Although Religious Education is compulsory, it is not part of the National Curriculum. It’s determined locally. Each local authority sets up a committee known as a Standing Advisory Council for RE or SACRE, for advice about RE and collective worship for its community schools. Academies and free schools do not have to follow the SACRE advice, for example they can choose to use a different RE syllabus.
Each SACRE produces a new RE syllabus every 5 years. So as there are 165 local authorities in England and 22 in Wales this means potentially 187 SACREs are producing 187 syllabuses every 5 years. There is strong national guidance which indicates that pupils should learn about non-religious world views as well as religious. However this guidance is non-statutory.
Roughly 1/3 of all state schools in England are faith schools: 37% of Primary and 19% secondary. Of the first 425 new free schools, 28% of primary are faith schools and 12% of secondary. Most faith schools choose to use their own RE syllabus (ignoring the SACRE Agreed Syllabus) which, of course, can mean in reality they may only really teach one religion and ignore non-religious viewpoints.
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,
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. In contrast according to recent annual British Social Attitude Surveys around half of the population in the UK are non-religious which increases to 2/3 for 18 to 24 year olds. (This was based on the question “Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion? IF YES: Which?” and compares with 25% of the population being non-religious according to the 2011 census which asked the question “What is your religion?”)
The 2018 Commission on Religious Education recommends that the subject of Religious Education in England be renamed to Religion and Worldviews, and be reformed to ensure full inclusion of humanism. The Commission also recommends that a national entitlement to the subject be introduced in place of existing legal requirements. Humanists UK has welcomed both recommendations, which are strongly in line with its own position of many decades’ standing.
Humanists UK has also been campaigning for Humanists to be included as full voting members of SACREs. Humanists UK believes humanists should have legal right to be on SACREs as Human Rights and Equality Acts indicate religion should be interpreted as ‘ religion and belief’
Since 2006 the Surrey SACRE have allowed Farnham Humanists to provide a Humanist volunteer representative,Jennie Johnson, as a temporary co-opted member with no voting rights, unlike the other ~20 members (usually religious even though they are not representing a religion – see above) who have full status. As of October 2018, and following Welsh Government Guidance in May 2018 which cited a requirement for compatibility with the Human Rights Act 1998, Jennie (as a representative of Humanists UK) has been allowed to become a full member of the Surrey SACRE in its Group A alongside the religions other than the Church of England.
Surrey SACRE completed its latest RE syllabus in 2017:
Surrey Agreed Syllabus 2017 to 2022
Whereas before there was nothing about humanism or non-religious views at primary level, the 2017 syllabus mentions these viewpoints in 2 compulsory units for 5 to 7 year olds.
For 7 to 11 year olds, there is a compulsory unit about the Golden Rule (to treat others as you would like to be treated yourself) which significantly considers non-religious views and humanism, as well as some mentions in other units.
At secondary level the previously optional humanist module is now compulsory.
Over the 3 syllabuses 2007, 2012 and 2017 the content has gone from the word humanism being mention once in the 2007 syllabus to it being mentioned 149 times, plus a compulsory module, in the 2017 syllabus.
As well as RE, SACRE advises on collective worship.
The law since 1944 is that each pupil in a LA maintained school must on each school day take part in an act of collective worship unless they are withdrawn by their parents or as 6th formers they withdraw themselves.
The collective worship must be wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character and not reflect any particular Christian denomination. Schools can apply for a determination. This doesn’t remove the requirement for collective worship but permits it to be of another faith.
Surrey SACRE has permitted determinations in the past to a couple of Woking primary schools but both schools are now Academies and thus outside of SACRE’s control.
In 2015 Surrey SACRE produced a new guide to Collective Worship.
Time to Reflect – A guide to Collective Worship in Surrey’s maintained schools
Humanists would of course like all worship to be replaced by inclusive, ethical assemblies, but it is encouraging that Surrey SACRE’s new guidance includes statements like “There is no compulsion to worship, and schools should make this clear to all who lead acts of collective worship.” “Pupils from non-religious backgrounds may be most comfortable with a phrase such as ‘Let us share together our wonder at all that’s amazing in our world.’”
Other productions by Surrey SACRE
Encounters with Faith – Guidance about visits and visitors to Religious Education and Collective Worship.
The guidance recommends that when deciding what to say in a school, any speaker should think about the Golden Rule (to treat others as you would like to be treated yourself).
Surrey Places of Worship – Surrey Community Info host an online database of places of worship within Surrey
Surrey SACRE Speaker’s Forum
Jennie Johnson writes in 2017 “A relatively recent initiative of Surrey SACRE has been to create a Speakers’ Forum. We are not aware of any other SACREs doing this. We had an excellent day’s training from The Faith and Belief Forum (formerly 3FF) which taught me the value of telling your personal story for around 3 minutes either about how you came to your belief or some personal aspect about your belief. We practised this and I have been using shorter or longer versions ever since. As a team of 8 different religions and beliefs we have made many visits into schools taking lessons, providing a carousel and a Question time panel.