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Religious education across the UK

Religious Education is key to helping children and young people live life in modern Britain and Northern Ireland.

For many children and young people religious education (RE) lessons will be the first place they learn about people different from themselves and often the first context in which they will meet a person who belongs to a religious or belief tradition different from their own. Pupils are encouraged to learn about and develop their own beliefs and learn about the beliefs and practices of others, whilst learning to respect those who hold beliefs different to their own.

The Inter Faith Network for the UK was established in 1987 to advance public knowledge and mutual understanding of the teachings, traditions and practices of the different faith communities in Britain and to promote good relations between people of different faiths in this country.

It has always seen Religious Education in schools as a vital resource for this and among its member bodies are a number of key bodies specialising in this:

These and other specialist bodies are the source for detailed information about RE. It is with the assistance of these bodies that this briefing paper has been produced for the layperson who is interested to understand more about RE in UK schools.

The content of RE lessons in schools varies depending on where in the UK a school is and also on what type of school it is, as will be explained. There are different types of school in the United Kingdom, not just between the nations but within the nations as well. The type of school a pupil attends will determine the type of religious education they will be entitled to as part of their basic curriculum. To help the reader to understand the different types of school and what difference to RE it makes we have provided a guide on the side of this page.

Requirements for the teaching RE in the UK’s different nations

There is no single framework for religious education across the United Kingdom and each jurisdiction has its own arrangements.

England and Wales

Since 1944 religious education in England and Wales has been determined by local education authorities in consultation with others. In 1988 the government modified legislation for both countries to establish two different bodies, one permanent and one occasional to advise on religious education and to determine the content of religious education.

The permanent bodies established to advise local authorities on religious education and collective worship are called Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education (SACREs). SACREs’ advice does not apply to all schools in England and Wales (see the guide to different types of school in England and Wales). A separate briefing has been prepared that explores the nature of SACREs and their work in more detail.

The occasional bodies appointed to determine what content should be delivered in religious education are known as Agreed Syllabus Conferences (ASCs). These are occasional bodies but must be convened to review the locally agreed syllabus at least every five years but either the Local Authority or its SACRE can require an earlier review.

In England and Wales ASCs work under the current legislation which states that agreed syllabuses ‘shall reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain’. There is no definition in law of what these ‘principal religions’ are but since government guidance in 1994 these have generally been understood to be Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism. Both the English and Welsh governments have provided advice on what a syllabus should contain.

Religious Education in English Schools: Non-statutory guidance 2010 (page 23) states: ‘The study of religion should be based on the legal requirements and provide an appropriate balance between and within Christianity, other principal religions, and, where appropriate other religious traditions and worldviews, across the key stages as a whole, making appropriate links with other parts of the curriculum and its cross-curricular dimensions.’

National exemplar framework for religious education for 3 to 19-year-olds in Wales (page 3) states: 'Religious education in the twenty-first century encourages pupils to explore a range of philosophical, theological, ethical, and spiritual questions in a reflective, analytical, balanced way that stimulates questioning and debate. It also focuses on understanding humanity’s quest for meaning, the positive aspects of multi-faith/multicultural understanding and pupils’ own understanding and responses to life and religion. Religious education in the twenty-first century consists of an open, objective, exploratory approach'.

In most local authorities members of SACRE are appointed to the ASC, in other authorities they have a wholly different membership, or one that is a mix of SACRE and non-SACRE members.

Religious education is not part of the National Curriculum. Rather it is part of the Basic Curriculum that all state funded schools must provide for pupils, whether funded through the local authority or directly by government. Parents have the right to withdraw their child from the religious education provided by the schools as part of its Basic Curriculum and may request alternative RE, at no cost to the school or local authority.

Special schools, those catering for pupils with moderate to profound and multiple learning difficulties do not have to provide religious education by law. Nevertheless, most do as part of a broad and balanced curriculum for their pupils. In those cases they would follow the locally agreed syllabus as far as is practicable, the syllabus may have a dedicated section for special schools.

If a person wanted to know what pupils should learn in religious education in a maintained school in England or Wales they should consult the locally agreed syllabus of the local authority in question. All locally agreed syllabuses are public documents, although local authorities can charge for printing, postage and packing, many are now available on-line. If the school is in England and has Academy, University Technical College, Studio School or Free School status that person would need to consult the school directly.


In Scotland religious education is determined by the Scottish Parliament. Whilst the parliaments of England and Scotland were united in the 18th century Scotland kept control of its own civil and criminal law and its education system, which predates that of England.

