Factsheet: Religious Education in schools

Image credit: REToday

Religious Education is compulsory in state schools, but it is left up to local authorities to determine what is in the curriculum. However, a 2017 report found up to a quarter of secondary schools in England did not teach RE, in breach of the law.

What is the law on RE?

In England, Religious Education is governed by the Education Act 1944, the Education Reform Act 1988 and the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. The provision of Religious Education is compulsory in all state-funded schools although parents have a right to withdraw their children from Religious Education lessons.

Although pupils study six major world faiths as well as non-religious world views, philosophy and ethics, the curriculum is required to reflect the predominant place of Christianity in religious life in the UK.

The provision of RE forms part of the basic school curriculum, but it is not part of the national curriculum. The government says this is because of the need for RE to reflect local circumstances. Local authorities in England are therefore responsible for drawing up an agreed syllabus for RE in their schools.

Each LA is required to establish a Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education (SACRE), which will, among other duties, convene an Agreed Syllabus Conference to monitor the provision and quality of RE taught according to the agreed syllabus.

While not part of Religious Education, schools are also required by law to provide a daily act of collective worship, of which at least 51% must be Christian in basis over the course of an academic year.

In Scotland, RE is called Religious and Moral Education, from ages five to 14, and Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies from 14 to 18.

The majority of state schools are non-denominational, but as a result of the Education Act 1918, separate denominational state schools were also established.

The vast majority of denominational state schools are Roman Catholic but there are also a number of Scottish Episcopal schools.

How many schools do not teach RE?

In a report published in 2017, the National Association for RE teachers (NATRE) reported that more than a quarter of England’s secondary schools did not offer Religious Education, in contravention of the law.

The report, produced in association with the Religious Education Council for England and Wales (REC), was based on previously unpublished data obtained from the Department for Education under Freedom of Information law. It said that overall, 26% of secondaries were not offering RE lessons.

Among academies, which make up the majority of secondary schools, more than a third (34%) were not offering RE to 11 to 13-year-olds and almost half (44%) were not offering it to 14 to 16-year-olds.

NATRE warned that as more schools became academies, those figures could increase. It said the data showed a shortage of specialist RE teachers throughout the state system. The research was carried out in partnership with the RE Council for England and Wales.

In response, the main union for secondary head teachers, the Association of School and College Leaders, said many schools covered religious issues in ways other than RE lessons, such as conferences, citizenship classes or assemblies.

In 2019, NATRE published another report based on a survey of 663 schools in England. This suggested 50% of Academy schools in England and almost 40% of community schools did not offer Religious Education, in contravention of the law. For GCSE students in years 10 and 11 the situation was worse, with up to 64% of students receiving no Religious Education.

How many pupils take RE beyond Year 9?

A levels:
2021: 15,685 source: Govt stats
2020: 14,680 source: Govt stats
2019: 16,455 source:Gov stats
2018: 17,265 source:Gov stats

2021: 239,680 source Govt stats
2020: 248,340 source Govt stats
2019: 251,140 source Govt stats
2018: 260,300 source Govt stats

The Clarke-Woodhead Report

In July 2018, former Education Secretary Charles Clarke published a pamphlet claiming Religious Education in schools was outdated and should be replaced with a new subject, Religion, Belief and Values.

Along with co-author, Prof Linda Woodhead of Lancaster University, he said the syllabus for the new subject should be determined nationally, rather than at local authority level.

The report said there had been significant shifts in the UK since the 1944 Education Act, when Britain was a predominantly Christian country, in that a majority of people now said they had no religion, and there were parts of the country where people of other religions formed a significant part of the population.

The report also called for the right of parents to withdraw their children from RE classes to be scrapped. And it said daily collective worship of “a broadly Christian character”, a legal requirement under the 1944 Act, should be replaced with a requirement for all state-funded schools to hold a “regular assembly or act of collective worship in keeping with the values and ethos of the school and reflecting the diversity and character of the school community”.

Clarke and Woodhead also proposed changes to the admissions criteria of faith schools to broaden their intake. The children of families which followed a particular faith should continue to be given priority for admission to schools of that religion, but the proportion admitted on faith criteria should be reduced.

The report was condemned by a prominent Roman Catholic bishop, who said it had “little regard” for the Catholic Church, and that its recommendations were “unacceptable”. Bishop Marcus Stock of Leeds, the lead bishop for Religious Education on the bishops’ conference, said the report would “dictate” what the Church could teach in Catholic schools, and that it treated religion as a purely sociological matter.

The Commission on Religious Education

Established in July 2016, the commission was asked to make wide-ranging recommendations to overhaul Religious Education in England, and to review the legal, education and policy frameworks for the subject in all primary and secondary schools and further education colleges. 

It was set up by the Religious Education Council for England and Wales, but operates independently and produces its own reports and recommendations.  The Rev Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster, was appointed chairman.

In September 2018, the commission published its report. Its main recommendation was a new National Entitlement for Religious Education. This would clearly set out for the first time the aims and purposes of RE and what students should experience in the course of their study at a national level. The report recommends that the aims of the subject shift away from the current World Religions paradigm, summarised as ‘learning about and from religion’. The recommended new paradigm encompasses wider political historical and cultural contexts, and is considered better able to explore the complex, contested and connected world of religion and belief in the 21st Century..

The commission proposed that RE should enable pupils to understand the relationship between people’s worldview and their thinking and actions in political, public, social and cultural life, and how worldviews are “inextricably woven into, influence and are influenced by, all dimensions of human experience”.  The National Entitlement should apply to all state-funded schools including academies, free schools and schools of a religious character. Independent schools should consider adopting the entitlement as an undertaking of good practice. This represents a shift in aims of the subject, represented by the new title of ‘Religion and Worldviews’ (RW)

The report also recommended schools should be held to account for the provision and quality of RE they offer. All schools, including free schools, academies, and schools of a religious character, should publish details of how they meet the new National Entitlement, and inspectors and other approved bodies would have the power to monitor Religion and Worldviews to ensure a minimum standard.

Thirdly, the report called for a National Plan for improving the teaching and learning of Religion and Worldviews – along the lines of the National Plan for Music Education – which brings together the Commission’s recommendations for improving teacher subject knowledge. The nine draft proposals for the plan include a minimum of 12 hours devoted to RW in all primary initial teacher training courses; the opportunity for all primary trainees to observe RW teaching in a leading school for RW; and the requirement that teachers “demonstrate a good understanding of and take responsibility for the sensitive handling of controversial issues, including thoughtful discussion of religious and non-religious worldviews”.

In response, in December 2018 the Education Secretary Damian Hinds said he would not pursue the recommendations at that time, as schools were already dealing with other education reforms and one of his priorities was to reduce teacher workloads. He had also received concerns that including ‘worldviews’ risked diluting the teaching of RE.

Trevor Cooling, former chair of the Religious Education Council, has conducted a series of conversations with teachers and other parties to further explore the benefits and opportunities of developing RW in the classroom. The REC has convened a working group to consider a wide range of issues, from matters of policy to national programmes of study. The results of work are expected to be published in 2024. At the grassroots level, teachers are talking, planning and experimenting with the idea of a worldviews curriculum. A taste of how teachers are making sense of worldviews can be found on the blogsite Reforming RE.

(updated January 2022)


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