A tale of two halves: Why perception will be the rise of Religious Education

Krystian McInnis with Uzzy Akhtar, Roland Hotea, Alessi Jade-Hunter, Ciara Pringle, Fay Lowe


This article will explore the perception of Religious Education within English secondary schools and how this, both positively and negatively, affects the subject holistically and in relation to pupil engagement (Mahmud 2018). The article will attempt to explore this by looking at two main areas, the perception of Religious Education to the pupil and how government legislation has, and still does, impact the perception of the subject. With the statutory nature of school-based Religious Education in a nation with some of the lowest rates of religious practice in the world, there are indeed interesting questions to be asked about the role of Religious Education in schools. Furthermore, this becomes of even greater importance in a country that retains strong rhetorical attachments to a religio-spiritual impulse, which appears at odds with societal organised religion.

The compulsory nature of Religious Education within state-funded secondary schools, compounded with what some have argued to be contradictory legislative policies such as not including Religious Education in the E-Baccalaureate, could be seen to have relegated Religious Education. In addition, some purport this has resulted in a negative perception of Religious Education both inside and outside of the classroom. Furthermore, Religious Education is excluded from the government wide accountability measure for secondary schools, a ranking system many prospective parents use when deciding prospective schools for their children, further exacerbating the issue. With this the case, this article will explore differing views from across England from current practitioners. Central to this article will be the practitioner experience with an attempt to find solutions for improving the perception of Religious Education and with it, pupil engagement.

Context and literature

Amongst a group of enthusiastic Religious Education educators, who have collaborated to write this article, a lack of pupil engagement within Religious Education was apparent from discussions, arguably resulting in far too often a detrimental effect on pupils’ learning and progress within the subject. What was evident however, was that much of this disengagement was rooted in the perception of the subject and its importance, or more accurately, its lack of importance. From anecdotal evidence, whilst it was evident that perception played a major role for disengagement, questions were raised as to whether governmental legislation and policy was contributing to this too. When exploring this questioning further through the literature, what became apparent was the potential impact that decades of educational policy has had on eroding the importance of Religious Education within secondary schools.

Religious Education has historically been one of the most heavily legislated subjects in the school curriculum; however, for decades the law has often been more honoured in the breach than in the observance. It could be argued however, that its position was relegated in the creation of the National Curriculum in 1988, when it instead formed part of the basic curriculum, and thus an imbalance of its position in schools was formed. This most notably created an issue with both its perception and status in schools and wider society where only the ‘important’ and ‘necessary’ subjects had been included. With provisions for Religious Education required through locally arranged agreed syllabuses instead, some have argued, that the lack of national standardisation, has resulted in sub-par provisions and the decline of quality within Religious Education, negatively affecting the subject.

Furthermore, The Religious Education Council for England and Wales found in a recent report that 28% of secondary schools had no dedicated curriculum time for RE, further exacerbating the issue, removing its status and importance, reinforcing to students its lack of prominence. With this the case, it further reinstates and portrays Religious Education as a ‘nice to have’ rather than necessary within the curriculum. Schools however, with a religious character the report found, did much more, often beyond expectation. This lack of consistency raises many issues. With a lack of rigorous follow-up, ensuring that Religious Education has a prominent role within secondary schools, what appears is a dualism between expectation and reality.

Therefore, much more needs to considered, to change both the narrative and perception of Religious Education. With a backdrop of governmental ambiguity between rhetoric and actions, compounded with a limited amount of allocated classroom time, teachers must think about how they portray the importance and relevance of Religious Education today. Moreover, with British values paramount in stating the importance of tolerating other faiths and beliefs, Religious Education, some have argued, must ensure it too further plays its role, potentially fully embedding its curriculum within this stance, as to avoid losing valuable curriculum hours to other subjects.

Whilst there are legislative concerns to consider, it goes much further than this. It is important to understand from a grassroots level the perception of Religious Education from a pupil perspective in an attempt to understand pupil engagement within the subject. From conversations amongst the writers of this article, dialogue arose around an evident lack of engagement amongst many students regarding Religious Education and its importance within the wider curriculum. An important point raised in discussions, was that for many students, the perception of Religious Education was that of a lacklustre subject, in particular within Key Stage 3 and 4. Moreover, the writers found that where Religious Education was not a taught GCSE, a severe decline was evident with many students not understanding why the lessons were necessary. Moreover, where Religious Education was taught, but instead as an option for students to pick, many saw Religious Education as an ‘easy’ subject and one that lacked academic rigour, further raising issues on how the subject is perceived.

It is important to state however, this disengagement was not limited to a particular gender, race or non-religious affiliation but rather a common theme irrespective of the school’s geographical location or character This undoubtedly raised questions, considering what measures are required to reverse this trend. Whilst it could be argued, that a lack of student engagement regarding Religious Education is limited to schools without a religious character, or those that do not make it mandatory at Key Stage 4, this is certainly not the case; however, engagement we have found was most certainly lower in such schools.


