A short history of religious education

Terence Copley


Find out: What is the history of RE in your school? How, if at all, has the name of the subject changed over the years? What prompted those changes?

Think about: What do you think is the most significant ‘shift’ in the history of RE and why? What key lessons do you think contemporary RE needs to learn from its history and why? Do you think RE has a clear identity? If so how would you describe it? If not why do you think this is the case?

Imagine: What ‘shifts’ do you see in store for RE in the immediate future? Who will most benefit from those ‘shifts’ and why?

Why the history of RE matters

Why the history of RE matters

All divisions of curriculum history into strict periods is necessarily crude, and each 'era' has inspiring RE teaching.

a_a_a_Puzzle111.jpg That said, the history of RE is important for various reasons. It enables us to see how we have arrived at where we are and why as teachers and researchers we make certain assumptions about what RE is and is not. It increases basic understanding, e.g. on why RE was not made a foundation subject in the national curriculum in 1988 or why a syllabus has to be ‘agreed’ to become binding. Equally importantly, it provides a window into the politics of RE, the support or damage that politicians and the political process have given to RE.

It reveals, for instance, that politicians have pre-occupied themselves with the content of RE rather than ensuring it has adequate time allocation on the syllabus map to function effectively. Sometimes the history of RE appears to repeat itself e.g. classroom RE coming under threat by being subsumed into cross-curricular studies (1960s, again 2008 onwards). At others we can use history to trace a process, eg how secondary RE moved from an undertaking by the enthusiastic non-specialist teacher to it becoming the province of the dedicated and trained specialist.

Key text for background and further study

Key text for background and further study

a_a_a_Puzzle111.jpg The key text in this field is the second edition of Teaching Religion (2008), by Terence Copley (Exeter: University of Exeter Press), which covers the period 1944 to 2008. It surveys the period in decade by decade chapters and includes interviews with teachers whose careers started from 1935 to 2005. Back issues of RE Today, the British Journal of Religious Education (and its predecessors Religion in Education Quarterly and Learning for Living) offer a window into RE research, controversies and trends from the 1930s to the present.

1944 to c1960

1944 to c1960

a_a_a_Puzzle111.jpg 1944 landmark Education Act. This was planned during the Second World War by a coalition government. Hansard on the Commons debates in particular sheds light on the politicians’ hopes for a new post-war world.

Main provision for RE

  • RE was defined as Religious Instruction (the classroom subject) + school worship.
  • It was to be available to all pupils on a non-denominational basis (faith schools allowed to undertake faith-based teaching).
  • The existing parental and teacher right of withdrawal from the process was maintained.

Shifts in RE in this period: RE began to move from being seen as a parallel arm to the Sunday School movement helping to create a society based on Christian values, to a subject in which increasingly pupils were allowed and encouraged to develop their own views in relation to its mainly Christian and biblical content.

1960 to c1970

1960 to c1970

a_a_a_Puzzle111.jpg Shifts in RE in this period: Research by Harold Loukes, Ronald Goldman and others suggested that the religious knowledge acquired from RE was confused and that pupils would be better engaging with problem issues or everyday issues they perceived to be relevant as a way of approaching religion. Bible teaching went into steep decline.

1970 to 1988

1970 to 1988

a_a_a_Puzzle111.jpg Shifts in RE in this period: In the 1970s RE moved first to include humanism (controversially, e.g. the Birmingham Agreed Syllabus, 1974) and later to include world religions (uncontroversially). Ninian Smart’s influence brought phenomenology into school RE. Confessionalism, teaching that assumed or sought to promote a religious (usually Christian) base in pupils became discredited. The word became a term of abuse in RE.

1988 to 2004

1988 to 2004

a_a_a_Puzzle111.jpg Landmark 1988 Education Reform Act This was enacted by the Thatcher Conservative government, convinced that education had fallen under the control of ‘‘progressive" teachers and LAs (then called LEAs).

Hansard on the Lords debates in particular sheds light on the politicians’ hopes for RE. See for example, http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/acts/education-reform-act-1988

Also: http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1990/jun/08/religious-education

Main provision for RE

  • RI was re-named RE (the classroom subject).
  • RE was required to teach the principal religions represented in the UK.
  • RE was required to reflect ‘the fact that religious traditions in the UK are in the main Christian'. Controversy over the interpretation of this clause continued before and after the Act.
  • Withdrawal rights were retained.
  • Faith schools still allowed to conduct faith-based teaching.
  • The Cowper-Temple clause (1870, 1944) requiring non-denominational teaching outside faith schools was retained.
  • RE was left outside the new national curriculum in something vaguely defined as the ‘basic curriculum’ ( = the NC + RE). The term did not exactly sink without trace but as a term, it is not always and everywhere understood.

Immediately after the Act the attention of the RE world switched to creating forms of assessment compatible with those being implemented in national curriculum subjects, a process that was to prove long and difficult.

Shifts in RE in this period:

The 1990s saw the development of the experiential approach, a way of helping the child into an exploration of their inner life / spirituality (David Hay et al). The ethnographic approach (Robert Jackson et al) spread widely. Optional national model syllabuses from SCAA (actually just two) appeared in 1994. These contained recommended Attainment Targets (ATs) from Michael Grimmitt that survived in 2010:

  • AT1 Learning about Religions (later the ‘s’ was dropped)
  • AT2 Learning from Religion
2004 to the present

2004 to the present

a_a_a_Puzzle111.jpg The National Framework for RE, 2004, a landmark document (non-statutory), from the QCA and the DfES, a consensus embodiment of much post-1988 work and an attempt to establish entitlement in RE. It was highly influential on subsequent local agreed syllabuses but by no means all (cf Birmingham 2007).

Shifts in RE in this period: 'Critical RE’ developed (Andrew Wright, Philip Barnes). The human rights and citizenship relationships with RE were explored by Liam Gearon. The debate continues on a statutory national syllabus for RE. The competing pedagogies that had emerged for RE claimed to be complementary. Can this claim be sustained? We move from history to the present…

Latterly, the programmes of study for RE were developed to reflect the shape of the curriculum and the Department for Education's most recent (June 2010) expressed in the new Guidance is that these new programmes replace the key stage sections of the Framework.

The two ATs have been retained, with the same 8 level scale as in 2004, but now called:

learning about religion and belief

learning from religion and belief.

This was done to reflect the full breadth of the Framework and programmes.


Copley, T. (2004) Spiritual Development in the State School: Worship and Spirituality in the Education System of England and Wales. Exeter: University of Exeter Press.

Copley, T (2008) Teaching Religion: Sixty Years of Religious Education, 2nd edition. Exeter: University of Exeter Press.

Stern, J. (2006) Teaching Religious Education. London: Continuum.