A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools

wfdThe Westminster Faith Debates bring together leading academic and public figures to debate the latest research on religion and values. The debates have been funded by generous grants from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council, and Lancaster University. Here, we bring the summary of an ongoing Religious Education debate in the UK.


Religion is an inescapably important aspect of our modern world. Even those who hoped that social and scientific progress would lead to the decline of any form of religious belief have to concede the continuing significance of religion. The most cursory examination of political and economic affairs today demonstrates the visibility and importance of religion and belief in the affairs of the world. This has increased after the end of the Cold War, which tended to inhibit and even suppress much of its impact.

That is true in England too, albeit less dramatically than in some other countries. The last twenty-five years have witnessed some of the most significant shifts in religious belief and practice since the Reformation, as traditional forms of religious authority, and uniformities of doctrine and practice, have given way to a much wider and more diverse range of religious and non-religious commitments.

In this period the churches’ religious monopoly has been lost, other faiths have grown in strength and visibility, some elements in all the main religions including not only Islam but the churches are taking more radical ‘counter-cultural’ stances against a perceived secular mainstream, and there is a growing proportion of people who do not affiliate with any religious organisation, even though a majority of them are not atheist.

Throughout these last seventy years the organisation and structure of schools has also changed very significantly, for example in the nature of the overall curriculum, and the reduced influence of local authorities.

Since 2006 the ‘Religion and Society’ research programme has been exploring these changes and trying to explain and understand what has been taking place. This culminated in the Westminster Faith debates, which began in the spring of 2012. They have tested the research findings in engagement with the practical experience of public figures actively engaged with matters of religion and belief.

One of the most important areas explored by the programme has been the recent relationship between religion and education.6 There are many areas of controversy, including the place of ‘religious education’ in the curriculum, the practices of ‘faith schools’, and the operation of the statutory ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’ act of collective worship.

It is clear to us that the educational settlement between church and state which was formalised in the 1944 Education Act, and reflected a different era, no longer serves its purpose. Indeed, as OFSTED and others have indicated, there are many areas of educational practice where the law is honoured more in the breach than the observance.

For example there can be a ‘nod and wink’ culture around the nature of the act of collective worship in school. The requirement that the act should be predominantly Christian, and possibly even promote a sense of ‘awe and wonder’, is sometimes honoured in form rather than substance. The status and quality of education about religion within schools is highly variable, and this, together with under-resourcing and controversy about the place of RE in the curriculum, have led to low morale.

Some worry that aspects of the admissions procedures to some faith schools promote dishonesty in religious observance by families and children in a way that is distasteful at best.

More generally, energy is constantly being diverted from serious thought about the values and qualities which education should be fostering in citizens, and how best to proceed in that respect as society changes.

Overall, the whole area of religious education has suffered from being treated very differently from other subjects. Sometimes it has been treated as less important, sometimes as more important. It has been freighted with too little significance or too much. The consequences have been negative and have inhibited reform. We believe that the subject should be put on a similar footing to other subjects, and no longer treated as the exceptional case.

The issues around the place of religion in schools are not going away. Indeed they are rising up the political and educational agenda as it becomes clear that the way in which religion is being dealt with in schools is not meeting the needs of our time.

You can read more of this particular Westminster Faith debate