Religious schools and school religion: talk given to Brighton & Hove Humanists 4th April 2012

Brighton & Hove Humanists invited me to give a talk on Religious Schools and Religious Education.

About 30 members attended the meeting in an ideal back room of The Lord Nelson pub. After the talk there was a drinks break, giving people the opportunity to have a chat.

Following the break, there was a question and answer session. One member was concerned about the apparent increase in religious control of education through independent academies and free schools.

A church minister and RE teacher of 40 years standing challenged several parts of the talk, including my claim that religious schools promote religion. A new member pressed him on the apparent cherry-picking of the bible when teaching RE.

A visitor stated his concern about discrimination against the LGBT community in schools. The minister said that he deplored bullying of any kind, inside or outside of school.

Another member said that simply naming a school as a "faith" school had a detrimental effect and give a license to religious discrimination.

I hope that Brighton & Hove Humanists and Chichester Humanists can support each other. One immediate consequence of the meeting is the possibility of sharing local speakers, some of whom are members.

You can download a Word version of the talk here which you are free to use.

School religion and religious schools: Brighton & Hove Humanist Society April 2012

A brief history of schools

Prior to 1870, the state took no interest in providing education. The churches battled it out between them, providing an inadequate amount of education. After 1870 there was a dual system of church and state (community) schools.

The 1944 Act reformed the school system. Church schools were given more money to raise standards in return for more state control. This was a missed opportunity to abolish religious schools.

Roman Catholic schools became voluntary aided, where the church paid for 50% of building costs in return for more control. The state paid all running costs. Today the RC church only pays 10% of building costs but is able to recruit Catholic staff and use their own RE syllabus.

The other churches chose voluntary controlled status where all costs were met by the state. They can only appoint 20% of religious teachers.

The 1944 Act required schools to have a daily act of non-denominational worship. Over time, daily worship was more or less dispensed with until Conservative pressure reinforced it in the 1988 Education Act, contrary to most educational opinion.

The 1944 Act also stated that all community and voluntary controlled schools should teach RE according to a locally agreed syllabus, written by SACRE. This practice continues to this day, there being around 150 RE syllabuses of varying quality throughout England and Wales. More about this later.

Today, around 33% of state maintained schools are religious but their number is steadily increasing thanks to academies and free schools and the relentless desire of religious organisations to take over state education. This is quite amazing bearing in mind the terminal decline of Christianity in the UK. The number of religious schools only increases; I am unaware of any religious school being replaced by a community school.

Religious schools perform better on average due to their admissions policy and self-selecting parents. Despite overwhelming public opposition to religious schools, they continue to flourish and tighten control over their admissions under newly relaxed regulations.


Academies were introduced under Labour to replace failing secondary schools in deprived areas with independent state funded new schools. Academies have independent control of staffing, curriculum and admissions. The Conservatives have radically expanded the program, with the aim of converting all schools to academies, bringing an end to local authority control of education.

Religious organisations like ULT, The Woodard Trust and Oasis are replacing community schools with religious academies. For example, there is no community school between Brighton & Hove and Worthing; all have been converted to religious academies.

The Church of England and more recently the Methodists are desperate to take over as many schools as possible, or become involved with community schools in other ways. Rowan Williams said that it was conceivable that the C of E would become the largest provider of education in the country! Fortunately, the government has prevented them converting community schools to religious academies in a single step. We can thank the BHA and NSS for their influence in government. But the latest C of E report calls for the setting up of 200 more state-funded church schools to combat “aggressive secularism”.

Michal Gove has encouraged all Catholic Schools to convert to academy status as soon as possible, so as to avoid losing their “hard won freedoms” such religious discrimination in staffing, restrictive admissions policies, biased religious education, exemptions from sex education, etc.

What might surprise you is that academies perform no better than average. Some end up worse than the schools they replaced, e.g. Lancing academy became a failing school and was taken into special measures.

Free schools

Where there is a need for a new school, local authorities are legally bound to invite bids for Free Schools. There are hundreds of bids from religious groups to set up free schools “with a religious ethos”.  Religious groups are often well organized and so have an advantage over other groups.

Free schools are like academies but can only reserve a maximum of 50% of places for children of religious parents. They can discriminate in employment, use unqualified teachers and teach their own curriculum. Understandably, they are opposed by unions like the NUT.

