Table of Contents
Religious education (RE) plays a crucial role in shaping the knowledge and understanding of individuals in society. While the utility of RE is often associated with its impact on securing high paid employment, it is important to consider other factors when determining what and how to teach. These include holistic concerns such as personal autonomy, civic and moral capacities, and the flourishing of individuals and society as a whole. Additionally, legal frameworks and societal changes also influence the content and approach to teaching RE.
The Role of Legal Frameworks
Legal frameworks play a significant role in shaping the content and delivery of RE. Changes to these frameworks are often implemented in response to societal changes or to ameliorate the behavior of individuals and institutions. For example, the 1988 Education Reform Act in Great Britain introduced a requirement for agreed syllabuses to reflect the religious traditions in the country, while also considering the teaching and practices of other principal religions. This change was a response to the growth of religious diversity in the country since the introduction of agreed syllabuses in 1944.
Human rights law is another important legal framework that influences RE. Often referred to as ‘aspirational law,’ human rights laws articulate goals concerning the kind of people and societies we wish to create. The right to education, as outlined in Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights, includes a positive duty for the state to respect parents’ religious and philosophical convictions. This duty also extends to conveying information and knowledge in a pluralistic manner, encompassing non-religious perspectives as well.
The Reforms in Wales
In Wales, the recent Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Act of 2021 broadened the scope of RE and renamed it as ‘Religion, Values, and Ethics’ (RVE). This reform reflects the growing diversity of religion and belief in Wales and aligns with the Human Rights Act 1998, which brings the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law. The Act requires the inclusion of non-religious philosophical convictions in syllabuses and enables the appointment of non-religious representatives to SACREs (Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education) and ASCs (Agreed Syllabus Conferences).
These reforms in Wales are both responsive and aspirational. They aim to reflect the diversity of religion and belief in the country and explicitly align with human rights principles. By including non-religious perspectives in the curriculum, Wales is ensuring a pluralistic approach to education that respects the convictions of all individuals.
The Importance of Human Rights Law in RE
Human rights law, including the right to education and freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, has particular relevance to RE. Several legal cases have highlighted the need for a pluralistic approach to RE that includes non-religious perspectives.
In England, the High Court ruled that a curriculum focusing solely on religious perspectives without adequate representation of non-religious worldviews like humanism would be insufficiently pluralistic and thus unlawful. This ruling established the importance of a balanced curriculum that includes both religious and non-religious beliefs.
Similarly, in Northern Ireland, a successful legal challenge was brought against the content of the core RE syllabus and collective worship. The court found that the RE syllabus in Northern Ireland, which was predominantly Christian in content and excluded non-religious perspectives, did not convey RE in an objective, critical, and pluralistic manner. This ruling emphasized the need for a curriculum that respects the convictions of all individuals, including non-religious perspectives.
The Limitations of the Right to Withdraw from RE
The presence of a right to withdraw from RE has been deemed insufficient to fulfill the rights of parents and students with non-religious convictions. Both the Fox case in England and the JR87 case in Northern Ireland highlighted that the need to withdraw from RE is a manifestation of the pluralism required in education, rather than a satisfactory substitute for a curriculum that respects all convictions.
This challenges the notion that the right to withdraw represents a policy that is openly plural, as some have argued. Instead, it underscores the importance of providing an educational program that includes and respects the convictions of all individuals, regardless of their religious or non-religious beliefs.
Ensuring Proportionate and Balanced Representation
While the law allows for the preponderance of particular religious views in a curriculum, it also requires proportionate and balanced representation of minority religions and non-religious beliefs. This principle is supported by key stakeholders in RE in England and Wales.
The question then arises of which non-religious perspectives should be included in the curriculum. This issue requires careful consideration and consultation with subject experts. It is important to strike a balance that respects the diversity of beliefs held in the population and ensures a pluralistic approach to education.
Religious education in 2023 is shaped by a variety of factors, including legal frameworks, societal changes, and the recognition of human rights. The inclusion of non-religious perspectives in RE is essential for a pluralistic and balanced curriculum that respects the convictions of all individuals. While the law allows for the preponderance of particular religious views, it also requires proportionate and balanced representation. By embracing these principles, education systems can create an inclusive and respectful learning environment that prepares individuals for a diverse and interconnected world.
– Brighouse et al., 2018
– Clayton et al., 2018
– ERA 1988
– EA 1944
– Fancourt, 2021
– Harvey, 2004
– Welsh Government, 2021
– Fox v Secretary of State for Education, 2015
– Kokkinakis v Greece, 1993
– Wareham, 2022a
– Bowen v Kent County Council, 2023
– JR87, 2022
– DoE, 2007
– Folgerø v Norway, 2007
– Juss, 2016
– Felderhof, 2023
– DfE, 2015