"Humanism in schools and living with difference" was the subject of Harrow Humanists monthly meeting in January 2016 in which we were joined by a Religious Education teacher from one of the local secondary schools.
The main issues seem to be:
1. Should RE be on the national curriculum, on a par with other humanities subjects.
2. Should RE be renamed to include general ethics, philosophy, beliefs etc.
3. Should GCSE include non-religious component and de-emphasise Christianity.
4. Should 'Collective Worship' be abolished.
5. There is a need to educate for a greater pluralistic understanding of beliefs.
6. Should there be 'opt-outs' for RE and 'Collective Worship'.
7. No religious instruction to be allowed during the school day.
There have been a number of independent reports relating to these issues published in 2015:
- "A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools" Linda Woodhead and Charles Clarke
- "The Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life" Chair: Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Schloss
- "RE for real - The Future of Teaching and Learning about Religion and Belief" (a project within the Goldsmiths Religious Literacy Programme)
- "Collective Worship and Religious Observance in schools" Arts and Humanities Research Council
It was agreed that the regulations governing both the teaching of RE in schools and the assembly for an "act of collective worship" are hopelessly out of date and not fit for purpose in 21st century Britain.
An act of collective worship which is of a mainly Christian character is no longer appropriate in today's multiethnic and variably religious population and it should be abolished. In practice it has already largely been replaced in many schools by a non-denominational time for reflection on various moral and ethical issues. With such an inclusive type of assembly there would be no need for pupils to have a right of withdrawal.
The term Religious Education is too narrow to encompass the greater literacy and pluralistic understanding of both religious and other beliefs needed in today's society and it should be replaced by Philosophy, Religion and Ethics (or some similarly inclusive terminology). The current timetable allocation of one hour a week is inadequate to enable the encouragement of a questioning and analytical attitude and proper discussion of the history and current status of the various religious and non-religious beliefs such as Humanism (which should also be included in the GCSE syllabus).
It is absurd that RE is the only subject mandatory for all children to study but which is taught according to locally agreed curricula of a variable standard. It should have similar status to other "Humanities" and a National Curriculum which is taught in all types of schools which receive state funding, including so-called faith schools, but with a degree of flexibility to suit particular local circumstances. It is inappropriate for there to be any instruction in, or proselytising for, particular religions during the school day so that the right of withdrawal from RE (Philosophy and Ethics) lessons should become unnecessary.