Humanists take legal action over exclusion from school Religious Studies

By staff writers
September 13, 2008

The British Humanist Association has issued legal proceedings against the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) over their decision not to allow the study of Humanism in a Religious Studies GCSE course in the same way as religions are studied.

The exam board OCR had included Humanism alongside religions in its proposed GCSE in Religious Studies, announced in April 2008, but a decision by the QCA has meant that it could not be included.

Andrew Copson, BHA Director of Education expressed the BHA’s frustration at this decision: "The stance of QCA will be a great disappointment to the many teachers, parents and pupils who were as pleased as we were when OCR included the option of Humanism in their GCSE," he said.

Copson continued: "The study of Humanism alongside religions as an example of a non-religious worldview is recommended by the Government and QCA's own National Framework for RE. Its inclusion contributes to making the study of RE more meaningful for the vast majority of young people who are not religious, and also introduces invaluable perspectives on the big questions of life from which all pupils benefit."

Humanism has been included in RE to a greater or lesser extent for over thirty years and Humanists warmly welcomed the 2004 National Framework for Religious Education, produced by QCA and by the then Department for Education and Skills (DfES), which recommended that all pupils study Humanism as an example of a ‘secular philosophy’ or ‘secular world view’, as well as guidance on RE in the new secondary National Curriculum in 2007 that included Humanism. The progress that this represents now seems threatened, as GCSE criteria are only revised every five years. The BHA hopes that, by going to court now, they may be able to overturn the exclusion of Humanism before then.

Mr Copson emphasised that the BHA had tried very hard to persuade the QCA that their decision was wrong but that lobbying efforts had not led to any change in the QCA's view.

He added. "We have now issued legal proceedings against the QCA's decision, as we believe that it is unlawful - contrary to their own subject criteria and to human rights law. It threatens to turn back the progress of recent decades towards a more inclusive, educationally valid and objective subject of RE and is a real kick in the teeth for all who have worked for that progress."

Richard Stein of solicitors Leigh Day and Co, who has been instructed by the BHA in their action against the QCA emphasised how the case was about equal treatment, saying ’We hope that this case will ensure that the discriminatory – and shocking – decision taken by the QCA, which refuses to recognise the equality of religions alongside other beliefs, is overturned without delay."

Many educationists have argued that Britain's schools need wide curriculum content on religion and belief - reflecting both the roots and diversity of different world views impacting life in the UK and across the world.

Modern secular humanism (which often styles itself with a capital 'H') is different from, but related to, the earlier period of European 'high humanism', which had religious, specifically Christian, and ancient antecedents.

Anglican Archbishop William Temple once argued that Christianity was the most 'worldly' of the faiths, because it was based on the idea of incarnation - God communicating with humanity in the flesh, rather than in abstract or dualistic spiritual forms.

The Christian think-tank Ekklesia is among those within the churches and other religious bodies who say that school children need a wide understanding of modern beliefs and their ancient roots, including non-religious ones.

The British Humanist Association is a national charity representing and supporting non-religious people. The BHA has been involved in education for over forty years, "producing resources for schools and promoting beliefs and values education that will be objective, fair and balanced", it says.

The BHA is a member of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.