local schools, are invited to contact Humanists UK to find out where there are vacancies for humanist representatives. You need to be able to spare something like three evenings a year to attend meetings, and be willing to work co-operatively and diplomatically with members of religious faith groups. It helps if you have some recent experience of or involvement in schools – as a parent, teacher or governor – and contact with a local humanist group. There may be a slow application procedure, with no guarantee of success.
Individuals and humanist groups that have applied in the past and been rejected, might like to try again, or to go along to SACRE meetings as observers, as is their right. Observers have sometimes found themselves joining in discussions, and even eventually being co-opted onto the SACRE. SACRE meetings should be notified on your council website and in the local press and libraries.
For information on how to apply and to find out what the situation is locally, email BHA Education Officeror phone 020 7079 3584.
Last updated May 2009