Free schools are based on a system introduced in Sweden 20 years ago which has produced only a modest improvement in 15 and 16 year old educational attainment. Sweden is now introducing new legislation to rein in the excesses of the 10% of free schools that are religious.

In Crawley, we have a new Christian Montessori primary school. Plans for an Oasis secondary school in Southwater have been put on hold following local opposition. A Christian group wants to start a free school in Haywards Heath with extra bible study lessons. All three are within a 5 mile radius. In contrast, parents have been trying for 3 years to get a non-religious mixed free secondary school in Chichester.

On a positive note, recent law requires free schools to promote democracy, equality of opportunity, respect, tolerance and the rule of law.

What’s wrong with maintained religious schools?

  • state-funded promotion of religion (biased RE, increased collective worship)
  • admissions based on religious identity
  • socially divisive
  • biased sex & relationships education, with all of its consequences
  • discrimination against staff
  • discrimination against the non-religious
  • increased discrimination against LGBT pupils and staff
  • most importantly, they violate the human rights of the child (forced worship, right to all knowledge)

Religious Education

Religious Instruction was made a compulsory subject in 1944, with syllabuses drawn up locally by Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education (SACREs). These syllabuses mainly taught Christianity in laborious detail and were designed to support Sunday School teaching. Parents and staff had the right of withdrawal.

World religions and Humanism were gradually introduced into some local syllabuses from the 1970s, e.g. Birmingham 1974). RI was no longer considered confessional, i.e. promoting religion.

Thatcher’s 1988 Education Reform Act (which produced the National Curriculum) changed RI to RE with a view to curtailing progressive local authorities like Birmingham. RE was not included in the National Curriculum however and continues to be controlled by local SACREs.

After years of lobbying by groups like the BHA, the government introduced the Non-statutory Framework for Religious Education in 2004. This widens the remit of RE and its relationship with human rights and citizenship. It also includes reference to non-religious worldviews such as Humanism. However, the detailed content is heavily biased towards religion, especially Christianity, the so-called national religion. Plans have just been announced to update it.

Because RE syllabuses are drawn up locally, they vary widely in quality and inclusiveness. According to the law, SACREs cannot have non-religious full members. However, about half of SACREs have co-opted a Humanist member with no voting rights. Brighton & Hove has a Humanist member. West Sussex has repeatedly blocked Humanist membership.

SACREs are self-serving groups of so-called religious representatives. They are not academics and yet are charged with producing an educational syllabus that students are expected to spend around 5% of their school life studying from the age of 5 until they leave school. The resulting syllabus is extremely biased towards religious belief and is frankly an insult to education.

After years of attending West Sussex SACRE as a silent observer, they eventually included a single mention of Humanism in the preamble to the syllabus. But at the last meeting a survey revealed that schools don’t read this preamble. They look at the content, which says that non-religious world views may be studied “where appropriate”. The effect of this is that primary schools completely ignore Humanism, indoctrinating children by omission. Secondary schools vary but most spend only a small amount of time on Humanism during the later years.

The views of the non-religious are irrelevant according to many councils like West Sussex, despite RE now including topics such as morality, relationships, sexuality, life and death, the natural world, citizenship, respect, etc. Apparently, we have nothing constructive to say about these issues. The true nature of religion, warts and all, is avoided until the end of secondary education (in community schools).

The obvious solution is to replace RE with a national academic subject such as Philosophy and Culture. As well as teaching children how to think and reason, it would include religion and belief as just one aspect of society and culture. Every school would be required to follow this syllabus. Teachers would be trained properly instead of the current shambles. 150 MPS are currently considering RE; I hope they recommend a national syllabus, in which case SACREs will be scrapped.

But the best syllabus in the world is useless unless schools follow it. OFSTED no longer reports on RE and even when it did their reports were next to useless. SACREs do not have funds to know what is going on in their schools, and schools are too busy to tell them. Academies and free schools can create their own curriculum anyway.

Most children are bored by RE and find it irrelevant. Although 65% of 12-19 year olds are non-religious, I feel for the other 35% who have not had the opportunity of being taught about non-religious worldviews. Many people find it impossible to escape their early indoctrination. School should be the antidote to parental religious indoctrination but instead most are guilty of indoctrination by omission, especially primary schools.

What can we do?

