New RE guidance – what’s wrong with it
I’ve responded belatedly to the new guidance on RE, as follows:
Rt Hon Ed Balls MP
Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families
Department for Children, Schools and Families
Great Smith Street
London SW1P 3BT
Dear Mr Balls,
I am writing to express my disappointment at the new draft guidance produced for RE in England, particularly its failure to make it clear that the subject should be the study of both religious and non-religious beliefs and to recognise and recommend the eligibility of Humanists for full membership of SACREs and ASCs.
I am personally particularly affected by this. I am a Humanist and a full member of Suffolk SACRE. I am very concerned that the new guidance will lead to my position as a full member of the SACRE being seriously undermined and to a consequent lack of representation of non-religious people on the SACRE, even though my local area is at least 16% non-religious â€“ which means there are more non-religious people than all the non-Christian religions combined. When my SACRE made me a full member, without dissent, they agreed that since our new RE syllabus (introduced in September 2007) included Humanism â€œand secular world viewsâ€, it would be inconsistent with this inclusion to exclude me from full membership of the SACRE. In my experience, as a frequent visitor to schools, both as a tutor with Suffolk Inter-Faith Resource and as a Humanist speaker, a majority of secondary school students identify themselves as non-believers. It is therefore especially important that the syllabus covers non-belief and its various expressions.
I will also be unable to be a member of the ASC, even though government guidance includes Humanism as a subject to be studied. This will mean, for me as for many other Humanists involved in SACREs, that although we may have our beliefs explored in the syllabus, we will not be permitted to take part in deciding that content, while our religious colleagues will be fully involved in writing their parts of the syllabus. I do not see how your department can believe this is fair.
I am involved with my local SACRE because I am committed to what good and inclusive RE can achieve â€“ because I believe it can help to improve understanding not just between people of different religions but between religious and non-religious people, and because I believe that children have the right to a balanced education when it comes to beliefs and values. However, I have strong reservations about the use of the term â€œReligious Educationâ€, as it is inconsistent with the way that other subjects in the syllabus are described, and is an anachronism. You do not say â€œArt Educationâ€ (the subject I used to teach), or â€œEnglish Educationâ€. Using what is a misleading term to describe teaching children about religion, rather than teaching them to be religious, gives the wrong sort of message. It would be better to simply call it â€œReligions and Beliefsâ€, allowing for the inclusion of both religious and philosophical world views, on an equal basis. The various forms of atheistic, non-theistic, or naturalistic traditions are a rich source of ideas and values, developed by very many people, that should not be treated as peripheral.
Iâ€™m also unhappy about the use of the term â€œsecular world viewsâ€, as this is an inaccurate use of the word â€œsecularâ€. Many religious people are secularists, in that they want the separation of religion from the state and equal treatment for religious and non-religious people. Use of the word â€œsecularâ€ as though it were synonymous with â€œatheistâ€ is widespread, but wrong. If those who are responsible for education canâ€™t use the correct terminology, I fail to see how we can have confidence that they know what they mean.
I would like to see the word â€œHumanistâ€ and â€œHumanismâ€ spelt with a capital H throughout, as Harold Blackham, Levi Fragell, Corliss Lamont, Harry Stopes-Roe and Rob Tielman declared through the International Humanist & Ethical Union in January 2008. Whatâ€™s good enough for the religions is good enough for us.
I had been looking forward to the clarity and improved practice the new guidance might bring: instead, I am left severely disappointed by a Government that claims to set such store by equality and non-discrimination and human rights.
I would like to urge that the new guidance should make it clear that the subject should be the study of both religious and non-religious beliefs and should recognise and recommend the eligibility of Humanists for full membership of SACREs and ASCs, justifying this inclusive policy not just for its own sake but explicitly by reference to the Human Rights Act. Without such action at this time, it is difficult to see how the position of Humanists involved in their SACREs as I am is likely to improve or the discrimination that has existed against us since 1994 can be ended. Indeed, not only will the draft guidance, if unchanged, not improve the situation: by its blatant silence on the key point on which so many people have been looking to it for confirmation of an inclusive policy it is liable to create a setback and do serious damage.
Margaret Nelson, Dip AD
You can read more about RE here (pdf).