Some Notes on Religious Education in UK Schools

1. Religious Education Classes

Religious education is a statutory subject that all schools must teach, in the UK. "The legal requirements governing religious education (RE) were set out in the Education Reform Act of 1988 and confirmed by the Education Acts of 1996 and 1998"1. It is an unpopular subject that has multiple problems. The sociologist Bryan Wilson reports that since the enlightenment and secularisation of Western education:

Not only did secular schools replace Church schools, but within the secular schools, the significance of religious education diminished. [...] It has low status as a subject, and is often regarded as make-weight to complete formally the demand for examination passes in a certain number of subjects. [...] Finally, it is an open secret that in many schools the period allotted to religious instruction is often used for talks on current affairs.

"Religion in Secular Society" by Bryan Wilson (1966)2

Whatever is being taught about religion in schools isn't having much effect on pupils. Research shows that the vast majority of British children as well as British adults are uneducated about even the basics of Christianity (let alone other faiths). Most cannot name the four gospels, etc3.

Ofsted is the UK government's Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills, who monitor the teaching of school subjects, including RE. Their report published 2007, based on data from 2001 to 2006, states that despite some general improvements and excellent teaching "standards overall are not high enough and there are wide variations in the quality of provision. Achievement by pupils in RE has improved over the past five years but remains very inconsistent"1. The report continues to reiterate, almost point-by-point, what Bryan Wilson said in his criticisms of RE, but places each element in a positive light:

At its best, RE equips pupils very well to consider issues of community cohesion, diversity and religious understanding. It contributes significantly to pupils´ academic progress and their personal development. This is one reason why pupils´ attitudes towards the subject have improved. Older pupils, in particular, believe that RE provides opportunities to discuss issues which matter to them and encourages them to respect differences of opinion and belief.

Ofsted (2007)1

The point on 'community cohesion' is important: as I will state later, familiarisation with religions different to peoples' own tends to reduce violence between adherents. Where Ofsted state that RE contributes to 'academic progress' I am sure that they mean it is a relatively easy pass. Point 33 of the report states that most of the pupils themselves think RE is easy. The last sentence of the quote above is surely a recognition of the fact that current affairs (not religious studies) is one of the most interesting things discussed in RE classes.

Some parents remove their children from religious education lessons. Secularists and active atheists might do this because they do not want their children being 'brainwashed' by religion, and, adherents of a particular religion sometimes do not want their children being corrupted by the brainwashing of (other) competing religions. In short, both groups of people fear that merely by learning about religion, their children are at risk.

I think that religious education should be treated like any other subject; if it is a subject that is on the school timetable, then all children should attend with no exemptions. Beliefs should be discussed in other humanities so can be in religion as well, and religious history can be taught the same as secular history. It does not harm children to teach them about the secular horrors of war, nor does it harm children to teach them about the religious horrors of the dark ages or of fundamentalism. It doesn't harm anyone to learn about what other religions are about, in fact, sociologists have found that familiarisation reduces conflict.

Problems arise, however, when religious education focuses only on one religion, or is given by an overly religious teacher who cannot teach impartially. Ideally, religious teachers should be liberals or secularists who are not concerned about any particular set of beliefs, and who is capable of being critical of all of them. No teacher of history, humanities or science could get by by providing a purely positive view of world events or theory; critical thinking is a necessity. This should go for religious education too. I think it especially important that religious schools provide religious education, in order to offset a general bias with comparative scope.

A large-scale survey of school children in Cornwall has shown that the vast majority of them find Religious Education lessons boring, irrelevant and of no value to them in forming their attitudes to life. The majority of them do not consider themselves to have a religion. The survey, conducted by Dr Penny Jennings, a Research Associate at the Welsh National Centre for Religious Education, University of Wales, Bangor, questioned 3,826 students from Years 9 and 10 coming from 24 out of the 31 secondary schools in Cornwall.

To the statement "R.E. is boring", 53% answered yes, with only 29 per cent saying no.

National Secular Society, National Secular Society (2007)4

RE is boring    53%29%
RE helps me find the rules to live by    14%60%
RE helps me lead a better life9%68%
Studying the Bible is boring63%16%
RE helps me believe in God11%68%
I like to learn about God very much10%67%

I hazard the guess that religious education lends itself to animosity towards religion on behalf of the students.

Attempts are sometimes made at revitalizing religious education:

In 2004, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority that regulates cirriculum content in English schools announced a plan to include humanism, agnosticism and atheism among the belief systems taught in the nation's requires religious-education classes. A spokesman for the authority explained, 'It is very much the intention that young people in the context of religious education should be studying nonreligious beliefs. There are many children in England who have no religious affiliation and their beliefs and ideas, whatever they are, should be taken very seriously.

