RE in England

Ribblehead Viaduct.

Religious Education in England

1. Background

Religious Education (RE) in England should be taught in all state funded schools as part of the compulsory curriculum for children aged from 5 to 16 (though this could include children who are 4 if they are in a Reception Class and registered on the school roll). It is also compulsory for pupils in schools from ages 16 to 18 but it is often not taught to this age group, despite the legal requirement to do so. There is a recommendation that 5% of curriculum time is given over to Religious Education but as this is not compulsory the actual amount of time is often less than this. In schools of a religious character, such as Roman Catholic schools, the recommendation may be higher at around 10% of curriculum time. Unlike all other subjects there is no National Curriculum for RE. The RE curriculum is determined in a number of ways:

  1. For community schools (those managed by their Local Authority and funded via them) the RE syllabus is determined by a Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (SACRE). There is one SACRE for each Local Authority. This curriculum is then compulsory for all state funded community schools in the Local Authority (LA). A SACRE may decide to adopt the syllabus of another LA. The legal requirements for the teaching of RE ensure that up to the age of 14, pupils should encounter teaching about Christian traditions as well as a range of other major world religions [this is usually interpreted from the 1988 Education Act of Parliament to mean Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism] as well as ethics, philosophy and morals. The syllabuses may also choose to include other religious groups that have a prominence in their locality (such as Rastafarianism or the Baha’i faith) and/or secular philosophies such as humanism.
  2. For schools funded directly by central government rather than through a Local Authority, such as academies and free schools, the RE syllabus used must also meet the legal requirements outlined above. These schools are not obliged to follow the syllabus devised by their local SACRE, but many choose to do so.
  3. For schools with a religious foundation (mostly Christian but with a growing number affiliated to other religious groups), the religious community is more heavily involved with the writing of the curriculum. Some of these schools focus on a range of different faiths and beliefs in RE, but others focus mainly on their own religion.
  4. Independent schools [schools which are not supported financially by the state] are allowed to choose any of the RE curricula that are available from the SACREs or religious bodies, or to devise their own programmes of study.

From 14 to 16 many pupils sit an examination course for the General Certificate in Secondary Education (GCSE). This can either be a full course (10% of curriculum time is suggested) or a Half Course (5% of curriculum time is suggested) though these time guidelines are not always observed. At GCSE all pupils, including those in schools with a religious foundation are required, to study two religions.

2. Report from the Government Inspection Body – The Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) 2013 [last report available]

Key findings

  • Weaknesses in provision for RE meant that too many pupils were leaving school with low levels of subject knowledge and understanding.
  • Achievement and teaching in RE in the 90 primary schools visited were less than good in six in 10 schools.
  • Achievement and teaching in RE in the 91 secondary schools visited were only good or better in just under half of the schools. The picture was stronger at Key Stage 4 and in the sixth form than at Key Stage 3.
  • Most of the GCSE teaching seen failed to secure the core aim of the examination specifications: that is, to enable pupils ‘to adopt an enquiring, critical and reflective approach to the study of religion’.
  • The provision made for GCSE in the majority of the secondary schools surveyed failed to provide enough curriculum time for pupils to extend and deepen their learning sufficiently.
  • The teaching of RE in primary schools was not good enough because of weaknesses in teachers’ understanding of the subject, a lack of emphasis on subject knowledge, poor and fragmented curriculum planning, very weak assessment, ineffective monitoring and teachers’ limited access to effective training.
  • The way in which RE was provided in many of the primary schools visited had the effect of isolating the subject from the rest of the curriculum. It led to low-level learning and missed opportunities to support pupils’ learning more widely, for example, in literacy.
  • The quality of teaching in the secondary schools visited was rarely outstanding and was less than good in around half of the lessons seen. Common weaknesses included: insufficient focus on subject knowledge; an over-emphasis on a limited range of teaching strategies that focused simply on preparing pupils for assessments or examinations; insufficient opportunity for pupils to reflect and work independently; and over-structured and bureaucratic lesson planning with a limited focus on promoting effective learning.
  • Although the proportion of pupils taking GCSE and GCE examinations in RE remains high, in 2011 nearly 250 schools and academies did not enter any pupils for an accredited qualification in GCSE.
  • Around half of the secondary schools visited in 2011 and 2012 had changed, or were planning to change, their curriculum provision for RE in response to changes in education policy. The impact of these changes varied but it was rarely being monitored carefully.
  • Assessment in RE remained a major weakness in the schools visited. It was inadequate in a fifth of the secondary schools and a third of the primary schools. Many teachers were confused about how to judge how well pupils were doing in RE.
  • Access to high-quality RE training for teachers was poor. Training had a positive impact on improving provision in only a third of the schools visited; its impact was poor in a further third. Many of the schools surveyed said that support from their local authority and SACRE had diminished.
  • Leadership and management of RE were good or better in half the schools visited; however, weaknesses were widespread in monitoring provision for RE and in planning to tackle the areas identified for improvement
  • The effectiveness of the current statutory arrangements for RE varies considerably. Recent changes in education policy are having a negative impact on the provision for RE in some schools and on the capacity of local authorities and SACREs to carry out their statutory responsibilities to monitor and support it. 


