Should we still offer a right to withdraw from Religious Education in UK schools?

For more than 70 years, parents in the UK have had the right to withdraw their children from Religious Education (RE) classes in school. The original purpose of this policy was to protect the rights of religious minorities, back when RE was more of a Christian ‘confessional’ nature. However, in the years following the introduction of this policy, many see RE as becoming a non-confessional ‘open’ subject (Barnes, 2002). Furthermore, recent reports demonstrate an increasing trend for parents to withdraw their children selectively from learning about specific religions for reasons that appear to stem more from fear or prejudice than a desire for religious freedom. The situation was reviewed by the Commission on Religious Education in 2018 and although they stopped short of calling for abolition of the right to withdraw they did strongly recommend that the government clarify the legal situation regarding the selective use of the right to withdraw. With all this in mind, the current research explores the views of teachers on the need for and implementation of a right to withdraw in contemporary multi-faith RE.

A survey was conducted involving 450 teachers, head teachers and RE coordinators from across England. They were drawn from a variety of schools which are broadly reflective of the faith and governance character of English schools. This survey inquired as to the respondents’ views on the practice, purpose and understanding of the parental right to withdraw from RE. One of the primary purposes of the survey was to determine whether, in their view, there was a justification to maintain such a right. In addition, participants’ experiences of these withdrawal requests, such as the reasons given by parents, were related to their views on the right to withdraw.

Responses showed that a clear majority of respondents believed that the right to withdraw from RE was no longer necessary. Unpicking that belief, we found a strong connection between a teacher’s belief that the right to withdraw was no longer needed and their experiences of parental requests to withdraw their child from specific aspects of RE. In particular, teachers who believe that the right to withdrawal was no longer necessary were more likely to see prejudiced beliefs, or misunderstandings about the aims and purpose of RE as the reasons for parents to seek such a withdrawal. We also found considerable confusion regarding the legal status of withdrawal requests. In one example, a large minority of respondents believed (incorrectly) that there is a requirement for parents to provide an alternative syllabus to their children when withdrawing them from RE.

This presentation will consider these results, and others, inviting discussion on their implications for both practice and policy in this area.