Religious Education

RE is not officially one of the subjects of the National Curriculum, but it has a special, statutory place in the school timetable. During RE lessons, pupils should learn the tenets and beliefs of their own religion.  Although pupils may learn something about other faiths and cultural traditions, RE should not be taught in a way that undermines a parent’s right to have his or her child educated within a particular religious faith.

Unfortunately, RE syllabuses in some schools tend to ignore religion and concentrate almost entirely on contentious moral and political issues, many of which are introduced before children are old enough to make reasoned judgements. It is always sensible for parents to question their children about the nature of the RE, as well as the worship, at their school. If parents are concerned, they may wish to withdraw their child from part, or all, of these lessons.

Religion is an important aspect of culture which helps to provide ‘roots’.  Religion also plays a major role in the formation of the value system a child (and future adult) will adhere to.

Over recent years, RE has increasingly been turned into a sociological study of several different religions all of which are supposed to have 'equal value' – a sure way of ensuring children grow up believing that no religion has any special value. But this was not the intention of Parliament and many believe that RE, as currently taught in many schools, is against the law – though this, of course, is a matter for the courts to decide.

The legal requirements regarding RE and school worship can be found in the Education Reform Act 1988 (Sections 6-13). They are reaffirmed in the Education Act 1996 (Sections 375-389) and the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 (Sections 69-71).

Acts of Worship

The 1944 Education Act stated that ‘the school day in every county school and every voluntary school shall begin with collective worship on the part of all the pupils in attendance’. In accordance with Britain’s traditional respect for religious freedom, the 1944 Act also gave parents the right to withdraw their child, perhaps in favour of separate arrangements.

By the time the 1988 Education Reform Act was going through Parliament, Britain had become a much more diverse nation. As a result of moves within the state educational establishment, either to ignore the legal requirements for daily worship altogether, or to lump all religions together into a multi-faith, multi-cultural mish mash, many felt it was necessary to reinforce the position of Christianity as the main, traditional religion of  this country. Consequently, the Education Reform Act 1988 reaffirms that ‘all pupils in attendance at a maintained school shall in each school day take part in an act of collective worship’ (though parental rights to withdraw their child are retained). 

It should also be noted that legal opinion suggests that ‘mainly of a broadly Christian character’ does not mean that other faiths can be mixed in with Christianity – that would be multi-faith or syncretist worship, which the law is intended to prevent.  Nor is the law intended to force any child, whose faith is not Christian, to attend Christian acts of worship against parental wishes.

The law clearly says that acts of worship may be for all the pupils or for separate groups within the school. Exactly like the 1944 Act, this allows schools with pupils whose religion may be other than Christianity to make provision for these pupils to have their own separate act of worship in their own faith group.

In addition, the law says that Local Education Authorities (LEAs) are responsible for setting up Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education (SACREs) which must be representative of local religious interests. SACREs are responsible for advising LEAs on matters connected with religious education and worship. Where the governors of a school believe the ‘wholly or mainly Christian’ requirements of the law are inappropriate for one or more groups of pupils, they can apply to their SACRE for a determination for such groups to be exempt from the ‘wholly or mainly Christian’ requirements of the law. This means that where a school has a majority of, say, Muslim children with a minority of Christian children, the governors may apply to SACRE to have their main act of worship in the Islamic faith and separate worship for the Christian children.

It should also be noted that a school’s statutory act of worship is religious and a school assembly is secular. The assembly (which does not feature in the law) is for announcements to the whole school, encouraging a school spirit etc, but the two should not be confused or intermingled.  The law allows withdrawal from the act of worship but not from the secular assembly. 

Quite simply, the 1988 Act was intended to reinforce the role of schools in giving children the opportunity to grow up within a religious faith and tradition which in this country is generally  Christian.  However, it must be stressed that the law gives complete freedom to parents of other faiths (or none) to have their children educated ‘in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions’.  Indeed, the Human Rights Act 1998 says that: ‘In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.’  Whatever their own religious or cultural background may be (and providing they remain within the law) it is entirely for parents to decide the degree to which they pass on their own or any other beliefs and values to their children.

Many parents will be disturbed to know that Ofsted, the school inspectorate, recently reported that 4 out of 5 secondary schools do not obey the law and hold a daily act of worship for their pupils.  (This in itself gives young people the message that it is perfectly acceptable to disobey any law that may be  inconvenient.) As yet, no serious action has been taken against any law-breaking school by any of the responsible authorities. There would be considerable support for a conscientious parent or group of parents who may wish to remedy this unfortunate situation.   

Further reading:

Whatever Happened to Religious Education by Penny Thompson (Lutterworth Press, 2004).

(Information or advice is also available from: Fred Naylor, Parental Alliance for Choice in Education (PACE), 2 Kingsdown House, Kingsdown, Corsham, Wiltshire SN14 9AX. Tel. 01225 742219.)

/Updated May 2004


Chairman: Chris McGovern.  Tel: 07757 715145.  Email: [email protected]
Vice-Chairman: Katie Ivens.  Tel: 07990 997215
Treasurer: Dr WAD Freeman. Email: [email protected]
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