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Not a Trojan Horse: the case for compulsory religious education in schools

Updated: Dec 6, 2023



By Revd Dr Richard Warden


Richard is a retired School Chaplain and Head of Religious Studies, and is currently a governor of a Church of England primary school. This article is a robust response to Jack Rivington's article "Outdated, Unpopular, and Ineffective: Time to Rethink Religious Education in the UK" which we published in our October edition. Jack Rivington is a Campaigns Officer for the National Secular Society.





"Religious education develops pupils’ knowledge and understanding of, and their ability to respond to, Christianity and other religious traditions and worldviews. It promotes tolerance and respect for people of all religions and none." Government Department for Education, United Kingdom

This article will confine itself to the main ideological question as to whether compulsory Religious Education (RE) in Britain’s approximately 30,000 State Schools (for all pupils aged 4 to 18) is justifiable and beneficial. The National Secular Society (NSS) is correct to conclude that we must "ensure education about religion and belief is broad, balanced, proportionate, and relevant to young people growing up in Britain today". As an RE teacher of 26 years, and accepting that all education requires monitoring to ensure best practice, there is a strong argument that the current system fundamentally meets this aspiration. I agree with Professor Linda Woodhead that "Religious Education is not a threat to secularism; it's an essential component of a well-rounded education that prepares students for citizenship in a diverse and pluralistic society."


A child’s entitlement to RE is upheld in law

In contrast with other countries such as France and USA, and democratically allowing for variations of approach in the now devolved governments of the United Kingdom, compulsory religious education has been a legal entitlement for all British children since the 1944 Education Act. Although not part of the English National Curriculum, RE for children ages 4-18 in state education, is a compulsory part of the curriculum in all schools, with the provision that parents have the legal right to remove children from RE classes if they wish.


The content of RE – national government working in partnership with Local Education Authorities

The Department for Education (DfE) sets out the national framework for high-quality RE, which must, "reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are, in the main, Christian while taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain". This enables a "religious literacy" through a critical analysis of a range of world religions. This includes Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, as well as non-religious belief systems such as Humanism and Atheism.


Additionally, the government works in partnership with Local Education Authorities (LEAs). This democratic process allows LEAs the autonomy to construct their own Locally Agreed Syllabus for RE, within these national guidelines. In devising a local syllabus, LEAs consult widely with a range of local experts in the field often including Humanists – via a local Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (SACRE). This enables LEAs to devise a curriculum best suited to the needs of local communities. Jack Rivington (Campaigns Officer for the National Secular Society who wrote for Humanistically Speaking in October) is disparaging of Humanist representation on these panels because, he wrote, "whilst their desire to influence education policy in favour of non-religious worldviews is understandable, it unfortunately lends the committees an undeserved impression of inclusion and credibility." He describes this whole process as "a local lottery regarding what their religious education syllabus will contain" influenced by "religious lobbyists" and therefore, "what we currently have amounts to little more than a means by which various religious groups can advance their own interests". Such hyperbole does little to advance the secular case. Furthermore, it disregards the rigorous and impartial planning that education professionals put into the process of constructing a syllabus. For example, the Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole RE syllabus was developed "in consultation with, teachers, children and young people, Religious Education and Diocesan advisers, SACRE members and worldview communities." Dorset Humanists have been represented on this SACRE for around twenty years.


Church of England faith schools

It is the case that all faith schools of any religion can choose what they teach in the RE curriculum, although it must be balanced and should be cognisant of the legal requirement to teach the four British Values, one of which is to actively “promote mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.”


The main providers of faith schools, the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, insist that other faiths and worldviews must be taught alongside Christianity. It is not the case, as Jack Rivington claims, that "In faith schools, the purpose of religious education is undeniably – indeed self-declaredly – to inculcate pupils in a particular religious ethos."


In its "Statement of Entitlement” the Church of England – which sponsors the vast majority of the country’s faith schools, educating about one million pupils – insists that pupils must “gain knowledge and understanding of a range of religions and worldviews appreciating diversity, continuity and change within the religions and worldviews being studied." Additionally, “All pupils are entitled to religious education that is delivered in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner. Pupils are entitled to a balanced RE curriculum which enquires into religions and worldviews through theology, philosophy and the human and the social sciences."


