The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority has responded to repeated requests from religious education teachers by deciding to back short-course GCSE examinations in the subject.
SCAA's approval will be welcomed by most RE professionals teaching a subject which is legally compulsory but, for most pupils, leads to no qualification.
A short GCSE would be based on 5 per cent of the curriculum timetable recommended by Sir Ron Dearing rather than the 10 per cent taken by the full-course GCSEs.
It would open the way to pupils receiving some reward for the time spent in RE and has been a key demand of groups like the Professional Council for Religious Education and the RE Council.
SCAA has agreed to draw up proposals for eventual submission to the Department for Education. This follows three months of discussion with RE teachers.
Lat Blaylock, executive officer with the Professional Council for Religious Education - representing RE teachers - said: "This will potentially improve the RE curriculum at key stage 4 more than any other recent initiative. It's one of the biggest building blocks."
At the same time, however, he urged SCAA to take care with the precise shape of the courses. They should not be restricted by the two-faith limit imposed in the full Religious Studies GCSE and he insisted that any short course should be made attractive and relevant to the majority of young people.
Professor John Hull, from Birmingham University's Education Department, said: "We all bewail the fact that RE taught in years 10 and 11 is traditionally called the graveyard of RE teachers. If we can find a way to get a bit of prestige and motivation for pupils and teachers then of course it would be an extremely good move."
Martin Rogers, director of the Farmington Institute for Christian Studies, said: "We think it's a good thing because more children will be able to take the subject. A half subject will open more doors."
The only religious option currently available at GCSE is Religious Studies, a traditional and comparatively academic course which is overwhelmingly the province of Church schools.
Teachers and academics have been attempting to promote the idea of a distinction between RS and RE. An RE course, they say, would concern itself primarily with living faiths and their practitioners.
Exam boards have been asked to draw up a small range of GCSEs in combined subjects, which like the short courses will use the A* to G grading system.
* The Farmington Institute offers a Pounds 1,000 prize for excellence in RE in a state maintained school. Entries must be with the Institute, at Manchester College, Oxford, by June 1.