Welsh Government proposes to remove parental right of withdrawal from RE and RSE

October 17, 2019

The Accord Coalition has welcomed an announcement from the Welsh Government that it intends to withdraw parental opt out rights for Religious Education (RE) and Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) in state funded schools, but strongly urged it to change the rules around RE to make sure the subject is properly inclusive first. The Government’s proposed changes would coincide with implementation of a new national curriculum in Wales in 2022, which is set to include making RSE a compulsory subject.

Parents may currently withdraw their children from both subjects and in the case of RE it is designed to uphold the right of parents under human rights law to ensure their child is educated in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions. The Government’s consultation document explains its intentions and argues that case law has ‘… established that RE must be taught in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner’ and that it will issue guidance to ensure RE is taught in this way. It further notes however that ‘faith schools can teach RE in a way that accords with its faith basis but they must also provide neutral information on other religions and non-religious views as well’ (p7).

The Government’s move follows Accord meeting with the Minister for Education, Kirsty Williams AM, back in 2016, where it urged for a range of religiously inclusive reforms, including all pupils having an entitlement to a broad and balanced education. The consultation document also reveals the Government is seeking to rename RE ‘Religion and Worldviews Education’, to reflect the subject’s pluralistic approach.

This is the title that the two year long Commission on RE recommended the subject be known by. The prestigious Commission reviewed and urged reform of the legal and policy frameworks for RE in England, but has largely been dismissed by the UK Government.

Chair of the Accord Coalition, the Revd Stephen Terry, said ‘It is pleasing that the Government has shared its view that the law already demands that RE should be a pluralistic, neutral and critical education on religious and non-religious worldviews. All state funded schools, their providers and those that draw RE syllabuses should take note of this and including in England where, for the time being, the law around RE is the same.’

‘It is also welcome that the Government wishes to remove the parental opt outs to help ensure all pupils have an entitlement to receive a well rounded education that prepares them for a healthy and fulfilling life in a diverse society. This education should not be denied to any child.’

‘However, if the right of withdrawal from RE is removed and some schools continued to provide RE that inculcated particular worldviews or displayed undue bias then, under human rights law, this could constitute illegal indoctrination and ultimately make the Government’s proposal unlawful. Withdrawing the opt out right without strong safeguards could be a hazardous way forward and leave some pupils badly exposed.’

‘Therefore, before removing the parental right of withdrawal from RE, Accord strongly advises the Government first changes rules around the subject, to make it explicit that it must be properly inclusive in all state funded schools. There should be no ambiguity, and where ambiguity remains the right should be retained, as a likely legal necessity and as a practical if imperfect protection from inappropriate teaching.’

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