By Jack Rivington
Jack joined the National Secular Society in 2022 where he is a Campaigns Officer. Graduating from the University of Manchester with a master's degree in philosophy, he has a particular interest in linguistics, epistemology, and religious threats to freedom of speech and human rights.
The time is long overdue to rethink religious education. As it stands, religious education is outdated, unpopular, and too often a vehicle for the proselytisation and evangelisation of students. Largely a devolved matter, "religious education" is called "Religion and Moral Education" in Scotland and "Religion, Values and Ethics" in Wales.
Though variations exist, these subjects are more alike than not, and some form of religious education remains a compulsory part of the curriculum in each country of the UK. Choosing to study religion at A-Level or GCSE is one thing, but compulsory religious education should be left in the past.
Across the board, the current arrangements for religious education grant significant influence to religious interests. In England and Wales, the curriculum is determined locally, unlike any other compulsory subject. For each local authority responsible for education, the agreed syllabus is set (in England) by committees representing the Church of England, other religion and belief groups, the local authority, and teacher's associations. (In Wales, there is no separate group representing the Church in Wales.)
Humanists are increasingly represented on these panels, but 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.
So English and Welsh schools not only face a local lottery regarding what their religious education syllabus will contain, they are also obliged to teach a subject over which significant influence is exerted by special interest groups. Such groups are highly motivated to ensure their religion is represented in an overwhelmingly positive light, as well as according to their own interpretations of doctrine.
In Scotland, local authorities are legally obliged to appoint religious representatives to their education committees – one appointed by the Catholic Church, one by the Protestant Church of Scotland, and a third selected by the council. Although several Scottish councils have recently removed voting privileges for these religious representatives, the law requiring their presence remains in place.
In Northern Ireland, the Department of Education collaborates directly with the major Christian denominations to set the religious education curriculum, the Christian-centric nature of which was last year found to be unlawful by the High Court.
There is no good reason to cede control over any part of the curriculum to religious lobbyists in this way. Religious education as a whole lacks objectivity, prompting the question of what its actual purpose is. Whilst some may claim it impartially delivers learning about the specifics of faith traditions, it often amounts to little more than a means by which various religious groups can advance their own interests.
In faith schools, the purpose of religious education is undeniably – indeed self-declaredly – to inculcate pupils in a particular religious ethos. Many aren’t required to follow the locally agreed syllabus and can instead teach religion from their own exclusive viewpoint. This can be a particular problem when it comes to Relationships and Sex Education, which in many faith schools is delivered primarily through the religious education curriculum. National Secular Society research has shown this enables the spreading of harmful and false ideas, particularly regarding the morality of homosexuality, marriage, abortion, and contraception.
The current system lets religious institutions propagate their ideology and bill the taxpayer for the trouble. The State isn’t even permitted to oversee the teaching of the religious education in faith schools, with inspections instead being carried out by religious bodies. 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. If faith schools wish to provide specific religious instruction, this should be done separately, funded entirely by the relevant religious organisation, and not be detrimental to the teaching of any other subject.
Religious education is fundamentally ineffective at promoting what the Government considers it useful for: expanding children's knowledge of British values and traditions; developing skills of critical enquiry, creative problem-solving and communication; and promoting mutual respect, understanding and tolerance in a diverse society. Although knowledge about different religions and beliefs is valuable, a subject dedicated to religious education isn’t necessary to deliver this. That’s a view widely held by the British public, with surveys consistently demonstrating the subject’s unpopularity – 58% of British adults consider religious studies unimportant at secondary schools, and a quarter of England's secondary schools don’t offer it as a subject at all.
It would be far more valuable to utilise the time currently reserved for religious education to significantly expand the scope, quality, and time allocated to Citizenship as a subject. This would place discussions of fundamental British values such as freedom of speech, democracy, and human rights at its centre, and encourage tolerance and understanding of citizens from all religious backgrounds. Instances where religion interacts, and conflicts, with these values would be key topics for discussion – placing religion within a wider historical and political context and helping develop vital critical thinking skills.
In Wales, some of these principles have been incorporated into Religion, Values and Ethics, which enables teaching about Humanism and secularism. But this whole area of learning needs much more comprehensive reform to liberate it from the vested interests that regard it as their domain. Outdated models of religious education should be replaced with new nationally-determined civics and citizenship curriculums, free from religious influence.
A subject which promotes social cohesion by improving young people’s understanding of each other’s religious backgrounds would be of significant public benefit. What we currently have is a poor use of valuable school time that does little more than further the ends of organised religious interest groups. In other words, how we teach about religion needs to be rethought and reorganised according to secular principles, to ensure education about religion and belief is broad, balanced, proportionate, and relevant to young people growing up in Britain today.
This article describes the broad features of compulsory religious education in the UK. There are further variations in religious education provision in different types of school including private schools, academies, foundation schools, voluntary-aided schools, and voluntary controlled schools.
Visit the National Secular Society website for more information.