A new survey of school leaders reveals confusion and worse about the right to opt out of RE lessons.
The survey, which I led, gathered Headteachers’ and RE Co-ordinators’ experiences of parents exercising the right to withdraw from RE. We wanted to add some rigour to growing anecdotal evidence that the right of withdrawal was being misused in various contexts.
Earlier research has shown that understanding about the right to withdraw is patchy among parents, but even among our professional sample there was confusion, with 5.3% of school leaders believing that all children have to follow the core curriculum, and a further 24.7% responding that parents have a responsibility to provide an alternative RE syllabus before their children can be withdrawn. In fact the current guidance neither requires the parents nor the school to provide an alternative syllabus.
School leaders reported conservative religious views as the most common reason for withdrawal (49%), but misunderstandings about the aims of RE also accounted for some 18.9% of parents’ requests to withdraw their children.
Some parents wanted to withdraw their children from the teaching of one religion. Both the BNP and EDL have run campaigns encouraging parents to withdraw their children from learning about Islam, and in April 2018, the ATL annual conference of the National Education Union resolved to work with NATRE and the RE community to understand and combat this worrying trend.
118 out of 312 schools responding to our survey told us they had experienced a parent make a request of this kind, with many reporting concerns about racism or Islamophobia as a motivating factor. As one participant observed: “The students that have been removed are the ones that need to understand different cultures the most.”
Another surprising finding was that 7.2% of responders told us a child had been withdrawn from RE to make time for other curriculum subjects, SEN support, or even “simply as [the parent] couldn’t see the point in it and they wanted their son to spend more time on English and Maths.”
Responses came in from all across the UK, from both primary and secondary, faith schools, academies, local authority and independent schools. Although 71.2% of responders had experienced a parent request to withdraw a child from RE or collective worship, only 38.1% currently reported any children at their school who are withdrawn, and only 1% reported more than 10 children currently withdrawn. 65.8% of the participating school leaders believed the right to withdraw was no longer needed.
The right of parents to withdraw their students from ‘Religious Instruction’ – covering both collective worship and religious education, was established in the 1870 Education Act, and has been retained by all subsequent legislation. Then, the right to withdraw protected the rights of parents of minority beliefs to raise their children according to their own faith, avoiding what was then a form of Christian confessional instruction, though not following the catechism or formulary of any one church.
In spite of the many changes in Religious Education as a subject today, and the claims the subject makes to help prepare young people for life in a modern, multicultural Britain, the right to withdraw has been left untouched by successive legal reforms in education. As a minimum, the government urgently needs to clarify the current legal settlement with school leaders, closing any loop-holes that allow for the misuse of the right to withdraw.
More ambitiously, if a national entitlement to learning about religions in schools can be secured, clearing up some of the misconceptions and articulating the social and academic benefits of RE, there is no reason for RE to be any more contentious or less compulsory than Geography or Music.
 Lundie, D. (2018) Religious Education and the Right of Withdrawal. Liverpool. Liverpool Hope University. https://davidlundie.files.wordpress.com/2018/04/report-on-re-opt-out-wcover.pdf
 Mawhinney, A., Niens, U., Richardson, N. & Chiba, Y. (2010) Opting out of religious education: The views of young people from minority belief backgrounds. Belfast: Queen’s University Belfast. p.53 https://www.qub.ac.uk/research-centres/CentreforChildrensRights/filestore/Filetoupload,485911,en.pdf
 Department for Children, Schools and Families (2010) Religious Education in English Schools: Non-statutory guidance 2010 [London: HMSO]. p.28 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/190260/DCSF-00114-2010.pdf
 Turner, C. (2018) Teachers: ‘Racist’ parents pull children from RE classes because they don’t want them learning about Islam, The Telegraph 11th April 2018 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/04/11/teachers-racist-parents-pull-children-re-classes-dont-want-learning/
 Lundie, D. (2012) Religious education in the United Kingdom and Ireland, in Barnes, L.P. (ed.) Debates in Religious Education. London: Routledge.
David Lundie is Senior Lecturer in Education at Liverpool Hope University and is a member of the Centre for Education and Policy Analysis.