“I don’t actually have a problem with educating kids about religion. It’s the indoctrination that I object to.”
All state-funded schools in England and Wales are required to provide Religious Education (RE) to their pupils right the way through school. However, the nature and content of the RE that a school must provide depends on its type.
Community schools, which cannot have a religious character, must teach RE according to a syllabus agreed locally by an ‘Agreed Syllabus Conference’ (ASC), comprised of representatives of the Church of England (except in Wales); other religions, beliefs and denominations; teachers; and the local authority. The syllabuses must be neutral on matters of religion or belief and must not be taught from a faith-based perspective. There are 173 ASCs in England and Wales, and RE in community schools is overseen by a network of similarly (usually identically) composed local bodies called ‘Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education’ (SACREs).
Whilst ASCs are broadly free to set the content of their syllabuses, they are not totally free. The law requires that the RE syllabus ’reflects 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’. In other words, Christianity should be predominantly taught.
Voluntary controlled (VC) and Foundation ‘faith’ schools must also follow the agreed syllabus, and RE must therefore be non-confessional (i.e. not faith-based). Parents have the right to request RE in line with the faith of the school if they wish.
Voluntary aided (VA) ‘faith’ schools teach RE as set by the governing body in accordance with the faith of the school. However, parents have the right to request non-confessional RE for their children in the form of the agreed syllabus.
Academies (which exist only in England) with a religious character are slightly different. If the Academy is a former foundation or voluntary controlled school it must continue to teach non-confessional RE, even though it does not have to follow the agreed syllabus (though in practice this is what many academies choose to do). Otherwise, Academies and Free Schools teach RE as set by the governing body in accordance with the faith of the school.
‘Faith ethos’ Academies are different still. Despite being run by faith organisations, ‘faith ethos’ Academies are not formally designated with a religious character and must therefore teach non-confessional RE. And as above, they can set this syllabus themselves.
In private schools, none of the requirements imposed on state-funded schools apply. Private schools may teach whatever form of RE they like (or teach none at all), with the only limitation being that the school as a whole must fulfil its obligations with regard to promoting British values. As the vast majority of private schools are religious, in practice a large number teach faith-based RE.
In all state schools, the law allows parents to either wholly or partly withdraw their children from RE. Pupils have no right to opt out themselves, and in private schools there are no such rights for parents either, other than by withdrawing from the school entirely.
In addition, for Voluntary Aided schools or Academies and Free Schools opened from 2012 onwards, parents can request that children be taught according to a neutral RE syllabus (ordinarily the agreed syllabus). The school itself is obliged to provide this teaching.