The following recommendations are made to bring about improvements to religious education.

The Department for Education (DfE) should:

  • review the current statutory arrangements for RE in relation to the principle of local determination to ensure these keep pace with wider changes in education policy, and revise or strengthen these arrangements as appropriate
  • ensure that the examination specifications for RE promote better learning by focusing more strongly on deepening and extending pupils’ knowledge and understanding of religion and belief
  • ensure that the provision for religious education is monitored more closely, particularly in secondary schools.

The DfE should work in partnership with the professional associations for RE to:

  • clarify the aims and purposes of RE and explore how these might be translated into high-quality planning, teaching and assessment
  • improve and coordinate the provision for training in RE, both nationally and locally.

Local authorities, in partnership with SACREs and agreed syllabus conferences, should:

  • ensure that sufficient resources are available for SACREs and agreed syllabus conferences to carry out their statutory functions with regard to RE and provide schools with high-quality guidance and support
  • review their expectations about arrangements for RE, particularly at Key Stage 4, to ensure that schools have sufficient flexibility to match their provision more effectively to pupils’ needs
  • work in partnership with local schools and academies to build supportive networks to share best practice.

All schools should:

  • ensure that learning in RE has a stronger focus on deepening pupils’ understanding of the nature, diversity and impact of religion and belief in the contemporary world
  • improve lesson planning so that teaching has a clear and straightforward focus on what pupils need to learn and engages their interest.

Primary schools should:

  • raise the status of RE in the curriculum and strengthen the quality of subject leadership by improving the arrangements for developing teachers’ subject expertise, sharing good practice, and monitoring the quality of the curriculum and teaching
  • improve the quality of teaching and the curriculum to increase opportunities for pupils to work independently, make links with other subjects and tackle more challenging tasks.

Secondary schools should:

  • ensure that the teaching of RE at GCSE level secures good opportunities for pupils to discuss and reflect on their learning, and extend and deepen their knowledge and understanding of religion and belief
  • ensure that the overall curriculum provision for RE is challenging and has greater coherence and continuity
  • improve their monitoring of RE to ensure that any changes in provision are carefully evaluated in terms of their impact on pupils’ progress and attainment.

Although, this report is now several years old, much of these findings remain pertinent to the current situation in RE in English schools.

3. Specific Issues

Three major research reports published in 2015 raised concerns about the current status of RE in state funded schools in England and stimulated public and professional debate about the future of the subject. All made recommendations about possible changes to the current legal position of RE in those schools, such as calling for it to become part of the National Curriculum, rather than being determined at local level. It remains to be seen whether there is any significant political appetite for such a change, which would require new legislation to be passed. In the meantime, there are other concerns about the subject, such as whether or not teachers and other staff are trained to teach it effectively.

Cover of A New Settlement.

A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools (June 2015)

This publication from Charles Clarke, former Secretary of State for Education and Linda Woodhead, Professor of Sociology of Religion stimulated much debate in the RE world and may well influence possible changes in current policy and provision.

In July 2018, a revised and updated version of this research report was published.


REforREal: Research Report (November 2015)

In this report, Professor Adam Dinham and Martha Shaw (Goldsmiths University) outlined the key proposals of their research about RE (focus on secondary education). This was funded by a charitable trust, Culham St Gabriel’s and backed by the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education (NATRE).
Pupils, parents, teachers and employers were interviewed about what school leavers need to know about religion and belief.

Cover of report.

