There is much to be celebrated in the recommendations of the Commission’s final report: a more inclusive name for the subject that will help unload it of some of the unwanted baggage it carries (yes, this is important); a national entitlement for students in all state-funded schools that insists programmes of study ‘must reflect the complex, diverse and plural nature of worldviews’; and specific recognition of the need to include humanism. For over fifty years forward-looking educators have been arguing for a more objective, critical, and pluralistic education about religion and worldviews. The Commission on RE’s final report demonstrates how widely shared these goals now are.
I’ve been asked to comment on Recommendation 4: the suspension of the requirement to write agreed syllabuses. The call to remove the responsibility for syllabus setting from Agreed Syllabus Conferences (ASCs) is not to claim that every locally agreed syllabuses is not fit for purpose. It is to help ensure that all young people, regardless of where they live, receive a high-quality, balanced, education about religion and worldviews.
There are practical considerations behind this recommendation. Many schools no longer need to follow their local syllabus. Many ASCs are poorly funded. Many lack expertise. On more than one occasion I’ve encountered a representative of a worldview complaining there was no one available with a better knowledge of education (or sometimes their worldview) to produce the units they had contributed to their agreed syllabus. We often see narrow or sanitised version of religions, presented from a single perspective peculiar to the individual responsible for writing the content.
There is also the fact that in many parts of the country the ASC presents the biggest hurdle to ensuring students receive an inclusive education about religion and worldviews: one that treats humanism as a worldview as worthy of study as the main religions, as is the legal requirement.
Demand from teachers has soared for resources and support with teaching about humanism (over 30,000 people visited the Understanding Humanism website in 2018, a fivefold increase in two years). However, it is still too often the case, to the frustration of many teachers, that humanist representatives (where they exist) on ASCs face an uphill battle to get humanism included on their agreed syllabus in anything other than a cursory way.
There is still a case for education about religion and worldviews to have a local flavour, and nothing in the Commission’s proposals rejects this. The new Local Area Networks proposed by the Commission can still support teachers and schools with relevant information about the local landscape of religion and belief, including local school speakers and places suitable for school visits. However, we live in a global world, in which many people do not spend their entire lives in the community they grew up in. Students will often move during their schooling meaning they currently do not receive a joined up education due to a change in syllabus midway through (the system also makes life more complicated for teachers). The postcode lottery of one’s education about religion and worldviews needs to end.
We now need to seize the moment. Too much attention has already been focused on a small number of detractors. The final report was never going to receive comprehensive praise from everyone (I’m sure everyone can find something in it they disagree with). But now is the time to focus on the best consensus we’ve had from members of the religion and worldviews community for how we can make the subject fit for purpose in the twenty-first century. Change will not happen overnight, but if we do not take advantage of the once in a generation opportunity we now have, then we may find the subject is beyond saving and our future will be poorer as a result.
Head of Education, Humanists UK