Transforming school RE should include non-religious beliefs, says BHA

By agency reporter
June 7, 2010

The current system where syllabuses for Religious Education (RE) are drawn up by committees in each local authority in England and Wales needs radical reform, the British Humanist Association (BHA) says.

The call came in response to the Ofsted report on RE in schools, just released, which demonstrates the variable provision of RE in schools in the absence of a national syllabus. In particular it noted that some local syllabuses could be over-prescriptive.

The report also makes particular, critical, reference to the unequal and inconsistent treatment and teaching of humanism and other non-religious beliefs.

The report finds that "[t]here were significant inconsistencies in the way humanism and other non-religious beliefs were taught, and some uncertainties about the relationship between fostering respect for pupils’ beliefs and encouraging open, critical, investigative learning in RE."

Andrew Copson, BHA Chief Executive, commented: "We know that many non-religious parents and young people are concerned about the quality of RE provided by their school. Although in some areas RE is good, makes room for the humanist perspective to be included, and contributes to the development and education of non-religious pupils, in others it can exclude their perspective and undermine their developing values."

Over the past 30 years Britain has become an increasingly mixed-belief society, and this has been reflected by much more teaching about world faiths other than Christianity.

Recognising the growing number of people influenced by non-religious ethical beliefs and philosophies, teaching about humanism in RE is widely considered and recommended in government guidance as good practice.

In 2004, a Non-Statutory National Framework for RE was issued by government to encourage good practice in the drawing up of local syllabuses for RE and it included a recommendation that "secular philosophies such as humanism" be included at all key stages. It was welcomed by humanists at the time as being a big step in the right direction.

Subsequent government guidance on Religious Education in schools in England and Wales affirmed that RE is about non-religious worldviews like humanism as well as about religions.

But the Ofsted report found "[u]ncertainty about how to incorporate teaching about humanism and non-religious beliefs into the curriculum. The framework and many, but not all, agreed syllabuses include the study of non-religious belief systems within RE. However, few of the schools visited approached this in a coherent and sustained way. Reference might be made to non-religious ideas in discussing questions about the existence of God. However, it was rare to find secondary schools engaging in a more systematic study of the core principles of humanism, for example. Some local authorities had not included non-religious perspectives within their agreed syllabus, despite the clear guidance of the framework."

Mr Copson remarked on behalf of the BHA: "The proposed curriculum reforms of the coalition government make the future of RE uncertain in many schools, including whether it is taught at all, let alone well balanced and in the educational interests of young people. Moreover, the dissolution of the QCDA (Qualification and Curriculum Development Agency) means a strong voice both for high quality RE and for the inclusion of humanism within that academic subject has been lost. This makes the promotion of well-taught, high-quality RE in all schools in other ways, such as through inclusion in the national curriculum or strong government encouragement for schools to follow guidance on RE, even more urgent. Government should not fight shy of tackling this important issue as they tackle the curriculum as a whole."

The Ofsted Report ‘Transforming Religious Education’ can be read in full at:


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