No right to remove pupils from RE in new Welsh Curriculum – but several questions remain

Welsh Government Education Minister Kirsty Williams AM has confirmed the Government’s decision on religion, relationships and sexuality education and announced plans for ‘sensitive and careful implementation’. In a piece cross-posted with permission from his blog, Russell Sandberg comments on the announcement.

The Welsh Government has announced that pupils in Wales will have ‘universal access’ to the new Welsh Curriculum from September 2022. Further to a consultation last year, there will be no parental right to opt out of either Relationship and Sexuality Education (the new name for Sex Education) or Religious Education.

The press release also stated that the consultation showed support for renaming the subject Religious Education, that the most popular choice was ‘Religion, Values and Ethics’ and that the name would be changed when the new curriculum comes into effect. This doesn’t seem to confirm that ‘Religion, Values and Ethics’ will be the new name but that is the inference. This is different from the proposal in the consultation for ‘Religions and Worldviews’.

As noted in a previous blog, the reference to religions in the plural proved controversial since it suggested that the nature and concept of religion would not be taught.

A Consultation Analysis has been published which briefly refers to the name change, pointing out that 377 respondents suggested ‘Religion, Values and Ethics’ as opposed to 231 preferring ‘Religions and Worldviews’. The analysis does not explain the different meanings of these terms and, confusingly, states that:

The most common terms cited in the responses ‘were “ethics” and “worldviews”. A widespread feeling amongst respondents was that they felt that RE should be be renamed Religion, Values and Ethics.

Reasons for this included the idea that teaching morals and ethics is important and that the subject should reflect the more expansive focus. In addition, many respondents indicated that worldviews would encourage engagement with a broader range of opinions and beliefs.

This seems to suggest that the term ‘ethics’ is considered to be synonymous with ‘worldviews’. However, this seems to be a less focused term than the understanding of a worldview as a non-religious belief system.

At a press conference, the Minister suggested that further information about the new curriculum would be available later this month.

Several questions remain unanswered. The removal of the right to opt out of RE will require changes to primary legislation (School Standards and Framework Act 1998 s71) and, as I have argued in a previous blog post, other legislative changes will also now need to be considered, such as the existing right to teachers to opt out of teaching RE, what the role will be of local authorities going forward and how this will affect schools with a religious character who can currently teach denominational RE. BBC News has quoted Humanists UK as being concerned about the removal of the opt-out in that context.

The current law on religious education in schools applies in both England and Wales. For a discussion and critique of that law (and the law on religious worship) see chapter 8 of my book Law and Religion (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

Russell Sandberg

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