House of Commons Library

Religious Education in schools (England)

Published Thursday, October 10, 2019

What is taught in Religious Education in English schools? This briefing sets out the rules in place, as well as issues surrounding the teaching of RE and its curriculum, and information on related topics such as collective worship and the right to withdraw a child from RE classes.

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Religious Education (RE) must be taught by all state-funded schools.  However, it has an unusual position on the curriculum: it is part of the basic curriculum but not the National Curriculum, and is one of two subjects (along with sex and relationship education) where parents have a legal right to withdraw their children from class.

As schools policy is a devolved topic, this briefing provides information on the position in England.  Information on the teaching of RE in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland is available on the website of the respective countries’ governments.

For England, this briefing introduces the rules around RE in state-funded schools, whether they are academies or free schools, or maintained by a local authority.  It also introduces concerns that have been raised about the quality of RE teaching, including the number of RE teachers with qualifications relevant to the subject.  It also provides information on other related issues, such as the parental right of withdrawal from RE, and the rules on collective worship in schools.

GCSE RE entries from English schools have increased significantly compared to 2010. In 2010, there were 176,400 entries, compared to 213,900 in 2018 (an increase of 21%). RE GCSE entries reached a peak of around 269,500 in 2015.

In 2019, the Education Minister Nick Gibb stated that from September 2019, Ofsted inspectors will now take account of the religious education taught as party of assessing the quality of a school’s education, if it is a school without religious character (PQ 282362 [Religious Education], 25 July 2019). The Government has also stated in February 2019 that it had a “commitment to make no changes to the curriculum” for the remaining lifetime of the Parliament elected in 2017, other than those already announced (PQ 218805 [Religion: Education], 8 February 2019.)

The provision of religious education in schools has seen two recent reports published suggesting future reforms:

A new settlement? Clarke and Woodhead report on Religion in Schools (2018):

Written by Charles Clarke, the former Education Secretary, and Linda Woodhead, professor of sociology of religion at Lancaster University, the report made a total of 16 recommendations. These included changing the name of RE to “Religion, Relief and Values”, the need for agreement of a national syllabus for the subject similar to the requirements of other subjects in the national curriculum, removing the right of parents to withdraw their children from the revised curriculum, reducing the number of faith schools where faith is a criterion for admission, and the abolition of Local Agreed Syllabus Conferences.

Religion and World Views, Commission on RE (2018):

The Commission on Religious Education, an independent commission established by the Religious Education Council of England and Wales and constituted of academics, journalists, teachers and ex-school inspectors, made three main recommendations. These were that: the subject should be called Religion and Worldviews; a statutory National Entitlement should apply to all schools and that this should be subject to inspection; and that there should be a significant investment in ensuring two essential supports for this new way forward.

The briefing paper on pages 20-22 provides further information on training and support for RE teachers and pages 28-32 set out reports on RE published since 2015. 

Commons Briefing papers CBP-7167

Authors: Robert Long; Susan Hubble; Shadi Danechi; Philip Loft

Topics: Schools, Teachers

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