The Government's exams watchdog faces legal action over its refusal to allow the study of humanism in the religious studies GCSE.
The British Humanist Association (BHA) has instructed solicitors to lodge a claim in the High Court against the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), alleging the decision is discriminatory. The exam board Oxford and Cambridge and Royal Society of Art (OCR) had planned to include humanism as part of its religious studies syllabus. However, it has now received a ruling saying it cannot go ahead.
Andrew Copson, director of education at the BHA, said the stance "will be a great disappointment to the teachers, parents and pupils who were as pleased as we were when OCR included the option of humanism in their GCSE. Its inclusion contributes to making religious education more meaningful for the vast majority of young people who are not religious and introduces invaluable perspectives from which all pupils benefit."
Prominent British humanists have backed the BHA's initiative. A C Grayling, the author and professor of philosophy, said: "The humanist tradition is a rich and important subject of study and children deserve the opportunity to engage with it. If schools are teaching about religious views they must also teach about humanist ones and all moves towards a more widespread acceptance of this should be welcomed not opposed."
The agony aunt Claire Rayner added: "Children must be give the opportunity to learn about humanism as a belief system as well as about religion. Although humanism has made great progress in the last few years to improve religious education, there is still a lot of prejudice against our full inclusion and it is sad to see it surfacing again."
A spokeswoman for Ofqual, the new independent exams regulatory body, said: "The subject criteria for the GCSE in religious studies require the study of one or more religions. Non-religious philosophies such as humanism may also be studied but not to the total exclusion of religion."
The legal action has been taken against the QCA as Ofqual at present is only an interim body. The BHA said that by going to court now it hoped to overturn the exclusion of humanism before a review of the curriculum in five years.