Religious Education is the only subject in England that does not have a national curriculum. Each of the 152 Local Education Authorities (LEA) in England tasks its own SACRE (Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education) to provide an RE syllabus for its community schools and a small minority of its faith schools. Most faith schools, and now academies and free schools, can choose to use their own RE syllabus which, of course, can mean in reality only really teaching one religion. There is now strong national guidance which indicates that pupils should learn about non-religious world views as well as religious. However this guidance is non-statutory.
The 1996 Education Act states that each SACRE should be made up of 4 groups: A=religions other than Church of England, B=Church of England, C=Teachers and D=elected local councillors. In practice teachers and councillors interested in SACRE membership tend to be religious, thus non-religious people may have no representation (25% of the population is non-religious according to the 2011 census, 49% according to the 2013 British Social Attitude Surveys).
The BHA campaigns for all pupils to study a reformed national curriculum subject of “Belief and Values Education, or Philosophy”. Whilst this is the long term aim, in the short term the BHA has been campaigning for Humanists to be included as full voting members of SACREs. In February 2010 the Government issued new guidance on RE which removed the explicit 1994 bar to Humanist membership and replaced it with a case study of a SACRE co-opting a Humanist representative “in the interests of inclusion”.
The Surrey SACRE have allowed Farnham Humanists to provide a Humanist volunteer representative (Jennie Johnson) since 2006 as a temporary co-opted member with no voting rights, unlike the religious members who have full status.
Surrey SACRE completed its latest RE syllabus in 2012.
Surrey Agreed Syllabus 2012 (Primary)with cover_18June12
Surrey Agreed Syllabus 2012 (Secondary)_14 June 2012
Farnham Humanist’s module titled “How do non-religious people answer the Big Questions” was accepted as one of the options for 11 to 14 year olds.
FINAL Humanism Module
The previous RE syllabus had only one mention of a non-religious view and only one reference to Humanism whereas the new syllabus mentions non-religious views 49 times and Humanism 6 times as well as the new Humanism module option.
Latest news: June 2014 SACRE reviews way forward for Christian worship in Surrey’s non-faith schools
The British Humanist Association says it receives more complaints about Collective Worship in schools than many other issues with students often being left distressed and parents feeling discriminated against”.
Together with other members of the Surrey SACRE (Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education), Humanist representative Jennie Johnson was invited to review Surrey’s guidance on collective worship in non-faith schools titled “Time to reflect”.
At the June SACRE meeting, whilst faith members explained what worship means to them, Jennie emphasized the need for inclusivity, respect and integrity. She recounted how her six-year-old son (who had lost his father when he was four) cried at home because he was being forced to sing hymns in assemblies despite not believing that Jesus loved him. Initially the school head said he had to sing or miss assembly, but after consultation with Surrey County Council the head relented and allowed him to sit quietly. Jennie was then kindly allowed by the meeting to present her research into the law and national guidance on school worship followed by suggestions for a way forward.
Current law requires all pupils to participate in daily collective worship with “the majority of acts of collective worship…wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”; “the extent to which …worship …reflects the broad traditions of Christian belief” should take into account “the family backgrounds of the pupils…” (the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 Section 70 and Schedule 20). There is no explicit legal requirement to mention Jesus Christ.
National guidance given by NASACRE and AREIAC emphasizes that “collective worship can and should be an inclusive experience” and should be “an educational activity which protects and affirms the integrity of all those taking part”.
Expecting students to recite prayers or sing hymns which contain words they do not believe in, or agree with, is disrespectful of their beliefs. It is not going to encourage them to feel included or secure or to develop an understanding of, and any respect for, other people’s beliefs, values and cultures.
The requirement for 51% of acts of collective worship to be “broadly Christian” could be met by celebrating moral values and guidance important in Christianity but also to other religions and non-religious beliefs e.g. forgiveness, compassion, kindness, empathy and the Golden Rule to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.
What about hymns and prayers? Hymns could be chosen which do not contain overt references to God or Jesus or if they do, students could be given the choice of whether they join in or sit quietly experiencing the music and reflecting. Likewise joining in prayers should be optional with alternatives of quiet reflection or meditation.
It was encouraging that there seemed much agreement at the end of the meeting for reform of this nature. This will also have been helped by the more recent comments in July by the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd John Pritchard, in favour of non-faith schools being more inclusive and providing assemblies drawing upon values. It will be interesting to see what the final draft of Surrey’s guidance has to say.
As well as providing Volunteer support for RE in Surrey and our members volunteering as individuals for a number of organisations, other areas members give time to are the following: