By Rudolf Eliott Lockhart
This week the High Court ruled in favour of three parents and their children who challenged the government over the exclusion of non-religious worldviews from the school curriculum as a result of the new Religious Studies GCSE.
The Religious Education Council (REC) has naturally followed the legal proceedings extremely closely, and we have been clear that we fully support the court's ruling. Our efforts have always focused on the need to ensure the subject is as comprehensive, intellectually challenging, and as socially beneficial as possible, and we look forward to working with the Department for Education, as well as schools and teachers, to bring in the changes the ruling entails.
For now though, I want to be very clear about why we support the judgement. With good religious education (RE) children can become skilled inter-cultural navigators, better able to understand and relate to their future neighbours, friends, work colleagues and fellow citizens. This means that a wide range of faiths and beliefs ought to be options for study within RE. Part of this means that young people should have the opportunity to learn about the large number of people who describe themselves as being of no religious belief.
Within the classroom there will often be a significant number of children who would describe themselves in this way. It is important to consider the needs of these pupils and to ensure all pupils have the opportunity to explore their own values, beliefs and attitudes, as well as those of their peers. I'm also concerned about the children whose beliefs have not been reflected in the GCSE content, such as those who are Zoroastrian, Baha’i and Jain, although this ruling does not consider them.
It is of course true that Humanism is not a religion, but it is the worldview, alongside Christianity, that has most influenced philosophical and ethical thinking in the Western world. It therefore seems that an RE curriculum that doesn't give pupils an opportunity to engage with such a significant influence on both religious and non-religious thinking, is deeply flawed. After all, much religious thought in today's world is a response to the challenges from non-religious beliefs.
The REC has long recognised the importance of non-religious beliefs to good RE. It was true at the REC's very first meeting, in 1973, when the membership debated this very issue and agreed to support the BHA as a full member. In 1991 our report RE, Attainment and National Curriculum, said "RE should be open to all pupils regardless of their beliefs. If RE is open it is necessary for pupils to learn there are many who do not believe or practise theistic or a religious worldview. Indeed if pupils did not learn this, it could be said they were victims of indoctrination".
And in 2013, when we published our Curriculum Framework for Religious Education, we explicitly stated the importance of being inclusive of ‘Christianity, other principal religions represented in Britain, smaller religious communities and non-religious worldviews such as Humanism.'
Last year, in our submission to the DfE's consultation on the very GCSE subject content that was found to be unlawful this week, we stated a strong belief that there should be an option to study a non-religious worldview systematically, emphasising that 'young people should be able to learn about non-religious worldviews as well as religious ones on the grounds of educational relevance and the importance of not discriminating unfairly against young people who have no religious belief.'
The REC's chair professor Trevor Cooling submitted a witness statement as part of this legal case, stating that RE must 'meet the needs of all pupils irrespective of their own religious or non-religious background' and that the exclusion of an option to study a non-religious worldview in the GCSE was a 'travesty'.
It has never been easy to achieve consensus among the very wide range of organisations that make up the REC. But while there have been dissenting voices, the REC's position has been clear and consistent on the importance and relevance of non-religious worldviews to good quality RE. To exclude the option of a systematic study of non-religious worldviews from RE is to discriminate against and devalue the people who subscribe to them.
Rudolf Eliott Lockhart is the chief executive of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales
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