Marilyn Mason applauds the inclusion of humanism in the new Religious Education
From this month, England will have a national framework for Religious Education (RE). That word 'national' is significant. For although RE was, as many of us probably remember rather too well, a compulsory subject in state schools for decades, it never became part of the new National Curriculum. It was overseen by such national bodies as the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) but its actual content was largely locally determined. The new Framework won't change that arrangement, but it is quite the strongest national guidance that has yet to be issued and will be highly influential on the content of RE syllabuses. And now for the good news. For the first time ever, humanism will be recommended for study by all pupils. Humanists should see this as a big stride forward. It is part of a long process of critical but constructive engagement with RE, locally on Standing Advisory Councils for RE (SACREs) and also at a national level. Humanists have long sought objective, fair and balanced RE which included humanism, and which reflected this in a more inclusive subject title. Sometimes we have had to be more critical than constructive, but there have been real, if patchy and local, improvements. RE is now generally a study of world religions, covering a range of perspectives on the 'big questions', sometimes including humanist ones and almost always atheistic arguments. It is very very different from the scripture lessons that many readers will recall.
Devising a national framework was always going to be a risky business. Insiders worried that it could in fact be unhelpful and make it more difficult to create good syllabuses. Politically it was risky too: Secretaries of State for Education rarely want to stir the passions and rivalries that lurk just under the civilised surface of RE, and the current ascendancy of Christian Socialism, and Downing Street support for religious and creationist schools, seemed an unlikely environment for progress in RE. But in Charles Clarke we have a Secretary of State who, in common with members of the British Humanist Association, is not religious but is interested in improving RE. Clarke proceeded cautiously and diplomatically, determined to establish consensus amongst the stakeholders.
As a member of the framework steering group of faith representatives, government and QCA officials (when meetings ended chairs would thank "faith representatives and Marilyn"), I found much support for the inclusion of humanism. This was, I think, because the faith group representatives were mostly, like me, educators too. RE suffers from low status and standards, a shortage of specialist teachers and a lack of public understanding everyone involved knew that a return to scripture would do nothing to solve these problems, or meet the broader post 11 September objectives of furthering 'social cohesion'.
Media overreaction this February, when the Institute for Public Policy Research suggested that atheism and humanism should be included in RE, also proved unexpectedly helpful. Ann Widdecombe complained that it would be "a betrayal of our children" and the Conservative Christian Fellowship whinged irrelevantly that "it would be wrong to jettison Christianity", but betterinformed voices greeted the proposals calmly. This was, after all, merely a contribution to the debate, not the first move towards abolishing religion from RE or turning all children into atheists. When the public consultation began in April, the inclusion of humanism passed almost unnoticed, except by the Telegraph, which proclaimed, rather eccentrically: "Humanism becomes one of the new gods of RE". Such wider media indifference helped to make the inclusion uncontroversial, which was useful given DfES wariness.
Though humanism appeared in the earliest drafts, its status varied and the framework's language was never consistently inclusive. My task was to ensure that it stayed securely there, that it was more than just optional or contingent on pupils' beliefs, and that the content and attainment targets reflected this. Despite general willingness to include the nonreligious, the ability to see how this might be done, or the capacity to recognise exclusive language (even when it was pointed out) was often lacking. In addition, a small group of conservative Christian academics, who claimed that the framework advice would be illegal and hinted at legal challenges, seemed to be pushing the project backwards. But two can play at that game, and the BHA also hinted, quite forcefully, at legal action based on the Human Rights Act.
The version agreed in July contained far more recognition of nonreligious beliefs even though the subject title remains unchanged. The guidance recognises, for example, that "some forms of belief are not inclusive", that people can have "concerns" about the roles of religion, that there can be conflict within and between religions. An introductory statement now reads:
"Many pupils come from religious backgrounds but others have no attachment to religious beliefs and practices. Therefore, to ensure that all pupils' voices are heard and that the RE curriculum is broad and balanced, it is recommended that there should be opportunities for all pupils to study secular philosophies such as humanism."
Humanists have been disappointed before, of course, but I am fairly optimistic about the outcome. Charles Clarke has indicated that this could be the first step towards a national syllabus for RE that would end local variation, though that would require the will to legislate and take on the religious conservatives. Even then, faithbased schools and the quasiindependent 'academies' could continue to do their own thing, and there would be quite some work to do before all stateeducated pupils get the broad and balanced RE that is their entitlement. But I still think that the progress humanists have made on this issue in recent years deserves a resounding two cheers.
[NB: The launch of the new RE framework has been postponed until October.]