Similarly, the Roman Catholic Church, the second largest provider of Britain’s faith schools insists that all Catholic primary and secondary schools must teach about other religions as part of the RE curriculum. This is seen as an expression of “courtesy, respect and love of one’s neighbour”. Many children in Catholic schools are practising members of other faiths, and all schools need to be “places of hospitality” for children of different backgrounds. “All children and young people (including those of other faiths in our Catholic schools) must have the same possibilities for arriving at the knowledge of their own religion as well as of elements that characterize other religions.”

"Schools’ accountability in these areas is to protect children from religious indoctrination or radicalisation."

Jack Rivington is not quite correct in claiming that, "the State isn’t even permitted to oversee the teaching of the religious education in faith schools." Whilst they must not comment on the "content" of the RE, Ofsted inspectors are allowed to inspect the quality of RE lessons in faith schools and “comment on the contribution of those lessons to the school’s wider aims, such as pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development.” Clearly, Ofsted can comment on other criteria too, such as RE's contribution to teaching the tolerance and respect for other worldviews embedded in British Values. Schools’ accountability in these areas is to protect children from religious indoctrination or radicalisation.


Where evidence can be produced that a faith school exploits its freedom to indulge in the kind of proselytization that Jack Rivington is rightly concerned about, then clearly it should be resisted. This seems to be a rare occurrence and Ofsted does have powers to deal with it. There is a legitimate argument for legislation mandating that all faith schools, together with all other British state schools, must teach a range of religions and beliefs. However, given the evidence from C of E and RC schools, the problem does not appear to be as widespread as his article may lead one to believe.


What’s in a name?

Arguably, there is a problem with the title of "Religious Education" (RE). It can lead to a common misunderstanding that the aim of RE is to "educate young people to become religious"! This is not true, although Jack Rivington falsely implies that RE acts rather like a Trojan horse for converting young people to religion. "As it stands", he wrote, "religious education...is too often a vehicle for the proselytisation and evangelisation of students" and "it often amounts to little more than a means by which various religious groups can advance their own interests." There will always be instances of bad practice which must be countered, but such claims ignore the professionalism of teachers and the "Teachers Standards" which are legally binding on all teachers. These standards state that all teachers must, "maintain high standards of ethics and behaviour" and ensure, "that [their] personal beliefs are not expressed in ways which exploit pupils’ vulnerability". This entails "showing tolerance of and respect for the rights of others and not undermining fundamental British values." Personally, I think a better name for compulsory RE would be Religious Studies (RS). This is the official title for GCSEs and A levels in the subject, as its focus is on the academic "study" of religion. Alternatively, compulsory RE in Wales is more appropriately called Religion, Belief and Values.


Educating pupils for the world as it is – not as we would like it to be

Traditional religious belief and practice is waning in Europe and the USA, but whether we like it or not, the vast majority of the world’s population do follow some religion, and globally this is set to grow. According to the Pew Research organisation, "The projections anticipate that the vast majority of the world’s people will continue to identify with a religion, including about six-in-ten who will be either Christian (31%) or Muslim (30%) in 2050. Just 13% are projected to have no religion." Or, as The Guardian put it in 2018, "If you think religion belongs to the past and we live in a new age of reason, you need to check out the facts: 84% of the world’s [current] population identifies with a religious group… the world is getting more religious, not less."


A strong case can be made that RE helps prepare children for the world they live in and will encounter when they leave school, either personally or through the media. A former pupil once told me they were glad they had studied world religions in school as it had helped him to develop global business partnerships with people of different religious worldviews. Even though he did not have a religious belief himself, his "religious literacy" helped him to understand others, for example respecting the religious observance of festivals such as Ramadan, Yom Kippur and Diwali. Indeed, according to Professor Grace Davie at the University of Exeter, "RE is not just about teaching religion; it's about nurturing critical thinking, ethical decision-making, and cultural sensitivity."


