Schools instructed to provide atheism lessons alongside RE

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The Independent Online

Atheism and minority faiths such as Baha'i and Zoroastrianism should be taught alongside Christianity in schools, the first national guidelines on religious education say.

Atheism and minority faiths such as Baha'i and Zoroastrianism should be taught alongside Christianity in schools, the first national guidelines on religious education say.

The recommendations, which were launched yesterday by Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, acknowledge that the views of religious and non-religious pupils should be treated with equal respect. The guidelines also try to counter fears that Christianity has been sidelined in religious education as merely another faith taught as part of a wider study of beliefs. The new framework calls for children to study Christianity through their school careers.

The other five major religions - Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism - should all be studied by pupils by age 14, the guidelines say. But they should also study "other religious traditions" such as Baha'i, Jainism and Zoroastrianism, and "secular philosophies such as humanism".

Mr Clarke said religious education was vital. "Children have a right and should expect to be told about what is important to their friends who may hold different beliefs," he said. "Religious education can transform pupils' assessment of themselves and others, and their understanding of the wider world. I see it as vital in widening inclusion, understanding diversity and promoting tolerance."

The guidelines recommend that children as young as three should learn about religion to help develop their "understanding of the world", social and communication skills.

The government-backed guidance is not compulsory but will influence the way religious education is taught. Children have to study RE up to 16, unless their parents withdraw them. Although pupils do not have to take exams in the subject, RE has become an increasingly popular GCSE option.

The National Secular Society condemned the document as a "charter for indoctrination" and said it would urge non-religious parents to withdraw their children from RE lessons because the framework concentrated on religion as "a truth to be embraced" rather than "something to be questioned".

Keith Porteous, a spokes-man, added: "Non-believing children are to have their philosophy challenged at every turn in RE. Many parents who do not want their children to be taught that superstition is a good basis for a rational life will be horrified."

The British Humanist Association welcomed humanism being included, saying it was vital to respect the views of the 65 per cent of young people who consider themselves to be "not religious". Marilyn Mason, the association's education officer, said: "This could be a significant step forward for religious education in England."

Leading article, page 38

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