On 18 January 2024, the House of Lords is scheduled to consider in Grand Committee the following question for short debate:

Lord Harries of Pentregarth (Crossbench) to ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to improve the quality of religious education in schools.

1. Is RE a compulsory subject?

It is compulsory for all state-funded schools in England to teach religious education (RE).[1] However, it is not part of the national curriculum, and parents have a legal right to withdraw their children for all or part of the lessons. Pupils can choose to withdraw themselves once they are 18 years old.

Maintained schools without a religious character must follow the syllabus agreed by the local agreed syllabus conference (ASC), an occasional body which local authorities (LAs) are required to establish.[2] Each LA has a statutory duty to establish a standing advisory council for religious education (SACRE) to advise it on the provision of RE and convene any ASC. RE is compulsory in both academies designated with a religious character and those without (except for alternative provision academies), as set out in their funding agreement.

RE in schools with a religious character must be provided in accordance with the school’s trust deed or, where provision is not made by a trust deed, in accordance with the beliefs of the religion or denomination specified in the order that designates the school as having a religious character.[3]

2. What has Ofsted said about the quality of teaching of RE?

In 2021, Ofsted published a research review exploring literature relating to the field of RE. It argued that RE was “vital in preparing pupils to engage in a diverse and complex multi-religious and multi-secular society”.[4] However, Ofsted found that there were significant challenges limiting high quality provision, including insufficient time to teach an “ambitious” curriculum and insufficient development of RE practitioners to address gaps in professional subject knowledge.

This view was reiterated by Ofsted in its 2023 annual report. It said that in too many schools, RE was of “poor quality” and was “not fit for purpose”.[5] It found:[6]

  • many schools did not meet the statutory requirement to teach RE at all stages
  • pupils were rarely taught enough substance to prepare them to engage in a complex, multi-religious and multi-secular society (where religion and non-religion play different parts in different people’s lives)
  • too often, schools did not teach topics in the RE curriculum deeply enough for pupils to develop a substantial understanding of the subject matter
  • non-examined RE was typically not high quality

Ofsted suggested that as a subject, RE was “undervalued”, and was often considered as an “afterthought” by schools.[7] It argued that the “lack of clarity and support” from the government made the schools’ jobs “harder”.

To improve RE teaching in schools, Ofsted proposed:[8]

  • Schools needed high-quality professional development to teach RE well.
  • Curriculum publishers needed to identify clearly what pupils would learn and when, building on knowledge over time, so that pupils developed a deep knowledge of the chosen religious and non-religious traditions.
  • The government should provide clear expectations about RE provision in schools. Schools should follow these. Current non-statutory guidance for RE should be updated and include clear information for schools about the breadth and depth of the syllabus they are expected to teach.

The National Association of Teachers of Religious Education (NATRE) welcomed Ofsted’s conclusions.[9] It argued the findings added further weight to the call from NATRE and others for a ‘national plan for RE’ and for government support for the ‘national content standard’ published by the Religious Education Council of England and Wales in July 2023.

3. What reforms have other stakeholders proposed?

NATRE and the Religious Education Council of England and Wales have been calling for a national strategy for RE.[10] In 2018, the Commission on Religious Education, an independent commission established by the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, published a report setting out proposals for a national plan.[11]

The plan proposed the introduction of a statutory ‘national entitlement’. This would set out what all pupils in publicly funded schools should be entitled to be taught up to the end of year 11. The report argued that implementation of the entitlement should be subject to inspection and schools should be required to publish details of how they provide this entitlement. In response to the report, the government said it was “not the time to begin these reforms”.[12] It said the government’s priority was to “provide stability to schools” while embedding the “significant and necessary reforms” that were being made at that time to the curriculum and qualifications.

In July 2023, the Religious Education Council of England and Wales published a ‘National content standard for religious education’. The council proposed that a national content standard would be a benchmark for what constituted high quality teaching in RE.[13] The council said the standard would be set within the context of a national plan for RE which would embed it into the planning and delivery of the subject in England.

To support this proposal, the council said a sustained programme of investment was required in teacher education, linked to the early career framework and ongoing professional development. It called for:[14]

  • the proportion of lessons of secondary RE/education in religion and worldviews taught by people who are trained to teach the subject to be increased by reintroducing bursaries and other measures to recruit trainees
  • those training as primary teachers to have sufficient RE/education in religion and worldviews specific training to feel confident in the classroom
  • financial investment to be made in regional RE/education in religion and worldviews hubs to extend opportunities for schools and teachers to draw upon relevant expertise in their region including through local communities of religion or belief

4. What has been said about funding RE in schools?

NATRE continues to call for more funding to support initial teacher training (ITT) of RE, particularly for bursary funding for ITT RE applicants. Bursaries and scholarships provide additional, non-repayable support for recruits in shortage or strategic subjects; subject and candidate eligibility for these and other ITT incentives are updated annually.

In answer to a written parliamentary question about RE, Minister of State for Schools Damian Hinds set out ways in which the Department for Education was supporting and funding RE teaching in schools:[15]

The department is offering a £10,000 bursary for RE trainee teachers starting initial teacher training courses in the 2024/25 academic year. […] To ensure high standards of RE teaching, resources will be procured by Oak National Academy during the second tranche of its work. Oak will work closely with the sector and utilise sector experience when producing new materials for RE. This will ensure that high quality lessons are available nationwide, benefitting both teachers and pupils, should schools opt to use them.

