Religion and belief in education

Andrew Copson

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It has now been a year since the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life published its report Living with Difference, calling for ‘a new settlement’ in relation to religion and belief in the UK. Some of its most far-reaching recommendations were in relation to education. Has anything changed in the last twelve months?

There has been little progress in most of the educational areas that the Commission examined. The current place of religion in the education system continues to be founded on provisions contained within the 1944 Education Act for England and Wales and the 1980 Education Act for Scotland. But over these many decades, even given all that’s changed both within our schools and within our society, very few governments have been able to achieve meaningful reform.

To say there has been little progress, however, is not to say there has been little movement. For education policy, as for so much else, this has been a turbulent year.

‘Religious Education’

“very few governments have been able to achieve meaningful reform.”

Just a few days before the Commission published its report, the High Court ruled in favour of three humanist parents and their children who challenged the Government’s relegation of non-religious worldviews from the Religious Studies GCSE in England. Significantly, the court ruled that, for the purpose of the curriculum, ‘the state must accord equal respect to different religious convictions, and to non-religious beliefs’. In many ways, this was an almost word-perfect distillation of the Commission’s recommendation that ‘the content [of RE] should be broad and inclusive in a way that reflects the diversity of religion and belief in the UK’ and which, crucially, deals with both ‘religious and non-religious worldviews’.

However, despite agreement between Court and Commission, change has not come. The Department for Education in England chose, disappointingly, to ignore the ruling and even took steps to encourage schools and those who set RE syllabuses locally to do the same. The Government in Wales is still engaged in a curriculum review with no end in sight, in Scotland Religious and Moral Education remains skewed towards Christianity, and in Northern Ireland the core syllabus for RE continues to be set by the four main churches, largely for their own benefit.

In England, this lack of interest from Government has not prevented civil society from taking matters into its own hands. The Religious Education Council for England and Wales (REC) has chosen to launch its own Commission on the subject. Bringing together experts from teaching, school leadership, academia, journalism, and the law, it will report next year and again in 2018. Given that academisation threatens to make the system of local determination of RE syllabuses entirely redundant, sooner rather than later, it seems clear that some reform of the subject will be necessary in the near future. We can only hope that the Government allows itself to be guided by the findings of the Commission on RE (CoRE), and that those findings accord with the historically inclusive approach of the REC.

Compulsory worship in schools

Just as the courts have become involved in RE, so too have they become involved in collective worship – religious education’s uncomfortable bedfellow. Humanist Society Scotland (HSS) was recently granted permission by the Court of Session to legally challenge the Scottish Government’s refusal to allow young people to opt out themselves of religious observance in schools. Happily, HSS and the Scottish Government have now agreed to ‘pause’ the legal proceedings while a consultation is held on greater recognition of children’s rights in this area.

Of course, securing the right of young people to opt out of worship may not represent the kind of victory that Living with Difference envisaged. The Commission was clear that ‘governments should repeal requirements for schools to hold acts of collective worship or religious observance’ entirely, replacing them instead with requirements for inclusive assemblies. But if the Scottish Government does acquiesce, it will be a giant leap in the right direction and one that may well lead to much wider progress both in Scotland and across the UK, where in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, all attempts to remove this anachronistic and discriminatory requirement have been frustrated.

“An education system consisting of a multitude of single-faith enclaves does not encourage children and young people to learn to live with difference.”

In these two areas in particular – religious education and collective worship – uncertainty has characterised the last 12 months. That is progress in itself, however, and something to be celebrated in contrast with the situation that has developed in the third area of education policy covered by the Commission.

‘Faith’ Schools

In September, the Government announced that it would move to drop the current requirement that new religious state schools keep at least half of their places open to all local children, irrespective of religion or belief. This so-called 50% cap on religious selection, first introduced under Labour in 2007, then extended by the Coalition in 2010, and kept by the Cameron ministry after 2015, represented the most significant move ever made to limit the extent of religious discrimination and segregation in the school admissions system. Conversely, removing the cap, against all evidence, expertise, and public opinion, and seemingly at the behest of an increasingly determined religious lobby, represents just about the greatest extension of discrimination and segregation ever undertaken.

Living with Difference made a strongly evidenced call for an end to religious selection and the religiously segregated schools it produces. An education system consisting of a multitude of single-faith enclaves does not encourage children and young people to learn to live with difference. It encourages them to avoid difference and, down the line, to mistrust it. It was this effect to which the Commission referred when it called on the Government to ‘recognise the negative practical consequences of selection by religion in schools’. Unfortunately there has been no such recognition by Government, so we must take heart instead – if we are to take heart at all – from the quite remarkable outpouring of public consternation and condemnation with which the move has been met. If nothing else, the issue is alive.

If the report of the Commission on Religion and Belief has achieved anything this past year it has been to provoke renewed debate in areas that have been neglected for too long. In the short term, the outcomes of those debates may lead to change that Living with Difference could not endorse. In the long term, however, the consensus achieved among the commissioners, representing as they did a diverse set of backgrounds and a diverse set of beliefs, will surely one day win out.


Andrew Copson became Chief Executive in January 2010. His writing on humanist and secularist issues has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, The Times and New Statesman as well as in various journals and together with A C Grayling, Andrew edited the Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Humanism. He is currently President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) and a trustee of the International Humanist Trust.



To cite this article, please use the following: Copson, Andrew. (2017) ‘Religion and belief in education’Public Spirit (January, 2017:

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