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Understanding SACREs

Understanding how SACREs are constituted and what they do is important for understanding religious education in its broadest sense in England and Wales.

Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education (SACREs) have their origins in the 1944 Education Act when the government established Local Education Authorities to maintain schools. One of their responsibilities was to establish a ‘conference’ to produce an agreed syllabus. Such a conference was to be established each time a local education authority believed that it needed the syllabus to be reviewed. A local education authority could also establish a ‘standing advisory council on religious education (SACRE)’ if it thought it was appropriate in its local context. These SACREs were not mandatory and not all local authorities had one.

SACREs were later reformed and reconstituted by the Education Reform Act 1988, becoming permanent bodies with legal powers.

The role of a SACRE

SACREs were reformed in 1988 to advise the local authority on religious education in community (formally ‘county’) and voluntary controlled schools; and, collective worship in community schools which are maintained by the authority (Local Education Authorities became known as ‘Local Authorities’ in 2004 as a result of their expanding role). SACREs are also responsible for ensuring that pupils in the local authority’s maintained schools receive their statutory entitlement in RE, of the highest possible quality. A SACRE may do this in a number of ways. Usually a SACRE will have an agenda and papers that are presented to the meeting. It will discuss the issues set before it, evidence that is put forward in the paper and then discuss a recommendation or number of recommendations. All SACRE minutes and papers have to be published seven days before the meeting and be available to the public. Likewise, all SACRE meetings must be held in public and in a place that the public can access, although there are situations where the press and public can be excluded.

If the SACRE decides that it wishes to issue advice to the local authority and its schools then it would write to the Director of Children’s Services, who should make that advice available to schools. If a local authority rejects the advice of SACRE it is noted in its annual report, along with any reasons given by the local authority. SACRE must send its annual report to the Secretary of State for Education every year, setting out how advice was acted upon or why the advice was rejected. This is one way SACREs hold their local authorities to account.

SACREs have one specific legal duty. A community school may ask SACRE to modify the requirement to have collective worship ‘which is wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’. The head teacher would make an application in light of the school’s intake and parental requests. Where a SACRE agrees to modify the requirement this is called a ‘determination’. The school would still have to provide a daily act of collective worship but under the terms agreed by SACRE in its determination, although ultimately it is the head teacher who decides on the form that alternative collective worship should take.

Who is on a SACRE?

SACREs were formed to bring together members of local faith communities, teachers and the local authority to decide on what was appropriate for pupils to learn in religious education. Whilst this principle still stands in 1988 the role of determining the syllabus for RE was given to an occasional body called an Agreed Syllabus Conference. Nevertheless, SACREs remain one of the places that local faith communities have the opportunity to discuss religious education and collective worship in the local authority’s schools and how that has an impact on pupils’ learning about Christianity and the principal religions in Great Britain, and where appropriate other religious traditions and worldviews.

SACREs have a very particular structure. In England a SACRE has four groups and in Wales three groups. The 1996 Education Act, Section 390 (4), states that the representative groups required are—

  1. Christian denominations and other religions and denominations of such religions as, in the opinion of the authority, will appropriately reflect the principal religious traditions in the area;
  2. except in Wales, the Church of England;
  3. associations representing teachers as, in the opinion of the authority, ought to be represented, having regard to the circumstances of the area; and
  4. the authority.

It is the local authority that appoints members to each group on the recommendation of a sponsoring body. If the local authority believes that the person no longer represents the sponsoring body it has the power to remove the person and ask for someone else to be nominated. SACRE’s may also appoint members who are referred to as ‘co-opted’. Such members have the right to speak but not to vote.

How does a SACRE make a decision?

In order for a SACRE to make a decision all four (England) or three (Wales) groups must be represented at the meeting by at least one member. Many SACREs have constitutions which state the minimum number of members to present before the meeting be regarded quorate. Each group on SACRE has one vote. If a decision is to be made each group must discuss how the vote should be cast. In terms of Group A, both in England and Wales, this is real inter faith dialogue in action. People who may have very different beliefs are asked to think about what is best for all pupils in the local authority’s schools, to debate it and to come to some consensus. If a group casts its vote in a way that a member or minority of members would not desire they can ask for their position to be formally recorded, although it would not change the decision of the SACRE as a whole.

Agreed Syllabus Conferences

Agreed Syllabus Conferences agree a syllabus to be followed in the local authority’s schools. Syllabuses must be reviewed every five years to ensure they are fit for purpose. A syllabus must ‘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.’

As with SACREs Agreed Syllabus Conferences have four ‘committees’ in England and three in Wales which represent the same broad interests with the same titles as the groups for a SACRE. Agreed Syllabus Conferences cannot co-opt members and all must be appointed by the local authority into one of the four (England) or three (Wales) committees. Unlike SACREs, though, each committee has to agree the syllabus not just a majority. If a syllabus cannot be agreed it is referred to the Secretary of State for Education.