All research was in the early stages at the time of writing. Nevertheless, what will proceed will be an exploration of early findings of the different contributors’ work concerning pupil perception and the subsequent impact on engagement.

Within Religious Education, when considering engagement, the context of the subject to the group of writers was different to those of other subjects. Whilst students come from diverse demographic backgrounds, many arrive with a fragmented initial view on Religious Education. Moreover, many it appears arrive with the preconceived notions taught at home or possibly influenced by the media that Religious Education is learning solely about the God of Christianity. This could undoubtedly raise issues in and of itself with pupils from non-religious backgrounds, as well as those from differing faiths of which it is vital for teachers to both explore and change.

Lowe’s research, currently in its preliminary stages, looks specifically at the needs of White working class boys and their need to be able to identify with what they are learning within Religious Education for higher levels of engagement to persist. Moreover, Lowe argues that research shows that White working class children may feel marginalised as a result of the curriculum not reflecting their culture and lives (Demie & Kirstin, 2014, p. 18). Therefore, there needs to be a reduction in the contrast between these pupils’ home lives and school life (Impetus, 2014). Lowe argues, that teachers when utilising the RE syllabus for their school, be that a locally agreed syllabus or another syllabus, need to identify how they can re-contextualise the syllabus to meet the needs of these pupils, so that they can identify themselves in what they are being taught.

Moreover, Pringle, based in a Catholic school with a large Special Education Needs and Disability (SEND) department, has found that regarding engagement, meeting the needs of students is often effective throughout each key stage, however, becomes more challenging in year 10 and 11 due to the interests of the students and the expectations of the exam boards. Findings so far have shown that often students are unclear on why they must study GCSE religious studies, since it is not compulsory at other schools. Conversations with students, she reports, have highlighted that despite enjoying religious studies lessons, students find it difficult to explain how the subject can have an impact on their future or use in wider society.

It is interesting to note however, that for perception of the subject to improve, change is required from an educational governmental perspective, to ensure this is filtered through the system for change to be embedded within secondary schools nationally. With Religious Education, excluded from the national curriculum and E- Baccalaureate, this has further cemented the position of Religious Education within the current system. Whilst the ranking of schools often raises more issues than it resolves, the inclusion of Religious Education formally, would, it could be argued, mean an increase of its importance within both schools and wider society.


Within our current findings, it appears that in line with the literature, much further exploration is required regarding the link between perception and pupil engagement regarding Religious Education. What is apparent is that the perception of Religious Education, alongside the slow eroding of religion in society, is resulting in a demise of engagement within the subject. With many students unable to see how the content of the subject can be translated and used in everyday life, there appears to be a rise in questioning the significance of the subject and whether it is even required. Moreover, with Religious Education often finding itself within a legislative gulf, more is required in strengthening its position within both school and the wider curriculum.


From our findings, it is evident that there is a plethora of reasons why the perception of Religious Education might lead to disengaged pupils within Religious Education. It is important to note however, this is not to suggest that all pupils are disengaged or have a negative perception of the subject, however, there does appear, to be a distinct impact between perception of and engagement in Religious Education, relative to other subjects.

Furthermore, whilst pupils might not be aware of the legislative background of the subject, what is apparent is how this impacts its position within schools and where emphasis is placed. From anecdotal evidence, additional support is often afforded to pupils in ‘core’ subjects, from revision sessions during the academic year, to additional support during half term break, pre-pandemic. Without understating English, Maths and Science as core subjects; RE has a distinctive contribution, which should be respected.

Conclusion and issues for further research

When exploring the perception of Religious Education through the lens of the pupil and governmental legislation in relation to the impact on pupil engagement, further research into the topic is required, in particular, understanding the perception of Religious Education from a parental perspective. From exploring the literature, it is evident that a lack of research and literature is available on the parental perspective at present, of which the results could be a useful indicator in understanding pupil external influences.

Finally, further research is also required into understanding whether the right to withdraw pupils either ‘in whole or in part’ from Religious Education has a detrimental impact on the perception of the subject. With the option available, it’s suggested that the importance of the subject is further diluted. In addition, with parents able to opt their children out if they do not want them to participate or feel it unnecessary for them to engage, this can further add to the issue.

Finally, with secondary schools occasionally providing students with additional English, Maths or Science lessons when they are withdrawn from the Religious Education classroom, from experience, some of the writers found that parents have intentionally exercised this right for their child to be provided extra support in these subjects. With the parental involvement pivotal in the execution of this decision, understanding their perception of the subject could be central in improving it for their children and for Religious Education nationally.


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