What’s the Place of Faith in Schools?

Questions for debate

What place – if any – should faith have in our state school system, and in our schools – in both the formal curriculum (what is taught in the classroom) and informal curriculum (wider ethos of the school, including assemblies)?

Conclusions from the debate

There was a new settlement between religion and state school education in Britain in 1944. Since then changes have been implemented in a piecemeal way, attempting to keep pace with the rapid changes in religion and society. This has led to situation of crisis today which is evident in:

There is an urgent need for joined-up thinking about the place of faith in schools and a new settlement as radical as that of 1944

Research Findings

Faith schools vary widely in nature – they cannot be categorised as a single group. Research shows many to be of high quality, with demand continuing to grow. Many are now taking Academy status. Faith schools’ admissions policies remain contentious.

The research uncovered serious problems with the way RE is taught in secondary schools. Although compulsory, RE is:

The research nevertheless finds examples of excellent practice in some schools, and student demand for RE has been growing strongly.

The statutory requirement to hold Acts of Worship ‘of a predominantly Christian character’ is widely ignored, and there is often fear of dealing with religion at all. There is widely varying practice across schools – from no collective gatherings, to banal notice-giving, to reflective spaces. Primary schools often deal better with Acts of Worship than secondary schools.

James Conroy

“What is happening to RE in our schools is a scandal for which we will have to pay a high price in years to come.”

James Conroy

Points of Debate and Disagreement

To educate any child in a faith is a form of indoctrination; children should be presented with religious and secular beliefs and be allowed to make up their own minds about the truth. FaithDebate03_arrow Parents and society inevitably want children to be raised in the beliefs and values they believe to be true, and this does not curtail children’s liberty.
Faith schools should not be paid for from the public purse and state schools should be open to everyone. FaithDebate03_arrow Given that faith is important for so many British people, it is appropriate that the state should support the sorts of schools people want – and a mixed educational system overall.
Acts of worship are anachronistic and should not be compulsory. FaithDebate03_arrow Assemblies remain important, and schools should be guided and encouraged to use them in a way which caters for religious and non-religious as appropriate to the profile of the school.

Practical Suggestions

There is widespread agreement that RE in Britain is in some disarray, despite the best efforts of many teachers and other educational professionals.

There is unwarranted nervousness at all levels about dealing with religion in schools.

The training of teachers in how to deal with faith is inadequate – not just for RE teachers, but all teachers.

The settlement reached in 1944 and added to piecemeal since then – in response to many developments including the changing nature of religion in Britain – is in urgent need of review. A new settlement is needed.

The situation is of concern for children and society as a whole. People who do not understand religion are simply not well educated. A religiously diverse society and world requires higher, not lower, standards of RE.

Richard Dawkins

“There are many objections to faith schools. They are divisive, discriminatory, in some cases they actively teach scientific falsehoods (for example teaching literalistic Koranic creationism instead of scientific evolution). But for me, not the least objection to faith schools is that their very foundation and definition depends on the assumption that it is right to label a child with the faith of her parents.”

Richard Dawkins

“I wish politicians would go back more to breadth in education, related to the whole human person, and not just contemporary utility.”

Robert Jackson

How the Media Reported the Debate

“State schools spend no more than £1 per pupil each year teaching religion, a Government-funded study found yesterday.”

Steve Doughty, The Daily Mail 22 Feb 2012

“These (religious schools) are schools which are funded by me and my partner as tax payers. However, they’re schools from which our children are excluded because I can’t profess to believe in a god that I don’t believe in.”

Caller, You and Yours, BBC Radio 4 21 Feb 2012

“A Department for Education spokesman said: ‘RE remains a statutory part of the school curriculum for every student up to 16. It is rightly down to schools themselves to judge how it is taught, but the English Baccalaureate will not prevent any school from offering RE GCSEs.'”

BBC News 21 Feb 2012

Wednesday 22 February 2012, held at 61 Whitehall

Thanks to new research, we now have a good idea of the place that religion actually has in UK schools today. Less than £1 per pupil is spent on RE. But what place should it have? The debate was chaired by Charles Clarke and Linda Woodhead. Watch and listen to the event below. Access media coverage about it here.


  • Charles Clarke

    Charles was Labour Member of Parliament for Norwich South, which he remained until May 1997 –...

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  • Jim Conroy

    James Conroy

    James is Professor of Religious and Philosophical Education (Creativity Culture and Faith) at the...

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  • John Pritchard

    John became Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Oxford in 2007. He is author of 15 books on aspects...

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  • Linda Woodhead

    Linda is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University and Director of the Religion...

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  • Richard Dawkins

    Richard is the former Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford...

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  • Robert Jackson

    Robert Jackson

    Professor Jackson is Director of the Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit (WRERU). He...

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  • Intro by Linda Woodhead

  • Intro by Robert Jackson

  • Intro by James Conroy

  • Intro by Richard Dawkins

  • Intro by John Pritchard

  • Faith in Schools Questions and Responses


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