Thursday 26 November 2015

Humanism and RE

Yesterday I had a little rant on Facebook about the high courts decision in regard to the BHA case (see <here>).  Before reading my rant, I want to state something categorical:

I believe that there is a place for non-religious world views in the study of RE and in the current and new GCSE RS specs. I think they are vital in the broad understanding of religion and beliefs for our students. I think it is impossible to teach about religion without giving alternative, non-religious viewpoints, and often students demand to explore them. Of course these are just as valid as religious viewpoints and beliefs.

So here is my rant here, but appreciate it may not be as technically accurate as I first believed. I do remain confident that some of my reasoning for not having a humanism annex / paper is correct.

For some reason, the high court has decided that humanism needs to be studied at GCSE RS and it was against the law to exclude it from new specs.

1) RS is not RI, we don't 'advertise' a range of religions and invite students to 'take their pick'. As such, we don't need humanism as an option for students to 'pick from', nor is it relevant if they are religious or not. Religious studies should be about studying religion, even if there was not one religious person in England.
2) RS is an academic study OF religion. Like history is of history. People don't just study religion because they are religious. Even if you claim all the violence in the world is because people are religious, surely that makes it deeply fascinating? 
3) A humanist option at GCSE could result in students gaining a GCSE in RS with a 75% study of non-religious views. Would you get a Science GCSE for studying 75% non-scientific stuff?
4) Even the BHA can't tell people exactly what should be taught as part of this humanism spec (they attempted something which was a soft / confusing option). I invited them to speak about it at The London RE Hub and they declined. They had a rep in the audience who chose to not answer questions on it.
5) Non-religious views are always part of RS anyway. Why is it an 'either-or' for the BHA? 
6) Taking away the religion from RS would make those without religious knowledge suffer greatly in understanding religion and belief. That's bonkers. The world needs more knowledge and understanding, not less.

Interestingly one of those who took this to court sends her child to a faith school and this ruling won't effect faith schools. Did she just fancy a day out in court? Thankfully the DfE have already said new GCSE specs will now not change. I suspect this will not be enough for the BHA and they will continue to roll their media machine trying to fight for this change. Maybe they will actually come and speak at my next conference to explain what it is they want taught? Apologies for this lunchtime rant. If you have got this far... WELL DONE!

I also cited, Robert Orme's article from earlier in the year, which is feel is vital reading (see <here>). He provides a far more eloquent and articulate set of reasoning as to why humanism should not be in the curriculum as an option like other religions.

What is at the heart of the legal precedent that has now been set is as follows:

While the Government will not be immediately compelled to change the GSCE, religious education syllabuses around the country will now have to include non-religious worldviews such as humanism on an equal footing, and pupils taking a GCSE will also have to learn about non-religious worldviews alongside the course.

Firstly, I am relieved. A DfE spokesperson confirmed:

“Today’s judgment does not directly affect the detailed content of our reformed GCSE and will not affect the current teaching of the RS GCSE in classrooms.” (via <NATRE>)

UPDATE: Full statement <here>

There was a group of teachers who went into panic mode that the GCSE specs which are already running late (see <here>) would be further delayed. Andrew Copson tweeted me pointing that GCSE specs weren't being taught yet (so could still be changed?), which is correct, but specs, syllabuses, textbooks and resources don't appear overnight. Obviously those doing a 3 year GCSE have already started too.

So what does it mean?

It seems to be the law on RE will have to be changed slightly, indicating that non religious world views should now be covered in RE. Now, it's important to remember the current law on RE is already much flouted as we have this complexity between the requirement of RE and the GCSE subject RS. Will there really be supplementary lessons to GCSE RS to cover NRWV? Or will the references to NRWV that are already in many of the new GCSE specs be sufficient? Or will the fact that students always ask about people that don't believe in God be enough? I don't know a teacher who manages to avoid NRWV already.

My concerns remain as below:
  1. The law is already complex when it comes to RE; it is also often ignored. Will this be ignored or will the BHA have an active campaign to challenge schools where they feel it is being ignored? (Although perhaps this will be a good thing in seeking out poor RE? Not always easy to fix though...)
  2. What is this content that we need to teach? The proposed GCSE annex is not really RE but a mixture of science, culture, English literature, etc (See <here>). As Mark points out in his blog, will there be a lot of, "humanists tend to have a range of opinions on this issue which probably revolve around being nice to each other" (see <here>).
  3. The BHA seems to promoting that their 'brand' of Humanism is what now needs to be taught, however this is not the only NRWV and obviously, we may now see other groups pushing to be included in RE, by law. Scientology? The Illuminati? Will the law allow for restriction or determination? I think the DfE need to be really clear on this or we could end up with a mess.
  4. There seems to be, from some, a desire for a new subject that is a mix of culture, morality, reflection, self exploration, review etc. This sounds lovely and would maybe be popular. I don't think it is a direct replacement for RE. Find an extra space in the curriculum for it, and I am sure schools would be interested... the study of religion remains relevant regardless of the religious persuasion of those studying it.
  5. If students are reading Dawkins or Hitchens in their spare time, that is genuinely great. However it means they probably need some teaching of Islam in their RE lessons. We need to overcome this belief that 'my students are not religious so they are not interested'. Do we exist as teachers to simply teach them what they are already know, or to open their horizons?
  6. What is the next step? The BHA seem to want an option paper for Humanism in the GCSE. Maybe this is right and correct. However, with it's current format, it just doesn't work. Maybe the work will happen to make it a comparable study. What worries me is that if this does happen, it will be one version of humanism rather a genuine exploration of a range of NRWV. 
Rob concludes (quite correctly):

There is certainly a place in GCSE RS for studying the nature of atheism and its challenges to, and impact upon religions. Humanism would be included in this – but studied on its own terms as a non-religious world-view, not falsely cast into the mould of a religion.

Non-religious world views should be studied alongside a study of two religions; it should not be an either-or. This would make for an enriching conversation and deepen understanding of religion and belief, rather than withholding this understanding from those who already lack it the most.

Mark Shepstone has also written a good blog highlight his concerns, as a humanist, but lover of academic, good RE. Read it <here>.

We do need to revisit our aims, and maybe our name (read Dawn's excellent blog on this <here>), but RE remains in a bit a of a mess. Maybe this will force the RE community to sharpen up. Maybe there is now political climate for a law change. Just don't expect it to happen over night. 

1 comment:

  1. Well, very good points there but this is just another chapter of the endless saga (odyssey?) of the deep identity crisis many colleagues identify in RE and urge a clear definition and guidance. However the current GCSE guidance is very clear: The Schemes of work of at least AQA clearly says that RE is going to cover "world views" as well as "religious views". It is self evident it is not ONLY religious views but I welcome the debate to clarify what we need to teach and how to teach it. Nevertheless I teach Humanism anyway since large part of my pupils - almost half of my classes are atheists or agnostics. We also have to remind ourselves that good RE MUST include teaching and learning of philosophical views i.e atheism and agnosticism.