"Religion in schools: controversies around the world" by R. Murray Thomas (2006)5

2. Faith Schools

In 2001 there were 7000 state faith schools in England (of 25000). The worst teach creationism/intelligent design and some, although they excel at religious education and Koranic studies, fail on everything else from science to fitness. Faith schools on the whole take in far fewer poor pupils and fewer of those with special education needs than do non-religious all-inclusive schools. Conversely, faith schools tend to select better-educated and more well-off pupils. Reports on the race riots of 2001 criticized faith schools for creating the segregation that increases racial and religious sectarian tensions. Over 800 studies by social psychologists have found that cooperating and extended contact between racial groups is a very good way of producing positive race relations. Faith schools sometimes produce better-than-average results, but they also select students based on ability (despite attempts to stop that), whereas state schools accept poorer students in the first place. The Home Office, National Union of Teachers, Chief Schools Inspector, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers have all spoken out against faith schools. The United Nations Human Rights Commission and the European Union's Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia both recommend non-sectarian education, especially of children, as a means to reduce intolerance. The National Secular Society has long campaigned for the government to reverse the creation of faith schools (100 new ones since 1997), and instead convert faith schools back into all-inclusive secular schools where religion and race do not define the children. Abolishing faith schools will decrease social tension between ethnic and religious groups, increase the fairness of the schools system (as religious schools accept fewer poor and disadvantaged students), and reduce the scope for religious extremism and indoctrination.

"Faith Schools, Sectarian Education and Segregation: Divisive Religious Behavior: 9. Conclusion" by Vexen Crabtree (2010)

3. Collective Worship in Schools

The Education Act of 1944 in the UK made it compulsory that every state school began the day with an assembly that involved some form of collective worship6 that is 'broadly Christian in nature'. Children can be opted out on the behest of parents, but this tends to be done by those with stricter beliefs, than by those who prefer to avoid collective worship at all, simply because while the majority don't care about religion, a minority care far too much. The state shouldn't be towing any particular line however, so, any ideas of collective worship shouldn't form part of the State's repertoire in a modern democratic country where religion is a private affair, not to be fostered on to those who'd rather avoid it. In modern secular countries there is often widespread disagreement and avoidance of such legal requirements.

In the UK in 2011, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) "have signed an open letter to education secretary Michael Gove urging him to abolish the requirement" for collective worship of a broadly Christian nature"7, and in previous years Wales (as a whole) has been newsworthy for its dismissal of collective worship:

Schools in Wales can't be bothered with "collective worship"
School inspectors in Wales are reported to be using a stopwatch to time how long pupils spend on "personal reflection" to ensure schools meet the law on acts of worship. Anything less than 20 seconds reflection and the school can fail, according to the Association of School and College Leaders.

Gareth Jones, secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders Cymru, said spiritual and moral education was important but the legislation surrounding it too stringent. Believing the Welsh Assembly should use its new lawmaking powers to relax rules, he wants secondary schools to provide regular rather than daily acts of collective worship.

The Church in Wales' education officer the Rev Edwin Counsell said 20 seconds was "a cop-out" and not long enough to be meaningful. Under the Education Act secondary schools are required to hold daily acts of worship but many do not. Estyn's most recent annual report shows one in six schools broke that law in 2005-06.

National Secular Society, National Secular Society (2007)4

By Vexen Crabtree 2007 Jun 24
(Last Modified: 2014 Jan 11)
Parent page: The Bane of Monotheism: Against Single-God Religions

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References: (What's this?)

NSS. The National Secular Society, London, UK.
Newsline. Weekly news letter. See: "Secularism" by Vexen Crabtree (2011).

(UK government 's Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills) "Making sense of religion" (2007 Jun). Published by Ofsted, London, UK. Accessed 2007 Jul 02.

Thomas, R. Murray
(2006) Religion in schools: controversies around the world. Published by Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT, USA.

Wilson, Bryan
(1966) Religion in Secular Society. Penguin Books softback first edition.


  1. Ofsted (2007).^
  2. Wilson (1966) p79.^
  3. "Religion in the United Kingdom: Diversity, Trends and Decline" by Vexen Crabtree (2012).^
  4. National Secular Society, National Secular Society (2007 Jun 22).^^
  5. Thomas (2006) ch6. Added to this page on 2014 Jan 11.^
  6. BBC News (2001 Jul 25) article "Religious Schools". Accessed 28 Aug 2009.^
  7. British Humanist Association newsletter (2010 Nov/Dec) p6. Added to this page on 2011 Feb 28.^

© 2015 Vexen Crabtree. All rights reserved.