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Response to DfE statement on the religious studies GCSE judicial review

The Department for Education has issued a statement about our press release about the High Court judgment with respect to the GCSE religious studies subject content. The statement misrepresents the BHA’s position and contains false information about what the BHA has said. The DfE’s statement and our response to it are in full below.

There has been a high court ruling on the new religious studies (RS) GCSE curriculum.

There is no problem with the RS GCSE subject content. Today’s judgment related to the introduction to the RS GCSE subject content. It concluded that a particular paragraph suggested that a school could rely entirely on the content of an RS GCSE syllabus to discharge its obligations with respect to teaching the basic curriculum subject of RE at key stage 4. The judge found that whilst that might be the case, it might not always be the case – and so it was wrong. The department will act to correct any misunderstanding.

This is correct. It might be the case if the school focuses heavily on the few parts of the thematic GCSE subject content that are inclusive of non-religious worldviews, then just teaching the GCSE as key stage 4 RE would be sufficiently inclusive of non-religious worldviews to be lawful. But if a school does not do that, then this would not be the case.

Despite the claims in the BHA’s press notice, the judge explicitly said that there was nothing unlawful in the RS GCSE subject content itself. The judge made clear that there was “no challenge” to the content of the GCSE. He also made clear that it would be lawful to give priority to the study of Christianity in the curriculum if we wanted to do that.

We never said that anything in the subject content was unlawful, other than the introductory paragraph 2 (as discussed above), which has been found unlawful.

The judge made clear that there was no requirement in either domestic or human rights law to give “equal air time” to all shades of belief (directly contradictory to what BHA have said in its press release).

We never said – either in our press release or elsewhere – that ‘equal air time’ was required and have not used this phrase. The phrase comes from paragraph 75 of the judgment, which along with paragraph 39 is worth reading in full. In our press release, we said ‘religious education syllabuses around the country will now have to include non-religious worldviews such as humanism on an equal footing, and pupils taking a GCSE will also have to learn about non-religious worldviews alongside the course.’ ‘Equal footing’ for religious and non-religious worldviews does not mean ‘equal air time to all shades of belief’ but does mean that the RE curriculum has to be ‘objective, critical and pluralistic’, which the judge said would not be the case if schools just teach the GCSE without majoring on the few non-religious bits of content. The judge concluded that this ‘give[s] priority to the study of religions (including some with a relatively very small following and no significant role in the tradition of the country) over all non-religious world views (which have a significant following and role in the tradition of the country)’, and is therefore unlawful.

This judgment does not require the department to amend the content or structure of the reformed RS GCSE.

This is strictly true, but this statement is also guilty of a sin of omission, as the real consequences of this decision are on those who set the wider RE syllabus. They must now ensure that that syllabus does not prioritise religious views over non-religious views.

Nothing in this judgement affects our previously issued guidance on RE for faith schools.

We agree.

Andrew Copson, BHA Chief Executive said, ‘We look forward to engaging with the Department for Education in ensuring that the full implications of this judgement are understood and implemented across our education system to the benefit of all parents and pupils and wider society.’

The BHA has produced a briefing clarifying what the decision said and its implications.

Notes

For further comment or information, please contact BHA Education Campaigner Jay Harman on jay@humanism.org.uk or 020 7324 3078/07970 393 680; or Campaigns Manager Richy Thompson on richy@humanism.org.uk or 020 7324 3072/07815 589 635.

Read the full judgement here: https://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/R-Fox-v-SSfE-2015-EWHC-3404-Admin-251115.pdf

Read the BHA’s comment from yesterday: https://humanism.org.uk/2015/11/25/judge-rules-government-broke-the-law-in-excluding-humanism-from-school-curriculum/

Read the BHA’s briefing on why Humanism is now normally included in Religious Education syllabuses: http://humanismforschools.org.uk/guidance/why-humanism-is-included-in-religious-education-re/

Read more about the BHA’s work on RE: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/schools-and-education/school-curriculum/religious-education/

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

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