Landmark for humanism: full representation on most local RE committees in England

A significant milestone for humanist representation in public life has been reached. More than half of England’s local authority religious education committees (known as Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education or ‘SACREs’) now have a humanist representative as a full member of group A. Group A is the group for representatives of religions and humanism.

Humanists UK, which campaigns for inclusive religious education (RE) and recently enabled a High Court win for humanists on SACREs, said it was ‘thrilled’ at the news and that it demonstrated the new case law created by the High Court win was already taking effect.

The news is important because, with more than two-thirds of young people having no religion, today’s children must be able to learn about the principal non-religious worldview – humanism – during their RE lessons. Humanism should be taught with equal respect to the major world religions. Indeed such inclusivity is now required by law. It follows that the bodies that set local RE syllabuses must also contain humanist representatives.

Court victory means humanists should be on every local authority RE council

After humanist Steve Bowen won in the High Court in May, in a case supported by Humanists UK, the UK Government wrote to all local authorities in England in August to confirm that they are able to appoint humanists as full voting members to group A of their SACREs.

Therefore the coming months should see many more SACREs decide to admit humanists, safe in the knowledge that if they do so they will not be acting unlawfully.

A decision to refuse a humanist membership of group A would likely be unlawful following the Bowen judgment. In early September, Kent Online reported that Kent County Council spent £90,000 (including Steve Bowen’s costs) on its ultimately futile attempt to maintain a discriminatory arrangement, in the face of decades of clear case law and precedent.

In Wales, following a 2021 change in the law, humanists have been invited onto 21 out of 22 Welsh standing advisory councils.

Humanists UK maintains the register of, and looks after, humanists on SACREs across England and Wales. While 119 of the 151 SACREs in England have some form of humanist representative, many have historically been co-opted or observers, with no voting and limited speaking rights. It is only in recent years that the number of full members of group A has reached significant levels. For example in the 1990s there were only two or three, while ten years ago it was in the low 20s. Earlier in 2023 it was 61, but the numbers are now clearly increasing rapidly thanks to the Bowen judgment. By reaching 76 SACREs with a humanist on group A, there is now a majority for the first time. The work continues to get full representation across the country, on every SACRE.

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Robert Cann said:

‘Children throughout England deserve to be taught unbiased RE that is fully inclusive of humanism. So I’m thrilled with this news. While humanists have successfully and collegiately sat on – and indeed been Chairs of – some SACREs since the 1980s, we have never had full membership on the majority of them. Until now.

‘It is clear that the new case law created by Steve Bowen’s High Court win is taking effect. Now that the Government has told all local authorities that nothing legally stands in their way of appointing a humanist to group A, the numbers will continue to rise, and we will work to ensure that we reach 100% representation. It is highly likely that there is no area of England where a humanist applicant can be lawfully denied full membership of their local SACRE.’

Supporting parents

RE is already required to give equal respect to humanism – but unfortunately not all syllabuses do this, and Humanists UK works with parents to challenge such non-inclusive syllabuses. Ensuring that all SACREs have a humanist representative as a full voting member is one important way of working towards full inclusion across the country.

Humanists UK has produced guides for non-religious parents, which contain information and advice regarding the content of RE syllabuses. Parents concerned about the content of their child’s RE curriculum are encouraged to read the guides and to get in touch with any concerns.