Opinion Former Article

New report ‘timid’ in proposals to reform the place of religion in schools

Humanists UK has described as ‘timid’ a new report, published today, on the future place of religion in the education system. The report, written by Professor Linda Woodhead and former Education Secretary Charles Clarke, makes a series of recommendations aimed at reforming the 70-year-old settlement between religion and schools in England. In effect, however, it largely supports the status quo, recommending that a collective worship requirement be maintained in all state-funded schools, even those with no religious character, and that faith schools should remain free to religiously discriminate against prospective pupils in their admissions policies.

Humanists UK, which campaigns for the abolition of faith schools and in favour of a secular, fully inclusive education system, said the report fails to ‘properly grapple with the problems caused by the ongoing influence of religion’ in schools.

The report, entitled A New Settlement Revised, follows an initial report published by Clarke and Woodhead in 2015, the radical proposals of which Humanists UK welcomed at the time, The recommendations of the new report include:

The subject name ‘Religious Education’ should be changed to ‘Religion, Beliefs, and Values’. This change would ‘better reflect present day society’ and ‘signal more accurately what children should be learning’.

The local determination of RE syllabuses should end and a new ‘nationally agreed RE curriculum’ be created by a national advisory council on religion, belief, and values. The report states that ‘This should apply to all schools, including faith schools, though faith schools should be free to supplement the basic curriculum with additional teaching in line with their religious designation.’ It also notes the overwhelming public support for all schools to teach about non-religious worldviews such as humanism.

The requirement for collective worship in schools should be replaced with a requirement to regularly hold either an inclusive assembly or an act of worship. This is a retreat from Clarke and Woodhead’s previous report, which recommended that the requirement for an act of collective worship be abolished altogether. According to the report, this retreat was made, at least in part, after ‘it became clear that important elements of Church of England opinion are strongly opposed to removing the statutory requirement’.

Faith schools should continue to exist and maintain the right to religiously discriminate in their admissions and employment policies. Bizarrely, this recommendation is made despite the report’s authors writing, ‘We remain of the view that the country needs to move strongly in the direction of reducing the number of schools in this country which include faith as a criterion for admission.’

Reacting the report, Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented,

‘This is a timid report. Far from proposing a genuinely new settlement between religion and schools, one that properly grapples with the problems caused by the ongoing influence of religion in the education system, it actually just reinforces the status quo - a system fundamentally unsuited to today’s society.

‘We welcome, of course, the recommendation that RE be changed to “Religions, Beliefs, and Values”, that non-religious worldviews be included in it, and that all schools should adhere to a curriculum set nationally by an independent, impartial body. However, far too many concessions are made to vested interests of religious organisations for this to be a report we can be enthusiastic about.

‘It is particularly disappointing, for instance, to see Charles Clarke and Linda Woodhead row back on their previous recommendation that religious worship no longer be required in schools, and to explicitly say that they are doing so because the Church of England didn't like it. Isn’t it bad enough that a third of state-funded schools are already run by religious groups, without forcing the children who attend the others to worship gods that they don’t believe in? It is disappointing, too, that the report throws its support not only behind faith schools themselves, but behind the divisive practice of religious discriminating against prospective pupils and teachers as well. Even the Government, in deciding to keep the 50% on religious selection earlier this year, recognises this to be bad policy.

‘In an increasingly diverse, increasingly fractured, and increasingly irreligious society, it is as clear as ever that a “new settlement” is needed to end the religious divides entrenched by the current education system. We will continue to campaign to further that cause.’

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