The legal requirements for teaching religious education are set out in the Education Act 1996 and School Standards and Framework Act 1998.
'Every state-funded school must offer a curriculum which is balanced and broadly based, and which:
- promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils; and
- prepares pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life.
All state schools ... must teach religious education ... All schools must publish their curriculum by subject and academic year online'.
(National Curriculum in England: Framework Document, DfE, September 2013, p.4)
Although there is not a National Curriculum for RE, all maintained schools must follow the National Curriculum requirements to teach a broad and balanced curriculum, which includes RE. All maintained schools therefore have a statutory duty to teach RE. Academies and free schools are contractually required through the terms of their funding agreement to make provision for the teaching of RE.
Agreed Syllabuses used in schools (maintained or academy), which are not designated with a religious character 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’. Schools with a religious designation may prioritise one religion in their RE curriculum, but all schools must recognise diverse religions and systems of belief in the UK both locally and nationally.
In brief, legislation requires that:
- in maintained community, foundation or voluntary schools without a religious character, RE is taught in accordance with the local Agreed Syllabus;
- academies and free schools must teach RE within the requirements for a locally agreed syllabus, set out in section 375 (3) of the Education Act 1996 and paragraph (5) of Schedule 19 to the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. The requirements are that a syllabus 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’;
- for foundation and voluntary controlled schools with a religious character, RE must be taught according to the Agreed Syllabus unless, parents request RE in accordance with the trust deed of the school; and
- in voluntary aided schools RE must be taught in accordance with the trust deed.
RE must be included in the curriculum for all registered pupils, including all pupils in reception classes and sixth form, but excluding:
- pupils in nursery schools or nursery classes in primary schools;
- any person aged nineteen or above for whom further education is being provided at school; and
- any person over compulsory school age who is receiving part-time education.
Right of Withdrawal
Religious education must be taught to all registered pupils in maintained schools including those in the sixth form, except to those withdrawn by their parents (or the student themselves if they over 18 years of age). This requirement does not apply to nursery classes in maintained schools.
Church of England Voluntary Controlled and Foundation Schools
In voluntary controlled and foundation schools, the local authority's Local Agreed Syllabus for Religious Education must be followed.
Where parents wish to have denominational RE for their children they should approach the school to discuss this matter.
Church of England Voluntary Aided Schools
In voluntary aided schools, the governors determine the syllabus that will be followed. The syllabus must be in accordance with the school's trust deed and is likely to reflect the denominational character of the school, so in Church of England schools the syllabus may have a focus on the Anglican tradition.
In academies RE must be taught to all registered pupils and the syllabus will be determined by the governing board of the academy
Right of withdrawal in church schools and academies
Parents do have a legal right to withdraw their children from religious education.
In community, voluntary controlled and foundation schools head teachers and teachers may also exercise this right.
In voluntary aided schools, where headteachers and teachers have signed a National Society contract, it is expected that this right will not be exercised.