Religious exemption from Equality and Human Rights, especially in education, makes a mockery of the law. West Sussex has embraced equality in every area apart from education, simply because the law allows them to get away with it. We need to support the BHA and NSS in their efforts to influence parliament. Writing to our MPs is one way we can all become involved.

I am a member of Worthing Community and Equality Working Group. We have invited West Sussex County Council to answer questions about their approach to RE in West Sussex.

As more schools become independent, we need to become involved in what they are teaching our children, concentrating on human rights and equality. From 6th April, all schools must publish their equality objectives, stating how they intend to fight discrimination and promote equality. Those of Catholic schools should make interesting reading when it comes to promoting equality for LGBT. Download a copy from your local school (see below for more details).

Schools will respond best to a positive approach. Buy a copy of the BHA introduction to Humanism for schools (primary and secondary) and donate it to the school. Offer to give a talk about what it means to be a Humanist. Become a governor and express an interest in RE and collective worship.

Support the BHA by taking part in online petitions (e.g. they need 100 000 signatures to get collective worship in schools discussed in parliament) and automatic emails to MPs and ministers.


This government is introducing the biggest shake-up of education for decades, creating local independent schools that are, in theory, answerable to the local community but not to the local council.

As with the Big Society and the Localism Bill, we can use this to our advantage by making sure that non-religious people are fully included and not discriminated against.

It may sometimes seem like doom and gloom as the government enthusiastically endorses desperate religious organisations. But they are backing a sick horse. Organised religion is in its death throes and will inevitably need to bow out of politics.

I am confident that the UK will eventually become fully secular. Each of us can play a small part to bring this about sooner.

You can download a copy of this talk from

Our next meeting of Chichester Humanists is a talk by the Quakers on Conscientious Objection on Monday 16th April from 7pm at the Chichester Inn.

The May meeting is a discussion about the similarities and differences of Christians and Humanists, with a speaker from a local Baptist church. If this is successful, I hope to hold similar talks involving other religious groups.

Thank you for listening. 

Comparison between Bright & Hove and West Sussex


Two Conservative MPs and Caroline Lucas, first Green MP

Councillors: 43% Green, 33% Conservative, 24% Liberal Democrat, 0% Labour

89% white

27% no religion on census

In the 2001 census, Brighton and Hove had the highest percentage of citizens indicating their religion as Jedi among all principal areas of England and Wales)

80 schools:

17 religious primary, 1 secondary (Cardinal Newman Catholic School)

Half of places for the proposed King’s School will be given to students from Christian primary schools, with the rest filled by children of either no faith or of other religions.

17.4% pupils attend religious secondary schools

21% pupils attend religious primary schools

SACRE has a Humanist member

West Sussex

Eight Conservative MPs

Councillors: 67% Conservative, 23% Liberal Democrat, 10% Labour

97% white

16% no religion on census

300 schools:

101 religious primary, 11 religious secondary (4 academies and growing, e.g. Bognor Regis ULT)

Discovery Montessori free school with Christian ethos;  proposals for Southwater, Haywards Heath religious  free schools.

24% pupils attend religious secondary schools

31% pupils attend religious primary schools

SACRE does not have a Humanist member

The Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) in schools

PSED extends schools’ equality duties

The PSED, sometimes referred to as the ‘general duty’, extends schools’ equality duties to all protected characteristics:

  • Race
  • The PSED ... extends schools’ equality duties to all protected characteristics
  • Disability
  • Sex
  • Age
  • Religion or belief
  • Sexual orientation
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Gender reassignment

The three main elements of the duty

  • Eliminate discrimination and other conduct that is prohibited by the Equality Act 2010
  • Advance equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and people who do not share it
  • Foster good relations across all characteristics, and between people who share a protected characteristic and people who do not share it

Schools need to publish their equality objectives

Schools have until 6 April 2012 to publish their initial information and first set of objectives. They will then need to update the published information at least annually and to publish objectives at least once every four years.

It will be up to schools themselves to decide in what format they publish equality information

It will be up to schools themselves to decide in what format they publish equality information. For most schools, the simplest approach may be to set up an equalities page on their website where all this information is present or links to it are available.

The regulations are not prescriptive and it will be entirely up to schools to decide how they publish the information, so long as it is accessible to those members of the school community and public who want to see it.

More information can be found here

Last Updated (Monday, 09 April 2012 12:11)


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