RE helps the process of ‘community cohesion’

An argument can be made that compulsory RE makes a significant contribution to forming a tolerant society, helping to combat ignorance, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, radicalism and other forms of religious and cultural prejudice – which, sadly, have been much in evidence in recent weeks. For all its faults and fault lines, Britain is renowned as a relatively tolerant society with people of all faiths, beliefs and cultures living in peace. Indeed Rishi Sunak stated recently that he is proud that it is no "big deal" that as he is Britain’s first British Asian prime minister – in addition to being a practising Hindu.


Very high levels of immigration and migration are still a feature of our national life, and in 2019, 6% (896,000) of children under age 18 who were living in the UK were born abroad. The government argues that, "RE provides a positive context within which the diversity of cultures, beliefs and values can be celebrated and explored… and builds resilience to anti-democratic or extremist narratives." This, in turn, promotes "community cohesion within the school community, the UK community and the global community." Or, as the Catholic Church claims, “RE prepares the pupils in our Catholic schools for life in modern Britain, giving them an understanding of the beliefs of others. This in turn will improve social cohesion and contribute to the common good by increasing mutual respect between those of different religions.”

"If compulsory RE were banned in British schools – and the only form of religious education children ever received was from their own families, churches, synagogues, mosques and temples – they would have a very narrow understanding of religion and they would be more vulnerable to dangerous fundamentalist and evangelical beliefs."

A Thought Experiment

Jack Rivington argued that, "Parents have the right to bring up their child in a faith tradition, but the role of state education shouldn’t be to carry out this tuition for them." Although clearly such tuition is not the purpose of RE, if compulsory RE were banned in British schools – and the only form of religious education children ever received was from their own families, churches, synagogues, mosques and temples – they would have a very narrow understanding of religion – and certainly an ignorance of other beliefs. Children would be more vulnerable to dangerous fundamentalist and evangelical beliefs, which are on the rise. Similarly, although less dangerously, pupils brought up in atheist families would be deprived of understanding the deeply held religious beliefs of others.


The popularity of religious studies

Religious Studies is one of the most popular GCSEs

Jack Rivington claims that RE "is outdated and unpopular", implying that it is of little interest to pupils, yet this is not borne out by the large number of pupils of "all faiths and beliefs" who choose GCSE Religious Studies (RS) at age 14 – when many could opt out. Even allowing for faith schools, beyond the core EBacc subjects (English, maths, science, languages, and history or geography) RS is by far the most popular GCSE subject, and numbers are increasing. Nationally 243,875 pupils took RS in 2022, compared to a mere 22,850 who opted for Citizenship Studies – the subject advocated by the National Secular Society. Indeed, RS at GCSE is almost as popular as Geography (279,205) and History (278,750).


This is not a knockdown argument, but it does indicate that young people are fascinated by the philosophical, theological and existential questions that are explored in RE, together with ethical theory and applied ethics in areas such as war, medicine, sexuality, business and the environment. RE helps them to grapple with serious issues and to formulate their own worldview, whether they are "religious" or not. An ardent atheist friend of mine recently lamented that his 14-year-old son, who is also an atheist, has chosen Religious Studies for GCSE, "because it is his favourite subject"!


And finally… avoiding the “Egocentric Fallacy”

Arguably, the breadth of worldviews encountered through compulsory RE protects pupils from the dangers of the "Egocentric Fallacy" – believing that "my worldview must be the correct worldview – simply because it is mine!" Indeed, we all need to beware of this tendency in ourselves; closing our ears to the religious beliefs and worldviews of others can lead to stereotyping at best – and wars at worst. Hopefully, this exchange of views will have enabled a better appreciation of the arguments for compulsory RE alongside other compulsory subjects in the National Curriculum which, according to Dr Denise Cush at Bath University, "in an increasingly globalised world, equips students with the cultural literacy needed for meaningful engagement with people of different faiths and worldviews".


Further reading

  1. The Locally Agreed Syllabus for RE (2023-2028) for Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole is here: https://www.eduknowledgehub.co.uk/Education-Improvement/SACRE/SACRE-Agreed-Syllabus-2023/SACRE-Agreed-Syllabus-2023.aspx

  2. Faith Schools in England: FAQs – House of Commons Library: https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/SN06972/SN06972.pdf


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