The Schools Bill provides an Opportunity to Reform the Outdated Law on Religious Education and Worship in England

The law on religious education and worship in schools in England is outdated, non-human rights complaint and unworkable. It is in desperate need for reform.

The Schools Bill 2022 may provide for an opportunity for such reconsideration. The Bill, as introduced, does not make any significant changes to the law on religious education and worship in schools. It does, however, deal issues concerning schools with a religious character in England. It extends the definition of ‘independent educational institutions’ so to include many unregistered faith schools and so subject them to a regulatory scheme similar to that of independent schools. In increasing the regulation of Academies, it restates the position on religious worship and religious education in academies. See, further, Russell Sandberg, ‘The Schools Bill 2022: Some Initial Observations’, Law and Religion UK (16 May 2022)

Consideration of the Bill could and should provide opportunity for wider discussion of the law on religion in schools and for amendments to be tabled.

Reform of the law in this area should be based upon five principles:

1. The law should ensure that the composition of decision-making bodies on religious education and worship (such as SACREs) and the content of religious education and worship reflect the full ambit of freedom of religion or belief and that a pluralistic and critical approach is adopted.

2. There is a need to make such pluralistic teaching on religion or belief compulsory in all schools including those with a religious character. There is an argument that the syllabus of this should be agreed nationally or at school level rather than by local SACREs.

3. The law should then enable schools with a religious character to teach denominational religious education in addition to this as a separate subject, with a right to opt out by parent and pupils who are legally competent.

4. There is a need to reform the requirement for religious worship to require that all schools provide for the spiritual development of their learners, reflecting freedom of religion or belief (including the freedom not to hold a religion or belief) through collective assemblies which should take place at least weekly and which, as now, can include groups or ages of learners at a time rather than the whole school.

5. The law should then permit schools with a religious character to make provision for denominational worship but this should be in addition to the requirement laid out in the fourth principle

For further discussion of the history of the law, the need for reform and developments in Wales see my forthcoming book: Religion in Schools: Learning Lessons from Wales (Anthem, 2022). It shows that the explicit references to Christianity in the current law are of recent origin and argues that the Curriculum for Wales reforms are welcome but do not go quite fair enough in terms of reforming the teaching of religion in schools in Wales.


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