The late Harold Wilson used to say that a week is a long time in politics. Goodness only knows what he would have made of the conniptions going on over the new GCSE in Religious Studies. He would also perhaps been impressed by the alacrity with which the British Humanist Association can fill the media. So let me start at the very beginning – a very good place to start.
On Wednesday 25 November, the Daily Telegraph, along with almost all other ‘quality’ daily papers, wrote that: ‘All non-faith schools will be forced to teach non-religious views following a landmark judgment by the High Court that ruled the Education Secretary unlawfully excluded atheism from a new GCSE’. Always first with the news, just 24 hours later, the BBC website, on Thursday 26 November put out an extensive, piece, from which I quote: The education secretary made "an error of law" in leaving "non-religious world views" out of the new religious studies GCSE, the High Court has ruled. This was because Nicky Morgan asserted this GCSE would cover the state's legal duty to provide religious education.
Three families, backed by the British Humanist Association, which interprets the ruling differently from the DfE, argued she had taken a "skewed" approach to RS when she had announced changes in February.
Mr Justice Warby ruled there had been "a breach of the duty" in reflecting the pluralistic nature of the UK. The government said its new GCSE was found to be lawful and that it aimed to promote an understanding of all beliefs.
The judge said: "It is not of itself unlawful to permit an RS GCSE to be created which is wholly devoted to the study of religion." But he added the February announcement had included the "assertion" the new GCSE "will fulfil the entirety of the state's [religious education] duties" and schools would interpret this to mean non-religious views need not be included in teaching. "The assertion thus represents a breach of the duty to take care that information or knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in a pluralistic manner," he said.
And as a result, the education secretary "has made an error of law in her interpretation of the education statutes".
If the judgement is not successfully challenged, by the Department for Education, schools will have to ensure non-religious content is covered at GCSE from 2016 when the new curriculum is being introduced.’
The BBC notes that the changes ‘sparked complaints from 28 religious leaders, including the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Williams, who urged the government to rethink its decision to prioritise religious beliefs in particular those associated with: Buddhism, Christianity, Catholic Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism’.
It went on to note that the BHA, who had not let the grass grow under its collective feet, described the ruling as a "triumph" in its efforts to ensure parity was given to humanism as an example of a non-religious worldview. They even managed to get a quote from BHA chief executive Andrew Copson.
You might have thought that the story would have ended there, but hard on the heels of the BHA, the DfE put out the following statement:
There has been a high court ruling on the new religious studies (RS) GCSE curriculum. There is no problem with the RS GCSE subject content. Today’s judgment related to the introduction to the RS GCSE subject content. It concluded that a particular paragraph suggested that a school could rely entirely on the content of an RS GCSE syllabus to discharge its obligations with respect to teaching the basic curriculum subject of RE at key stage 4. The judge found that whilst that might be the case, it might not always be the case - and so it was wrong. The department will act to correct any misunderstanding.
Despite the claims in the BHA’s press notice, the judge explicitly said that there was nothing unlawful in the RS GCSE subject content itself. The judge made clear that there was “no challenge” to the content of the GCSE. He also made clear that it would be lawful to give priority to the study of Christianity in the curriculum if we wanted to do that.
The judge made clear that there was no requirement in either domestic or human rights law to give “equal air time” to all shades of belief (directly contradictory to what BHA have said in its press release).
This judgment does not require the department to amend the content or structure of the reformed RS GCSE.
Nothing in this judgment affects our previously issued guidance on RE for faith schools.
And there, dear reader, you might have thought it would rest. The DfE has given a definitive response. The judgment does not require the department to amend the content or structure of the reformed RS GCSE and nothing in the judgment affects the previously issued guidance on RE for faith schools.
But of course, that was not the end, it was not even the beginning of the end but, perhaps, it was the end of the beginning as, within a matter of hours, perhaps even minutes, the BHA issued a long and detailed response to the DfE response on the judicial review. In it, the BHA claims that ‘the statement misrepresents the BHA’s position and contains false information about what the BHA has said’. They have already produced a briefing (for whom?) clarifying, in their eyes, what the decision said and its implications. They have even summarised some of the main posts in a blog post. And you thought that it was just ‘two Jews, three opinions’!
But let me give the last words to Giles Coren, writing in The Times on Saturday 28 November. “What on earth are the teachers going to teach? And who on earth is going to teach it? Just some bloke who doesn’t believe in anything? That’s never going to wash.’
I have a feeling that ‘this show will run and run’. Watch this space.
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