History of Religious Education

Updated April 17, 2017

Religious education, and Christianity in particular, has been part of the UK schools curriculum since the Education Act of 1870. Changes to the content of RE over the years and to the way it has been taught, particularly in response to religious diversity, experts argue, has done the subject no favours. UK law states that RE must be taught in schools, but research suggests that it is not taught well or that children enjoy it.


In the UK the Education Act of 1870 provided free elementary education. Teaching in the schools had a strong Christian bias as the act's proponents believed the poor needed instruction in Christian values along with their reading and writing. The 1944 Education Act made school attendance up to the age of 15 compulsory for all children, and every day should begin with an act of worship, a school assembly. Roman Catholic and non-Christian parents could have their child excused from attending school assembly and religious education classes on conscientious grounds. The 1948 Immigration Act brought many people from commonwealth countries to the UK, many of whom were not Christian. By 1970 educationalists argued that religious education could no longer be solely Christian, and Birmingham was the first city to introduce the teaching of other religions along with Christianity into the school curriculum.


By the turn of the 19th century some parents felt that their children were being indoctrinated into Christian Protestantism, and in 1902 the Cowper-Temple clause was introduced, which allowed parents to have their child excused from religious education and school assembly.

In the 1970s and '80s, parents who did not want their children to receive instruction in religions other than Christianity were sending them to Roman Catholic and Church of England schools. While these schools were bound by law to talk about other religions, the main emphasis remained on Christianity. The 1988 Education Act said that religious education should be "broadly Christian" and at least 51 per cent of that teaching should be about Christianity and the rest divided between other world religions, including Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism. School assemblies stopped being wholly Christian and schools had to give some space to other religions.

While there were faith-based schools for Christians and Jews, the state did not support Muslim schools or other faith-based schools. Muslims campaigned to have their faith-based state-aided schools from the late 1980s onward. Many scholars and members of the public felt, and still do, that religious education in schools and faith-based schools were divisive and argued for an end to teaching religion in schools. Nonetheless, religious education remains a statutory subject in British schools.


Religious education in British schools, particularly since the 1970s, has given children a more rounded view of the world. Learning about faiths other than Christianity gives them an insight into what other people believe. Learning about other cultures and religious practices is designed to teach children to be more accepting of themselves and others and can help them to understand some of the problems facing modern society.


Religious education has to be taught by law in British schools; this has had the effect of making RE a second-class subject, and very few schools have RE specialists who can teach the subject properly. The idea that teaching world religions in schools would give children a better understanding of their own faith and that of others is not borne out by research findings.

Expert Insight

Sociologists such as Bryan Wilson and educationalists like Marie Parker-Jenkins are of the opinion that religion is badly taught in schools and that faith schools can be divisive. While government reports suggest that teaching of the subject is improving and even enjoyed by older pupils, other studies state the opposite. In spite of the state of RE in British schools, as of 2010, there is no official move to change things.

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About the Author

Sue Jeffels is a freelance writer with an academic background. She has published research reports, some alone and some co-authored, a short story, Virtual Blast, in Wild Thyme Writers' Anthology, and numerous articles and product reviews online. She has a B.A. in English and religious studies, and a Ph.D. in feminism and theology.