Why the religion provisions in the Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Bill need amending

The religious aspects of the Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Bill have generated quite a degree of controversy. In a guest post, Russell Sandberg reports on progress…

The Welsh Senedd will be considering amendments to the Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Bill on Tuesday 2 March. This will be the last chance to consider amendments to the Bill before the Bill is considered as a whole in plenary.

The Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Bill provides the biggest change that schools in Wales will have seen for decades.  It will radically transform the curriculum in Wales, ushering in a new pedagogical approach that moves away from a focus on prescribed knowledge to inquiry-based learning which begins with the local experience.

It will also transform the teaching of religion. Religious Education will become Religion, Values and Ethics, with non-religious beliefs included in the content of the subject and also in the composition of the local bodies that develop the locally agreed syllabus. The right of parents to withdraw their children from such lessons will also disappear. The law on the teaching of religion in Wales will differ significantly from that of England – where the antiquated and arguably non-human-rights- compliant legal provisions drawn up at the time of the Second World War will continue to apply. [For a discussion of the current law see chapter 8 of R Sandberg, Law and Religion (Cambridge University Press, 2011].

These changes in respect of the teaching of religion have proved controversial throughout the journey of the Bill and continue to be so at Stage 3 which will take place on 2 March. While Government amendments make no further changes to RVE, two amendments have been made by Senedd members. This post will argue that one of these amendments needs to be rejected while the other deserves consideration.

Before doing so, however, it is necessary to summarise briefly what the Bill currently says. In brief, it distinguishes between:

  • Schools without a religious character who teach RVE having regard to the locally agreed syllabus (which we may call ‘pluralistic RVE’).
  • Foundation and voluntary controlled schools that have a religious character who teach RVE having regard to the locally agreed syllabus (‘pluralistic RVE’) unless that does not accord with the school’s trust deeds or religious tenets in which case they can make ‘additional’ provision for this (which we may call ‘denominational RVE’), which parents can opt for.
  • Voluntary aided schools that have a religious character who teach RVE having regard to the school’s trust deeds or religious tenets (‘denominational RVE’). They must make ‘additional’ provision for RVE having regard to the locally agreed syllabus (‘pluralistic RVE’), which parents can opt for

Although the Bill as drafted refers to ‘additional provision’ being made, it is clear that this is alternative rather than additional provision. This two syllabus solution is problematic both on practical grounds and as a matter of principle. A system allowing parents to opt in raises issues of resources and practicalities that have not been previously raised by the current opt-out system.  More importantly, the two syllabus solution will mean that the Bill will fail its objective of providing universal access to objective, critical and pluralistic teaching on RVE. Some learners in schools with a religious character will not have access to pluralistic RVE.

An Amendment to reject

Darren Millar MS (Conservative) has tabled an amendment (19) that would reinstate a right of parents to withdraw pupils from RVE.  This would apply if the parent requested that the pupil is ‘wholly or partly excused from receiving teaching and learning encompassing Religion, Values and Ethics at the school’.

A further amendment (26) would specify that in foundation and voluntary controlled schools that have a religious character, the RVE syllabus would be designed having regard with the locally agreed syllabus unless a parent requests that the pupil is withdrawn in which case the RVE must then be taught that ‘accords with the tenets of the religion or religious denomination requested by the parent’ but that the cost of this will not be met by the school of the local authority.

Amendment 28 would apply in the case of voluntary aided schools that have a religious character. Here the RVE syllabus would be designed having regard to the school’s trust deed unless a parent requests that RVE is taught in accordance with the locally agreed syllabus.

These amendments reopen battles that have previously been won. Amendments 26 and 28 make no real difference to the Bill as currently drafted: the right of parental withdrawal already (and problematically) survives in relation to schools with a religious character.

Amendment 19, however, would be a retrograde step. The removal of the parental right to withdrawal means that in schools without a religious character all learners will have access to pluralistic RVE.  Provided that this is what is taught then removing the right to opt out is unobjectionable on human rights grounds.

A right to opt out would also be problematic given the nature of the new curriculum where it will be possible to teach without splitting up the curriculum in traditional subjects. RVE need not be taught as a separate subject under the new curriculum; indeed, it could be argued that doing so would be contrary to the spirit of what is envisaged. It is difficult to see how the right for parents to opt out would work where RVE was taught as part of humanities classes or as part of topic-based learning.

An Amendment to consider

 Suzy Davies MS (Conservative) has tabled a series of amendments (13, 14, 15, 16, 18) which would have the effect that schools with a religious character must design their RVE syllabus with regard to the locally agreed syllabus and the provisions of the school’s trust deeds or the tenets of the school.

The effect of this is that denominational RVE would not be instead of pluralistic syllabus RVE (or vice versa). There would be no right for the parent to request alternative RVE teaching but there would be a requirement for schools to ‘publicise, or make arrangements to publicise, the procedure for a pupil or their parent to make a complaint about the provisions for teaching and learning’ on RVE.

These amendments merit consideration. They would ensure that all Welsh learners have access to a syllabus informed by nondenominational RVE. They would also make the law much clearer and would provide a definitive step away from the parental right to withdraw (which is problematic in that it ignores the religious freedom of the child).  There is no reason why this would be incompatible with the trust deeds or religious freedom of the providers of schools with a religious character

My Research Briefing suggested that locally agreed syllabus RVE should be mandatory in schools with a religious character with denominational RVE being supplementary. These amendments achieve the same aim by ensuring that those learners in schools with a religious character receive RVE which corresponds to both.

This is a vast improvement to the Bill as currently drafted, which will cause a considerable workload for schools that will have to provide two alternative forms of RVE depending on parental preference. Moreover, these amendments would allow the Bill to fulfil its objective of ensuring universal access to pluralistic RVE. By contrast, under the Bill as it currently stands, some Welsh learners would only receive denominational RVE

Concluding thoughts

The Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Bill is a landmark piece of legislation which will transform teaching and learning in Wales – including the teaching of religion. Education law as it currently stands feels archaic and discriminatory given that English law now recognises a human right to freedom of religion or belief and prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion or belief. Reforming the law on the teaching of religion to explicitly include belief and making that teaching compulsory for all learners is an important first step.  The law on collective worship in schools needs to be looked at next.

Yet, while the boldness of the Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Bill deserves praise, the Bill is still not bold enough. The issue is with schools that have a religious character. The old archaic law continues to haunt provisions affecting those schools: a parental right to opt out persists and it remains the case that some pupils at those schools will receive denominational RVE instead of pluralistic RVE

The Minister, Kirsty Williams, promised on the floor of the Senedd on Tuesday 15 December 2020 that under the Bill “pluralistic RVE is available to all learners”. As currently drafted, however, this will not be the case. Members of the Senedd still have the opportunity at stage 3 on 2 March to ensure that this is so.  They should reject the Millar amendments and adopt the Davies amendments on RVE.

Russell Sandberg

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