To support high standards of RE teaching in all schools, the department is continuing to offer eight week subject knowledge enhancement (SKE) courses in the 2023/24 academic year, for candidates who have the potential to become [an] outstanding teacher but need to increase their subject knowledge. […] Eligible candidates could be entitled to a SKE bursary of £175 per week to support them financially whilst completing their SKE course.

NATRE has welcomed the Department for Education’s plans for bursaries for trainees in 2024/25, which were published in October 2023. However, it cautioned that it was not enough to address the “recruitment crisis” in RE teachers:[16]

Whilst this is good news, we must not be under any illusion about the extent to which these bursaries will improve the impact of the recruitment crisis facing the profession. The big issues such as workload, the cost of living, and pay, have not gone away. Furthermore, given that RE recruitment for 2023–24 is likely to fall short by around 60% of the target and this has placed many university and school led courses to become unviable, we face challenges in the year ahead.

Damian Hinds has said it was one of the government’s “top priorities” to ensure it “continues to attract, retain and develop the highly skilled teachers we need to inspire the next generation”.[17] Mr Hinds said the government understood there was “further to go” to improve recruitment in some subjects, and that was why it had put in place “bursaries worth £10,000 tax-free to encourage talented trainee teachers” to teach RE.

In May 2021, the National Association of Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education (NASACRE) published a report on SACRE funding in England. This was based on freedom of information (FOI) requests to English LAs, 136 of which submitted responses. Of the responding LAs:[18]

  • The majority of SACREs in England reported not getting a sufficient share of the main education grant to local authorities, the dedicated schools grant (DSG), to enable them to carry out their duties well.
  • Only 12 LAs in 2019/2020 stated that they used 2% or more of LAs’ central schools services block funds (CSSB, one of the DSG’s four blocks) on SACRE business, meaning 92% of SACREs were allocated less than 2% of the CSSB.
  • 25 authorities (18%) claim to use no funding on SACRE business, in contravention of statutory responsibilities.
  • Over a quarter (27%) of authorities said they allocated no funds to professional support for the SACRE. More than half of LAs (42 or 53%) disclosed that they did not use any funds to support RE in schools.
  • Due to lack of adequate support, it was increasingly difficult for some SACREs to fulfil their statutory duties; seven LAs told NASACRE that their agreed syllabus was over six years old. One syllabus was last reviewed in 2010.

In August 2023, NASACRE published a second report on SACRE funding. It found that the majority of SACREs in England were still not getting a “sufficient share” of the CSSB to “enable them to carry out their duties well, despite CSSB increasing by 3.8% in the year 2021/22”.[19] Its other findings included:[20]

  • Overall, spending on RE had increased by over 10% since the 2021 report (in the 111 LAs who gave reliable data)
  • LA funding policies seemed “somewhat erratic”, with little correlation in individual LA funding allocations between 2019/20 and 2021/22.
  • Of the 101 LAs that returned a figure for both reporting periods, 55 reported an increase, 42 a decrease and four exactly the same allocation.
  • There were signs that funding was improving for many of the most poorly funded SACREs: of the 15 worst funded SACREs from 2019/20 (which reported an allocation above zero), 11 had seen an increase in 2021/22.
  • Only three LAs in 2021/22 stated that they used 2% or more of CSSB funds on SACRE business, significantly fewer than two years ago.
  • Five authorities declared no spending on RE at all. A further 34 (39 in all, 31%) stated they do not spend any money supporting RE in schools.
  • Some authorities allocated sufficient funding for a proper review of the agreed syllabus in a timely fashion. But 21 authorities had a syllabus from before 2017, over five years old.

A freedom of information request had been sent to all 150 LAs in England in January 2023. Responses were obtained from 142 LAs.

5. Read more

Cover image by Ray Shrewsberry on Pixabay.


  1. HM Government, ‘The national curriculum: Other compulsory subjects’, accessed 18 December 2023. Return to text
  2. Department for Education, ‘Governance handbook: Academy trusts and maintained schools’, October 2020, p 80. Return to text
  3. As above. Return to text
  4. Ofsted, ‘Research review series: Religious education’, 12 May 2021. Return to text
  5. Ofsted, ‘The annual report of His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills 2022/23’, 23 November 2023, p 34. Return to text
  6. As above, p 41. Return to text
  7. As above. Return to text
  8. As above. Return to text
  9. National Association of Teachers of Religious Education ‘Ofsted criticises the government for its lack of clarity about and support for religious education’, 23 November 2023. Return to text
  10. National Association of Teachers of Religious Education, ‘A national plan for religious education is urgently needed!’, September 2022; and Religious Education Council of England and Wales, ‘What do we want?’, accessed 19 December 2023. Return to text
  11. Commission on Religious Education, ‘Religion and worldviews: The way forward—a national plan for RE’, September 2018. Return to text
  12. Department for Education, ‘Letter to the Very Reverend Doctor John Hall on the report by the Commission on Religious Education’, 6 December 2018. Return to text
  13. Religious Education Council of England and Wales, ‘National content standard for religious education’, July 2023, pp 1–2. Return to text
  14. As above, p 2. Return to text
  15. HC Hansard, ‘Written question: Religion: Education (1353)’, 21 November 2023. Return to text
  16. National Association of Teachers of Religious Education, ‘Good news for religious education bursaries!’, 23 October 2023. Return to text
  17. HC Hansard, ‘Written question: Teachers: Religion (4898)’, 11 December 2023. Return to text
  18. National Association of Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education, ‘SACRE funding in England: A report from the National Association of Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education’, May 2021, p 3. Return to text
  19. National Association of Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education, ‘SACRE funding in England: A second report from the National Association of Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education’, August 2023, p 3. Return to text
  20. As above. Return to text