The majority of headteachers are in favour of overturning a law that allows parents to withdraw their children from religious education, a study suggests.
In the research – carried out by Liverpool Hope University and published today in the British Journal of Religious Education – 41 per cent of school leaders interviewed said they had received requests for students to be withdrawn from teaching about one religion, and that most of these requests related to teaching about Islam.
Researcher Dr David Lundie said: “The current settlement, involving the parental right of withdrawal from RE but no other aspect of the curriculum on grounds of conscience, raises important questions about the wider contribution of RE to the life of the school.
Long read: The battle for the soul of RE
Exclusive: Religious groups unite against claims that their schools are divisive
Quick read: Pupils should be taught that abstinence and celibacy are 'positive life choices', Church of England says
“RE is bound up with the fundamental British values of mutual respect and tolerance for those of different faiths, so it is hard to see how a school could support such a right without impacting on this wider duty of the school to prepare children for life in modern Britain.”
Parents' right to withdraw from RE
In the first study of its kind, Dr Lundie and fellow researcher Dr Cathal O’Siochru interviewed 450 headteachers and heads of RE and found that 71 per cent thought the withdrawal element of the 1944 Education Act was “no longer required”.
One interviewee stated: “Students that have been removed are the ones that need to understand different cultures the most."
The research also reveals confusion over the law, with 27 per cent of participants incorrectly believing that parents who withdraw their children from RE need to provide the children with an alternative syllabus to follow.
Others incorrectly thought that parents could withdraw their children from other national curriculum subjects on religious grounds, or that agreeing to such a withdrawal was at the school’s discretion.
The right to withdraw was included in the 75-year-old law to protect religious minorities from being forced to receive Christian religious instruction.