LONDON (Reuters) – The government has endorsed the teaching of atheism as a belief system for the first time, in a religious education plan warmly welcomed by the country’s religious groups.
Education and Skills Secretary Charles Clarke on Thursday launched the first “national framework” for religious education (RE), which sets out expectations for the teaching of the subject in schools.
“There is a legal requirement for all schools to teach religious education. I want to ensure that standards are consistently high so that every pupil benefits. That’s why this framework is so important,” Clarke said.
Developed by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) in consultation with major UK religious communities, the framework is not legally binding and local education authorities (LEAs) can decide how it is applied.
“The QCA is committed to supporting the delivery of high quality RE and urges LEAs … to use this guidance creatively to broaden and enrich pupils’ learning of RE,” said QCA Chief Executive Ken Boston.
In the framework, the government recommended the teaching of secular philosophies, such as humanism, for the first time, a Department for Education and Skills (DfES) spokesman said.
But the recommendation was not enough for the National Secular Society (NSS), Britain’s biggest secular group, which launched a campaign to raise awareness of a parent’s right to withdraw children from RE classes.
“Children are being given biased information which verges on religious propaganda … non-believing children are to have their philosophy challenged at every turn in RE, but there is little in this framework to allow religion to be challenged,” said an NSS statement.
The statement cites statistics which show 58 percent of children are atheist or agnostic.
But government figures show a rise in RE students.
The number of RE A-level students rose 13.8 percent in 2004 compared to 2003, and RE GCSE qualifications rose by 6.6 percent.
Both the Church of England and the Muslim Council of Britain welcomed the framework.
“An agreed syllabus must reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are mainly Christian, whilst taking into account of the teachings and practices of the other principal religions,” read the statement.
Tahir Alam, education spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, said the framework was important for developing a more positive and understanding society.
“We consider religious education to be very important to overcoming current misrepresentations prevalent in Islamophobia,” he said.
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