A perennial debate
The current situation
RE is the only subject on the school curriculum that is managed locally, with LEA-appointed groups (Agreed Syllabus Conferences – ASCs – and Standing Advisory Councils for RE – SACREs) devising syllabuses and overseeing RE and collective worship in their schools. SACREs exist in every LEA and humanists are represented on some, usually as co-opted members, occasionally as full members (see About SACREs). In some LEAs which have turned down humanist applications, humanists attend as observers.
There is national legislation and guidance about the organisation and management of RE, but until 2004 there was little detailed national guidance about content. In 2004, after several years of discussion that included a Humanists UK representative, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority published a non-statutory National Framework for RE, setting out standards and guidelines, that included a recommendation that pupils “should have the opportunity to study secular philosophies such as humanism.”
Despite these national guidelines, it is clear that SACREs will remain part of the system for the foreseeable future. The National Framework leaves the decision about how much of it to adopt and much detail to local SACREs and ASCs, who continue to have responsibility for overseeing local RE provision. While SACREs and ASCs exist, humanists will continue to try to co-operate with them to ensure impartiality, fairness and balance in RE. (See BHA Education Policy).
SACREs in practice
In many ways the current system works, despite relying on local goodwill rather than expertise, because information is disseminated from the centre – through RE advisers, QCA guidance, Ofsted etc. The freedom of LEAs to manage and determine policy on RE is restricted by many factors, not least the legal requirements. The QCA’s “National Expectations in RE” also to influence local policy and practice. Ofsted inspections, league tables, GCSE syllabuses and RE textbooks are all likely to have at least as much influence on schools as SACREs.
A small survey was carried out in 2000 by Humanists UK, when we sent out a questionnaire to humanists associated with SACREs. The picture that emerged was a mixed one, but it was very apparent from the survey that, whatever their strengths and weaknesses, SACREs cannot be said to be representative. They are not representative of their local community (as the absence of humanists on most of them testifies), and local communities were felt to be largely unaware of them and their work. Neither were they representative of the six faiths usually studied in RE – only 24% included all six, Buddhists being the most frequently absent (from about half the SACREs surveyed). One SACRE apparently consisted only of Christians, plus a sole co-opted humanist! Whatever the balance between local and national, it would seem essential that local or national bodies responsible for RE are fully representative, and this aspect of local control is well overdue for reform.
How effective is the present system?
SACREs appear neither to represent the community (the absence of humanists from something like two out of three SACREs testifies to that), nor to represent the faiths studied in RE, the two most commonly assumed reasons for their existence. They have difficulty recruiting able and genuinely representative members who understand both education and the range of beliefs within their own faith communities. SACREs often reject applications from humanists and members of minority religions.
Though there undoubtedly are sensitivities within belief systems, and it is only right that authoritative and genuinely representative spokespersons should have some say in how their beliefs are presented to children, there is little evidence that the local interests and local sensitivities that are supposed to justify local control really exist. Local interest in the work of SACREs appears to be negligible. Responses to Humanists UK survey reported rare local observers at only 31% of their SACREs and no other evidence of local awareness.
It is far easier for a national body such as QCA to draw upon research and to gather together experts, than it is for any LEA, and education policy should be determined by professionals and national representatives, who can be at the heart of both their own worldview’s doctrinal development and changes in education policy and practice.
There appears to be no good reason for the children of one LEA to have a different RE syllabus from those in any other. What children need to know does not depend on where they live. People are far more mobile, socially and geographically, than they were half a century ago when the current system was set up, and children from even the most homogeneous communities will have to co-exist with colleagues and neighbours of many different faiths or none as adults. If RE is to prepare children for adult life as workers and citizens it needs to be national in its scope, as has indeed been required since the 1988 ERA, not local or parochial. A good inclusive national syllabus, leaving much flexibility to schools and teachers, would be more appropriate today.
Overall, Humanists UK can see no good reason for RE syllabuses to be determined and managed locally, and would prefer an end to this system. In its place we would like to see a genuinely impartial and wide-ranging subject, preferably renamed Beliefs and Values Education, or Belief Education, or Philosophy, to reflect its inclusive and exploratory nature, in the National Curriculum. This subject would naturally include Humanism explicitly as a non-theistic ethical worldview.
There seems to be no good reason for the variation in the treatment of Humanism between local syllabuses: from full and explicit inclusion, or implicit inclusion or statements encouraging acknowledgement of the non-religious worldview, to complete exclusion.
In practice, local syllabuses vary less than one might expect, with ASCs frequently borrowing syllabuses wholly or in part from other LEAs or the QCA models (about 51% according to Humanists UK survey), making nonsense of claims to local independence. SACREs are also (understandably) very reliant on RE advisers: 50% of humanist respondents thought that their SACRE delegated or deferred substantially to their RE adviser. QCA guidance also influences content and practice, and GCSE syllabuses and the availability of textbooks and resources restrict the options lower down the school. ASCs often spend an inordinate amount of time discussing detail and reinventing the wheel, making minor adjustments for reasons of local pride rather than for sound educational reasons. RE would surely gain in status by joining the other subjects in the National Curriculum and leaving the pedagogical details to school RE departments, which best know their pupils and resources, and RE advisers.
There is a potentially very useful role for the local community in resourcing RE. Visits and visitors, both invaluable in RE, can often best be organised locally. A list or database of places to visit and local individuals and organisations that can provide speakers is a useful resource, though probably not one requiring a SACRE to provide.
There are costs involved in running SACREs and in reviewing and publishing local syllabuses, although uncommitted LEAs often keep these down to a minimum. (Humanists on SACREs thought that they were probably good value to the community because they rely on volunteers and cost nothing – though they do of course cost to administer.) What little money there is locally for RE could be better spent on well resourced and up-to-date RE sections in local teachers’ centres, on improving local library provision, on employing specialist RE advisers, and on INSET for often under-qualified RE teachers, who may lack the expertise and confidence needed to teach their subject really well.
Last Updated: May 2009