PARENTS are misusing their right to withdraw their children from religious education (RE) lessons because of “prejudices”, a teaching union has warned.
Members of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers voted to demand action from the Government to stop parents “selectively” withdrawing their children from RE lessons, at the union’s annual conference on Wednesday of last week.
A delegate, Richard Griffiths, told the online newspaper Schools Week that the exemption for some children from RE, which was designed for those “with very genuine grounds for withdrawal”, was now allowing parents “with certain prejudices, including Islamophobia and antisemitism”, to stop their children attending lessons or trips to places of worship.
“The Government must therefore take steps to monitor, prevent, and tackle this abuse by parents and guardians looking to isolate themselves and their children from our society,” Mr Griffiths said.
The chief executive of the Religious Education Council, Rudolf Eliott Lockhart, said on Wednesday that it was a “concern” if children were being withdrawn to prevent them learning about certain religions.
The Church of England’s school character and development manager, Derek Holloway, said on Wednesday: “We remain concerned that withdrawing children from religious education risks denying those pupils the opportunity to develop the understanding and skills they will need to live well together as adults.”
In a survey conducted by Dr David Lundie, a senior lecturer in education at Liverpool Hope University, 65.8 per cent of teachers who responded said that they no longer believed that the opt-out was needed.
Of the 315 schools involved in the research, 23 per cent were C of E schools; 71.2 per cent of them said that they had received a request from a parent to withdraw their child from RE lessons, and 38.1 per cent said that the request was for the child to avoid a specific part of RE teaching.
Dr Lundie said that it was “surprising how many heads and teachers told us in no uncertain terms that racism and Islamophobia were the motives for parents withdrawing their children from RE”.
An independent Commission on Religious Education is currently investigating the state of RE in English schools: a final report is due in September. It was established by the Religious Education Council.
Under current rules, parents can withdraw their child from any RE lesson while they are under 18, and anyone over 18 can choose to withdraw.
Mr Holloway said: “We look forward to the outcome of the Religious Education Council’s commission on RE, and will work collaboratively with the rest of the RE community to develop the subject to the point where there will be no reason for anyone to withdraw from RE lessons.”
Mr Lockhart said that it could be “very difficult for head teachers when parents wish to selectively withdraw their pupils from RE. While there are important human-rights reasons why the right of withdrawal exists, it is a concern if parents want to stop their children learning about particular religions.
“Religious education is a vital subject, where pupils learn about a range of religious and non-religious world-views. Regardless of whether or not pupils are themselves religious, it’s really important that they are able to learn about religions.
“The experience of religious life is so often misunderstood, misrepresented, stereotyped, and simplified in the media and wider society that it’s critical that pupils can learn in RE lessons about its complexity and diversity, fuzzy edges, contested nature, and the way that people change over time and place.
“Head teachers would benefit from better guidance from the Department for Education on how to handle requests to withdraw children from RE sensitively.”