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Humanists query new GCSE syllabus in the High Court

13 November 2015


"Reasonable focus": Nicky Morgan addresses the annual conference of the Confederation of British Industry, at the Grosvenor House hotel, London, on Monday

"Reasonable focus": Nicky Morgan addresses the annual conference of the Confederation of British Industry, at the Grosvenor House hotel, London,...

THE Government’s decision not to include Humanism as a separate option in the new GCSE Religious Studies (RS) examination syllabus was challenged in the High Court on Tuesday this week.

Three families with school-age children, backed by the British Humanist Association (BHA), said that the stance breaches the Europe on Convention on Human Rights (ECHR ) by giving religions greater prominence than non-religious world-views. One of the parents involved, Kate Bielby, told journalists that it gave the impression that religions had a monopoly on morals.

The new rules do not apply to statutory religious education — RE taught to all pupils as part of the basic curriculum, which may include humanism.

From next September, however, GCSE students will be required to follow the reformed exam syllabus, which the Government regards as more academically rigorous. They will have to study, in depth, two religions from a list that includes Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism.

The Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, has said that, given the examination’s title, the focus on religions is reasonable. Moreover, as a statement from the Department for Education said, the syllabus still allows exam students to spend up to half their course on philosophy and ethics, which could include humanism.

But the general secretary of the BHA, Andrew Copson, this week described the syllabus as incompatible with human-rights legislation. By prioritising religions, it did not comply with the ECHR requirement for States to treat religious and non-religious world-views equally.

The changes to RS are part of the Government’s curriculum-wide reform of GCSEs, which is intended to raise standards. The RS syllabus was drawn up in consultation with religious leaders, including Church of England representatives.

This week, the C of E’s chief education officer, the Revd Nigel Genders, backed the new syllabus: “From a comprehensive grounding in two religions, students will be able to make connections and understand differing religious world-views. The new GCSE also, quite rightly, gives a major emphasis to philosophy and ethics, through which students will form their own evaluation of religion and ethics.”

Last February, however, 28 religious leaders, including a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Williams, and a former Bishop of Oxford, Lord Harries, wrote to the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, asking for a rethink on the syllabus to include Humanism as an option.

They wrote: “It would allow young people to study a more representative sample of the world-views common in Britain today.”

The Religious Education Council takes a similar view. This week, its chief executive, Rudolf Eliott Lockhart, spoke of “the importance of not discriminating against young people of no religious belief, who wish to study that perspective in depth”.

A ruling on the challenge is expected to be announced in a few weeks.

Exam syllabus to include Judaism. Roman Catholic schools preparing students for GCSE RS will teach Judaism alongside RC Christianity for the examination, although Islam is the second largest faith in Britain.

Interviewed for the website Christian Today, the director of the Catholic Education Service, Paul Barber, said: “Just because our pupils are not being examined in other faiths does not mean they are not learning about them.”

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