Religion in schools in Wales

In a guest post, Russell Sandberg looks at the latest Welsh Government proposals on religious education in schools.

The Welsh Government has just published a consultation document on Access to the Full Curriculum in Welsh schools. One of its proposals is to change the name and content of ‘Religious Education’ to ‘Religions and Worldviews’, placing it as a compulsory part of the Humanities area in the new curriculum. They also propose removing the parental right to opt out of such religious education:

This is a welcome modernisation – the current law reflects a bygone age and reform of religious education (and indeed worship) in schools is long overdue as I argued in my book, Law and Religion.

It is great to see Wales leading the way on this. In the same way as Wales led by giving the right to sixth-formers to opt out of religious worship in schools, it is to be hoped that these changes will also lead to reforms in England.

The Current Law

The law on religious education is currently the same in both England and Wales.  A distinction is drawn between schools without a religious character and those which do have a religious character (often colloquially called ‘faith schools’). The legal position then differs for schools which have a religious character depending on the type of school (based primarily upon the degree of control by the local authority).

For schools without a religious character, the position is as follows.  Under the Education Act 1996, local authorities adopt an ‘agreed syllabus’ for religious education after receiving the advice of Agreed Syllabus Conferences (ASCs) which are convened for that purpose.  The resulting syllabus ‘shall reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain’ (s375(3)).

No teacher can be required to give religious education nor is he or she to ‘receive any less remuneration or be deprived of, or disqualified for, any promotion or other advantage … by reason of the fact that he does or does not give religious education’ (School Standards and Framework Act 1998 s. 59(3)).

The Local Authority, the governing body and the headteacher must ensure that religious education is given in accordance with the local agreed syllabus (School Standards and Framework Act 1998, s. 69.)  However, if a parent requests that a pupil ‘be wholly or partly excused’ from receiving RE, the pupil is to be so excused until the request is withdrawn (s71).

Some Implications of the Proposals  

The important and interesting thing here will be how the name change is expressed in law. The current law makes reference to ‘religious education’ but the term is undefined.  Although teaching on non-religious worldviews will be in addition to teaching religion, it may be both necessary and advisable to alter the wording of the law to reflect this. This could, and given what the consultation document says about the rationale of modernising the law probably should, include revisiting if not removing the requirement that religious traditions are in the main Christian (as current law does).

If the subject (however titled) is to be included as part of the Humanities Area of Learning and Education under Wales’ new curriculum and taught in an interdisciplinary way, it will still remain vital as a matter of law that distinguishable religious education is provided in schools. Otherwise, the Local Authority, the governing body and the headteacher will be in breach of their statutory obligations under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, s.69. Alternatively, this provision could be repealed in Wales.

This also raises the question of whether the teacher right to give religious education would apply in relation to religious education which is an indistinguishable part of the humanities curriculum.

The reform also raises the question of what will be the role of the local authorities going forward. The consultation document states that although the subject will now be ‘a statutory part of the Humanities Area of Learning and Education’ recognition will still be given to ‘the local responsibility of the Agreed Syllabus Conference and local authorities’  (para 20).

It is difficult to see how this can work. At the moment, Religious Education is not part of the national curriculum.   The regulation of religious education and worship has been a local matter so that it can take into account the religious makeup of the geographical area in which the school is based.  This is a clearly outdated approach and so, although the new changes proposed are welcome, it is questionable whether they ought to completely replace the previous system.  Placing the subject as a statutory part of the curriculum raises the question of whether local regulation, discretion and variation will be required.

The Welsh Government’s proposal is clearly a step in the direction of centralisation, mandating that religious education includes non-religious worldviews and it will be interesting to see how centralised this becomes. Placing the subject as part of the Humanities furthers this and questions the role of local authorities especially since the new curriculum focuses and builds upon local identities and experiences. The consultation document states that a group will be responsible for developing a ‘new supporting framework’. This should include looking at whether the existing responsibilities of local authorities and of ASCs should be retained.

One area where centralised directive would be advisable would be in relation to providing guidance as to what constitutes a ‘worldview’. This is an area of legal uncertainty at present. Employment Tribunals have struggled with it, as shown by the recent decision about vegetarianism in Conisbee. Adopting a wide and expansive definition would be the best approach here, but the question of where the line is to be drawn is likely to prove problematic.

One problem, raised by Humanists UK, is that on the face of it the proposals would also apply to schools which have a religious character. The consultation document states that recognition will also be given to ‘the place of the denominational syllabus in faith-based schools’ (para 20).

The issue of whether schools with a religious character should be able to teach their faith and how they should do so is a controversial one. And the legal position differs depending on the type of school. However, as Humanists UK have pointed out, the blanket removal of the right to opt out of religious education would mean that there would be no right to opt out from denominational religious education in schools with a religious character:

This is probably an unintended consequence of the Welsh Government’s proposals and risks breaching human rights provisions if the new compulsory subject in faith schools reflects their denominational syllabus. Strasbourg has made it clear that the State ‘must take care that information or knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner’: Valsamis v. Greece (1997) 24 EHRR 294).

The solution here would be to distinguish denominational religious education in schools with a religious character from the new Religion and Worldviews component of the Humanities Area of Learning and Education. The Welsh Government is correct to say that there should be no opt-out from Religion and Worldviews because it is part of the curriculum.  Denominational religious education in schools with a religious character could continue but as being outside the curriculum. That would also ensure that it would not breach human rights requirements and could mean that a right to opt out of that remains.

One final thought: the long-overdue modernisation of the law on religious education in schools will also leave the law on religious worship in schools looking all the more archaic. As part of these reforms and in particular rethinking the role of local authorities, it is surely time to revisit the requirements in relation to religious worship too.

Conclusion

The Welsh Government’s proposals are to be applauded and it is to be hoped that this leads to long-overdue reform. However, there are a number of probably unappreciated implications of what is being proposed. If the proposals find favour in the consultation, then the following legal changes need to be made:

  • The name change to Religion and Worldviews needs to be articulated in law, possibly by saying that references to religious education in schools without a religious character will in Wales be understood as being part of ‘Religion and Worldviews’.
  • The statutory obligation to ‘reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian’ needs to be reviewed and possibly removed.
  • There is a need to examine whether sections 59 and 69 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 will need to be amended.
  • There is a need to review whether the existing responsibility of local authorities in relation to religious education should be retained.
  • Guidance needs to be given as to how the term ‘worldview’ is to be understood and defined.
  • Separate consideration needs to be given to religious education in schools with a religious character. One option would be to retain denominational religious education in such schools together with an opt-out but to provide that outside the curriculum in addition to the Religion and Worldviews part of the humanities curriculum in such schools.
  • The law on religious worship in schools is now in urgent need of review.

Russell Sandberg

Cite this article as: Russell Sandberg, “Religion in schools in Wales” in Law & Religion UK, 4 October 2019, https://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2019/10/04/religion-in-schools-in-wales/.

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