Religious education in our schools has been redefined. Backed by the British Humanist Society, three families have launched a successful legal challenge to the validity of the new GCSE in religious studies. The High Court concluded that the Education Secretary had made “an error of law” in claiming that the new exam would “fulfil the entirety of the state’s RE [religious education] duties”. Mr Justice Walby stated that the Government has a legal duty to ensure that “information or knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in a pluralistic manner.”
In other words, the study of religion must incorporate non-religious as well as religious viewpoints, atheism as well theism. Politically correct pluralism trumps all in education these days. Never mind the integrity of subject knowledge or even basic common sense, it is pluralism, aka ‘inclusivity’, that matters most.
Ironically, the new exam syllabus is specifically designed to be more pluralistic than the previous syllabus, requiring the study of two, rather than one, religious faiths. In addition, 50 per cent of the course is devoted to philosophy and ethics. This lends itself readily to the inclusion of non-religious perspectives, such as humanism.
Dissatisfaction with the proposed new syllabus, however, has been evident for some time. The British Humanist Society, jubilant at its ‘victory’ in the High Court, makes this clear on its website:
“Government rejected the results of its consultation, and went against the opinion of RE subject experts and religious leaders, by omitting humanism from the GCSE RS subject curriculum.”
Amongst the 28 religious leaders who objected to the new syllabus on the grounds of it not being inclusive enough was the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Williams. The leaders’ objections centred on the requirement that the two faiths studied have to be chosen from a set list of world religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Catholic Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and Sikhism
All that High Court has done is to ensure that religious education complies with the legal requirement that the over-riding responsibility of the curriculum is to promote pluralism:
“…the state must accord equal respect to different religious convictions, and to non-religious beliefs; it is not entitled to discriminate between religions and beliefs on a qualitative basis; its duties must be performed from a standpoint of neutrality and impartiality as regards the quality and validity of parents’ convictions."
This legal judgment will be seen by the ‘Blob’, the educational establishment, as a timely rebuke for peddlers of old-fashioned notions about subject knowledge being pre-eminent in learning. Those days have long gone in our country. ‘Knowledge’ is now seen as a click away on Google, provided you can read.
Should the study of religion play any part at all in the school curriculum? Some persuasive voices tell us to keep religion out of school, altogether. The truth is, though, knowledge and understanding of religions has probably never been more important than it is now.
If learning is to be worthwhile and valid it needs to be built on a foundation of subject knowledge, not on a foundation of political correctness. This applies as much to religious studies as to other subjects. The High Court’s definition of religious studies undermines the integrity of subject knowledge in the curriculum. Religious studies should, surely, be about the study of religion, not ‘non-religion’. We do not expect a syllabus in English to include French, or a Mathematics syllabus to include history, even if tangential links may exist and may be referenced by teachers.
The High Court judgment will impact not just on the new GCSE religious studies syllabus but also on the teaching of this subject and others more widely across the curriculum. Deficiencies in the law can be remedied by Parliament and in this case, probably, by a simple statutory order from the Education Secretary. I hope that she will have the good sense to act.