Commission on Religions and Belief in Public Life (December 2015)

The Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life was convened by the Woolf Institute, Cambridge, to:

  • consider the place and role of religion and belief in contemporary Britain, and the significance of emerging trends and identities
  • examine how ideas of Britishness and national identity may be inclusive of a range of religions and beliefs, and may in turn influence people’s self-understanding
  • explore how shared understandings of the common good may contribute to greater levels of mutual trust and collective action, and to a more harmonious society
  • make recommendations for public life and policy.

The section on education begins on Page 30.

Cover of Big ideas for RE.

Big Ideas for RE

The aim of this project is to address long-standing practical issues concerning curriculum content selection, curriculum coherence and subject relevance in Religious Education (RE) by applying the theories of Grant Wiggins, Jay McTighe and Lynne Errickson to develop principles and ‘Big Ideas’ that teachers, curriculum designers, syllabus writers, textbook authors and other stakeholders can use in determining the selection and sequence of RE curriculum content. More specifically, the project’s objectives are:

  • To identify principles for RE that will clarify for political, public and professional audiences the purposes and practices of the subject;
  • To identify a manageable number of Big Ideas for RE which can be used subsequently to determine the selection of curriculum content;
  • To provide a progressive description of each Big Idea, using concepts and language appropriate for pupils at each Key Stage, which can be used subsequently to determine the sequencing of curriculum content; and finally
  • To use these Big Ideas and progressive descriptors as criteria to select exemplar RE curriculum content and demonstrate how this could be sequenced appropriately across the Key Stages.

4. Major Reports on RE

The Commission on RE Report 2018

The RE Council of England and Wales set up a Commission on Religious Education in 2016. This was established to review the legal, education, and policy frameworks for religious education (RE) in schools in England.  The review was designed to inform policymakers, with the ultimate aim of improving the quality and rigour of religious education and its capacity to prepare pupils for life in modern Britain.

The final report was published in the autumn of 2018. It sets out a National Plan for RE comprising of 11 recommendations, and calls on the Government to consider and adopt it.

The National Plan is built around a National Entitlement which sets out what all pupils up to the end of Year 11, in all publicly funded schools, should be entitled to be taught.  The National Entitlement reflects a new and inclusive vision for the subject, fully embracing the diversity and richness of religious and non-religious worldviews.  It is argued that it could ensure a strong academic basis for the subject in all schools.  The National Plan provides for flexibility of approach in the translation of the National Entitlement into programmes of study in schools, ensuring that Headteachers are able to choose the approach that is most appropriate for their pupils.

The report is the result of two years work from Commissioners.  They have listened to evidence from a wide-range of concerned parties including pupils, teachers, lecturers, advisers, parents and faith and belief communities.  The Commission received over three thousand submissions, all of which have been carefully considered.

Research review series: religious education

A major research paper on RE was published by Ofsted on 12th May 2021.

In this review, Ofsted has:

  • outlined the national context in relation to RE
  • summarised its review of research into factors that can affect the quality of education in RE
  • considered curriculum progression in RE, pedagogy, assessment and the impact of school leaders’ decisions on provision.

The report refers to three different types of knowledge used in RE. These broad types of knowledge are ‘pillars of progression’ within RE. ‘Getting better’ at RE comprises knowing more of these pillars as they are set out within the RE curriculum:

  • first, ‘substantive’ knowledge: knowledge about various religious and non-religious traditions or worldviews
  • second, ‘ways of knowing’: pupils learn ‘how to know’ about religion and worldviews
  • third, ‘personal knowledge’: pupils build an awareness of their own presuppositions and values about the religions and worldviews they study.

In the report, Ofsted highlights its view of the essentail features of high quality RE:

  • A consideration of the knowledge that pupils build through the RE curriculum, because accurate knowledge about religions and worldviews an be beneficial for achieving different purposes and aims for RE.
  • High expectations about scholarship in the curriculum to guard against pupils’ misconceptions – what is taught and learned in RE is grounded in what is known about religions and worldviews from academic study (scholarship).
  • Carefully selected and well-sequenced substantive content and concepts.
  • ‘Ways of knowing’ are appropriately taught alongside the substantive content and are not isolated from the content and concepts that pupils learn.
  • A consideration of when pupils should relate the content to their own personal knowledge (for example, prior assumptions).

Other useful links that focus on current issues in RE in England can be found here:

This report was written by Lesley Prior, the EFTRE representative for England  – October 2021