Thursday, 30 June 2011

East Sussex SACRE excludes Humanists

On Wednesday two of us, George Jelliss and Stephen Milton, attended the East Sussex SACRE (Standing Advisory Committee on Religious Education) as Humanist Observers. Any member of the public is permitted to attend these meetings as an observer, although the room would have been overfull had all the 30 or so eligible members turned up. As it was there was some danger of the AGM being cancelled as being non-quorate, until one C0fE representative and a second teacher arrived late. Even then the interpretation of 1 out of 4 CofE representatives as meeting the requirement of "one third" being present seems very questionable arithmetic, but we've not seen the exact wording of the constitution.

One of the items on the agenda was to consider "Membership/make up of East Sussex SACRE" which mainly meant us presenting our case for a Humanist to be included on one of the four subcommittees. George Jelliss had prepared a one-page submission on this, and there was a short question and answer session to follow. We were then excluded from the meeting while the members debated the issue. The outcome we were told was that all four subcommittees had voted against our inclusion, although we could remain as Observers. The four subcommittees consist of A: Various Christian denominations and other religions (16); B: Church of England (4); C: Teacher Associations (6); D: Local Authority Councillors (5). Each group has one vote, regardless of number of members.

I give here the text of the submission:

The Case for Humanist Representation on the SACRE

Religious Education as taught today evolved from Religious Instruction, as it was when I was at school in the 1950s, and is now a much more widely based introduction to the beliefs and customs of people around the world, and of the pupils in our schools. There is a strong case for teaching it as "Ethics and Philosophy" or even "Humanity". This very issue was debated a few days ago, 24 June, in an interview by John Humphrys with the Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard, and the Director of the National Secular Society, Keith Porteus Wood. [1]

Current non-statutory guidance from the Government is that Religious Education should examine religious and non-religious perspectives, and cover issues such as meaning and purpose of life, the self, the nature of reality, right and wrong, what it means to be human, and worldviews that offer answers to such questions. Secular Humanism is a widely held worldview which covers all these questions. [2]

Human Rights law means that there should be no discrimination on grounds of religion or belief. Under the European Convention it does not matter whether the beliefs are categorised as religious. Freedom of thought and conscience (Article 9) applies as much to atheists and sceptics as to religious believers. [3]

Under the Equality Acts there are specific statutory requirements for Local Authorities not to act in a discriminatory way, and to promote equality of treatment, and the law defines religion or belief to include non-religious beliefs. [4]

As a matter of actual practice the British Humanist Association confirms that almost half of the SACRE in England and Wales have a humanist representative, either as a full voting or non-voting co-opted member, and there are now numerous examples of humanists as full members of group A. Other SACRE are actively seeking to appont a humanist representative. The guidance states that the numbers of persons appointed to represent each "denomination" should reflect broadly its proportionate strength in the area. On this basis it could be argued that the Sacre and ASC should have more than one humanist member!

To summarise. Exclusion of humanists is evident discrimination against a large group of the population, including the school population. It is only fair that Humanists should have a role in monitoring how their views are taught. The inclusion of humanists will be good for the democratic reputation of East Sussex Council. I hope that you would regard me personally as a suitable candidate, but I hope that you will vote for my inclusion not on personal grounds but as a matter of principle, of conscience, of anti-discrimination and fairness.

[1] See:
[2] Religious Education guidance in English schools: Non-statutory guidance 2010
[3] European Convention
[4] Equality and Human Rights Commission,

G. P. Jelliss 27 June 2011.

Clearly we may need to reconsider our future strategy on this issue. Statistics from the BHA indicate that 43 SACREs already have Humanist members on Group A, and 17 others have co-opted Humanist members.


  1. Graham Martin-Royle30 June 2011 at 17:00

    Were any reasons given for the exclusions?

  2. We were just told that the four groups had voted to exclude humanists from group A. Their deliberations were held while we were out of the room. I assume this is because humanism is not a religion. I imagine they would include a wiccan if one applied.

  3. Graham Martin-Royle1 July 2011 at 09:02

    That's a bit rude, not even giving an explanation. I also think that this policy is very discriminatory, these groups have a statutary right to meddle in the content of school programs yet certain groups are disbarred simply because they don't adhere to a certain religion or form of worship. I wonder how that holds up against the discrimination laws (i.e., it's supposed to be illegal to discriminate on religious grounds).

  4. I've just received a 19-page document from the BHA that states their understanding of the legal position, which agrees with your view that not including humanists is discriminatory. The trouble is it has not yet been tested in the courts, and may never be. Until it is made statutory the advice from the National Association (NASACRE), which is run by RE professionals, is that local SACRE can please themselves!

  5. Hi George,

    Suggest you find whoever is responsible for Equality issues on the Council (normally somebody working for the Chief Exec.) and copy the BHA papers to that person explaining that we think we have a "prima facie" case for discrimination and asking if they have consulted their legal advisors.

    They may end up co-opting as a non-voting members with no membership of a group, but I think the solicitors will want to make sure that they do as much as could be regarded as "reasonable" if the matter went to court. There is no reason to make them think that we aren't considering legal action.

    All the best,


  6. Well done George.
    It does need a challenge of some sort otherwise humanisim is reduced to no more than an impotent talking shop.
    To any reasonable thinking person this is a clear breach of the European Convention, let alone local democracy and government guidelines.The arrogence of these individuals beggars belief.
    Perhaps a good place to start is to ask of all the local political parties where they stand on the issue.

    John Dawes

  7. Sorry I'm late in noticing these comments. We have made an approach to the Equalities Officer, and asked for clarification from the Chair of the SACRE, and something is in motion. But I'm not convinced that having an official position on the SACRE is going to make much difference, other than symbolic. The whole system of having people with vested interests determining the local curriculum is farcical.

    I would welcome a debate on the isseu in the local press and media, but a letter I wrote to the Hastings Observer has just been ignored. Can anyone else get a debate going?

  8. Recently been rejected for the third time from West Sussex SACRE.

    Read this article in The Argus. Things have got personal.

  9. I'm afraid I've more or less given up on the East Sussex SACRE. If anyone else would like to have a go you are welcome to try. The truth is that the whole system is a nonsense in my view. Even if there were a humanist or two in one of the groups they could have little effect. If we have to have some form of RE in schools I think the BHA should be campaigning to get a significant amount of time devoted to humanism as part of a national curriculum.