In Scotland religious education is commonly known as Religious and Moral Education (RME) and is an important component of the Scottish ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ and it consists of learning about Christianity and other ‘world religions’ whilst supporting pupils in developing their own beliefs and values. It is a statutory core subject for all pupils attending primary and secondary education under the provisions of The Education (Scotland) Act 1980. One feature of Scottish religious education is the emphasis on the role of religion in Scotland’s cultural history and identity. There is, though, a recognition that religious education needs to enable pupils to live in a changing and increasingly diverse Scotland. In a small number of Scottish schools all or most of the curriculum is delivered through the medium of Gaelic and this would be true for religious education in those schools.

The Education (Scotland) Act 1980 gives parents the right to withdraw their child from instruction in religious subjects and religious observance.

Northern Ireland

Since 1989 the Northern Ireland Department for Education has been required to set out ‘core matters, skills and processes which are to be included in the teaching of RE to pupils’ in all kinds of schools, to be devised by ‘persons having an interest in the teaching of RE in grant-aided schools’. In practice the preparation of this Core Syllabus has been given exclusively to representatives of the four numerically largest Christian denominations (Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Anglican and Methodist), who have done so without reference to other faith communities. In primary schools the Core Syllabus only relates to Christianity. In 2007 an element of world religions was included for Key Stage 3 only. The Core Syllabus is required to be the basis for RE in all types of grant-aided schools, though schools are legally permitted to teach material not included in the Core, a clause that was primarily devised in order to permit Catholic schools to continue to teach Catholic doctrine. The details of the Core Syllabus can be found on the Northern Ireland Curriculum website, together with Guidance Materials and supporting resources.

Parents have the right to withdraw their child from religious education and collective worship, in whole or in part, as with other parts of the United Kingdom.

Bodies and groups that support religious education

There are a number of bodies that support SACREs and ASCs, RE professionals and schools. Most of these organisations are based in England but their support and resources are used across the United Kingdom.

The RE Council of England and Wales is an umbrella body bringing together a wide range of organisations concerned in various ways with RE. It seeks to be a representative body for RE in England and Wales. The National Association of SACREs (NASACRE) and the Wales Association of SACREs (WASACRE) are organisations established to advise their member SACREs. As well as organising conferences and hosting websites they also speak directly with their respective governments seeking to support the role of SACREs as statutory bodies.

The Religious Education Movement Scotland (REMS) supports the professional teaching of Religious and Moral Education and encourages inter-religious understanding and respect through the empathic teaching of major world religions. Education Scotland is responsible for all school inspections, including the inspection and monitoring of the teaching of RME in Scottish Schools.

Northern Ireland has no co-ordinating body that supports RE and RE teachers, though some teachers and teacher educators maintain links with relevant bodies in other parts of the UK. An RE Advisory Committee was established in 2006 to provide support, guidance and resources in relation to the RE Core Syllabus, and their materials are available via the CCEA website. Although its membership is slightly wider than that of the Core Syllabus group, it is not clear if this Advisory Committee will continue to function. Additionally, the lack of a professional inspection regime for RE in Northern Ireland, together with the loss of advisory support, raises serious questions about quality control in the subject.

There are number of professional associations representing and supporting different groups involved in RE. The Association of RE Inspectors, Advisors and Consultants (AREIAC), Association of University Lecturers in Religion and Education (AULRE) and the National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE) are the principal bodies established by RE professionals. All of these organisations have members across the UK.

There are also a number of voluntary bodies and charities that support RE, both in England and across the UK. Christian Education is one of the largest of these charities and is the sponsoring body for NATRE. Despite its name it produces resources for schools that cover the principal religions in the UK and some non-religious worldviews. Two notable trusts which support RE are the Culham St Gabriel’s Trust (itself an amalgamation of two Church of England college trusts in Oxford) and the Westhill Foundation (a Free Church college trust). The Shap Working Party on world Religions in Education has also made a considerable contribution to RE though its calendar and journal since the 1970s. Many trusts exist as a result of these changes but their grants can only be used regionally or locally.

International links

International linkages have been influential on some RE professionals in different parts of the UK. All UK regions are represented on the board of the European Forum for Teachers of RE (EFTRE) and other good links exist with programmes supporting intercultural approaches to the teaching of religion in schools through bodies such as the Council of Europe, the Oslo-based European Wergeland CentreUNESCO and the Human Rights section of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (ODIHR/OSCE). In Northern Ireland there are good links with the Irish Centre for Religious Education based in the Republic of Ireland.