The legal basis of RE in the curriculum
Every maintained school in England must provide a basic curriculum (RE, sex education and the National Curriculum). This includes provision for RE for all registered pupils at the school (including those in reception classes and the sixth form), except for those withdrawn by their parents (or withdrawing themselves if they are aged 18 or over) in accordance with Schedule 19 to the School Standards and Framework Act 1998.
The key document in determining the teaching of RE in community and voluntary controlled schools is the locally agreed syllabus within the local authority (LA) concerned (Section 376-377). LAs must ensure that the agreed syllabus for their area is consistent with Section 375(3) of the Education Act 1996, which requires the syllabus to reflect the fact that the religious traditions of Great Britain are in the main Christian whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain.
In voluntary aided schools with a religious character, RE is to be determined by the governors and in accordance with the provisions of the trust deed relating to the school or, where there is no provision in the trust deed, with the religion or denomination mentioned in the order designating the school as having a religious character.
At voluntary controlled schools with a religious character, parents of any pupils at the school may request that they receive religious education in accordance with provisions of the trust deed relating to the school, and at voluntary aided schools with a religious character, parents of any pupils at the school may request that they receive religious education in accordance with the locally agreed syllabus. (School Standards and Framework Act 1998, Schedule 19. 3,4) Further advice on the application of these provisions may be sought from the local Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (SACRE).
All academies are required, through their funding agreements, to teach RE:
For academies without a religious character, this will be the locally agreed syllabus;
For denominational academies with a religious character (Church of England or Roman Catholic — but also Muslim and most Jewish academies), this will be in line with the denominational syllabus;
For non-denominational (such as Christian) faith academies this can be either of the above, depending on the wishes of the sponsor and what is agreed by ministers.
(Religious education guidance in English schools:
Non-statutory guidance 2010, pages 15f)
Schools are not obliged to provide RE to pupils who are under compulsory school age (section 80(2)(a) of the Education Act 2002), although there are many instances of good practice where RE is taught to these pupils.
Separate legislative provision on RE is made for maintained special schools. Regulations covering maintained special schools require them to ensure that, as far as practicable, a pupil receives RE.
Governing bodies and headteachers, like local authorities, must:
ensure that RE is provided as part of the school's basic curriculum, following the appropriate syllabus as listed above;
provide an annual report to parents or carers giving brief particulars of progress and achievements in all subjects including RE (Regulation 6 of the Education (Pupil Information) (England) Regulations 2005, SI 2005/1437).
In order to fulfil legal requirements in relation to this agreed syllabus, schools must provide religious education in accordance with the statutory programmes of study
The Right of Withdrawal from RE
The parent of a pupil at a community, foundation or voluntary school has the right to request that the pupil be excused from all or part of the RE provided.
Schools should ensure that parents who want to withdraw their children from RE are aware that RE is taught in an objective way that is relevant to all pupils and respects their own personal beliefs. They should be made aware of the RE syllabus learning objectives and what is covered in the RE curriculum and should be given the opportunity to discuss this, if they wish. The school may also wish to review such a request each year, in discussion with the parents.
However, the right of withdrawal does not extend to other areas of the curriculum when, as may happen on occasion, spontaneous questions on religious matters are raised by pupils or there are issues related to religion that arise in other subjects such as history or citizenship.
The use of the right to withdraw should be at the instigation of parents (or pupils themselves if they are aged 18 or over), and it should be made clear whether it is from the whole of the subject or specific parts of it. No reasons need be given.
Parents have the right to choose whether or not to withdraw their child from RE without influence from the school, although a school should ensure parents or carers are informed of this right and are aware of the educational objectives and content of the RE syllabus. In this way, parents can make an informed decision. Where parents have requested that their child is withdrawn, their right must be respected, and where RE is integrated in the curriculum, the school will need to discuss the arrangements with the parents or carers to explore how the child's withdrawal can be best accommodated. If pupils are withdrawn from RE, schools have a duty to supervise them, though not to provide additional teaching or to incur extra cost. Pupils will usually remain on school premises.
Where a pupil has been withdrawn, the law provides for alternative arrangements to be made for RE of the kind the parent wants the pupil to receive (Section 71(3) of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998).
This RE could be provided at the school in question, or the pupil could be sent to another school where suitable RE is provided if this is reasonably convenient. If neither approach is practicable, outside arrangements can be made to provide the pupil with the kind of RE that the parent wants, and the pupil may be withdrawn from school for a reasonable period of time to allow them to attend this external RE.
Outside arrangements for RE are allowed as long as the LA is satisfied that any interference with the pupil's attendance at school resulting from the withdrawal will affect only the start or end of a school session.
If the school is a secondary school and parents have withdrawn a pupil from RE provided at the school and asked for alternative RE to be provided in accordance with the tenets of a particular religion or denomination, then the LA must either:
provide facilities for the alternative RE to be given at the school unless there are special circumstances which would make it unreasonable to do so, or
agree to outside arrangements being made as long as no financial burden falls on the LA or school as a result of these arrangements.
In the case of a pupil at a maintained boarding school where a sixth-former, or the parents of a pupil below the sixth form, requests that the pupil be allowed to receive RE in accordance with the tenets of a particular religion or denomination outside school hours, the governing body must make arrangements to give the pupil a reasonable opportunity to do so. This could involve making facilities available at the school, but any such arrangements cannot be funded out of the school's budget or by the local authority (LA) (Section 71 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998).
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