The parent of a pupil at a community, foundation or voluntary school (or pupils themselves if they are aged 18 or over) may request that they be excused from all or part of the religious education (RE) provided.
Religion and belief have become more visible in public life in recent years, making it important that all pupils should have an opportunity to engage in RE.
Schools should ensure that parents who wish to withdraw their children from RE are aware of its aims and what is covered in the RE curriculum and that they are given the opportunity to discuss this if they wish. It should be made clear whether the withdrawal is from the whole RE curriculum or specific parts of it. No reasons need be given.
Whilst parents or carers have a right to withdraw children from RE, they should note that children may also encounter religions and beliefs in other areas of the curriculum from which there is no right of withdrawal. On occasion, spontaneous questions about religious matters are raised by pupils or issues related to religion arise in other subjects such as history or citizenship. For example, schools promote community cohesion and help pupils to understand ideas about identity and diversity within both religious and non-religious contexts.
Managing the Right of Withdrawal
Parents have the right to choose whether or not to withdraw their child from:
RE without influence from the school; a school should ensure parents and carers are informed of this right, through the school website and prospectus. Where parents have requested that their child be withdrawn, their right must be respected, and where RE is integrated in the curriculum, the school will need to discuss the arrangements with the parents or carers to explore how the child’s withdrawal can be best accommodated. If pupils are withdrawn from RE, schools have a duty to supervise them, though not to provide additional teaching or to incur extra cost. Pupils will usually remain on school premises.
Schools should ensure that parents who want to withdraw their children from RE are aware of the educational objectives and content of the RE syllabus and that the agreed syllabus is relevant to all pupils, respecting their personal beliefs. They should be made aware of its learning outcomes and what is covered and should be given the opportunity to discuss these. In this way, parents can make an informed decision; the school may wish review their request in discussion with parents each year.
Where a request for withdrawal is made, the school must comply and excuse the pupil until the request is rescinded. Though not legally required, it is good practice for a head teacher to invite parents to discuss their written request. Where a pupil has been withdrawn, the law provides for alternative arrangements to be made for RE of the kind the parent wishes their child to receive
(Section 71(3), School Standards and Framework Act 1998).
Checklist when managing the Right of Withdrawal
- Is the school careful to ensure that RE is of educational value to all pupils, whatever their belief background, thus reducing the likelihood of parental/carer requests for withdrawal?
- Does the school ensure that the nature, objectives and content of RE are shared with parents?
- Are parents or carers notified about plans for RE as part of the curriculum for the coming session for their child’s class?
- Does the school have a procedure in place for parents or carers who want to withdraw children from RE?
- Does the organisation of the curriculum allow parents to exercise the right of withdrawal?
- What practical implications arise from a request by parents to withdraw a child from RE and how might they be addressed?
- Are all those who teach RE aware of the school’s procedures?
- Are all teachers aware of their own right not to have to teach RE?
Websites that may support teachers when dealing with the Right of Withdrawal
OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (external website)
Guidelines for Educators on Countering Intolerance and Discrimination against Muslims, the Office for Security and Cooperation in Europe, organised by UNESCO
UNESCO (external website)
Teachers’ Right of Withdrawal
Some teachers may exercise their right to opt out of RE teaching on grounds of conscience. This right of withdrawal extends to teachers in community and foundation and voluntary schools without a religious character, and teachers in foundation and voluntary-controlled schools with a religious character who are not 'reserved teachers'.