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‘Religion in Schools: Learning Lessons from Wales’  explores the new curriculum for Wales enacted by the Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Act 2021 and why this means that England now lags behind Wales in terms of providing pluralistic and critical teaching on religion or belief.

Professor Russell Sandberg, Professor of Law at Cardiff University, an expert in the interaction between law and religion, whose work fed into Senedd debates on the new law, has analysed the historical development of the law in England and Wales and provides a critical legislative history of the new reforms.

The Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Act 2021 brings about the most radical changes for over thirty years transforming what and how schools teach and assess. It moves way from the centralised and bureaucratic approach of the National Curriculum to afford more autonomy to schools to develop their own bespoke curriculums that begin with the local context before reaching out to study Wales and the world.

Under the reforms, Religious Education becomes Religion, Values and Ethics. For the first time, law will explicitly state that non-religious beliefs are to be studied and associated groups are to be included in the local authority bodies that create and monitor the agreed syllabuses.

The book argues that the Welsh reforms are to be welcomed but do not go far enough in relation to schools with a religious character (commonly called ‘faith schools’) and by retaining the role of local authority bodies.

It also argues that there remains a pressing need to reform the law on collective worship in schools. This still requires that all pupils take part in a daily act of worship ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’.

The publication of the book is timely given recent developments concerning similar laws in other nations of the UK.  On 5th July, the High Court of Northern Ireland held that the law on collective worship and religious education there breached human rights laws since it was not sufficiently critical or plural. On 12th July, the House of Lords voted down an amendment that would have ensured that the law in England would be more critical and plural: it would have meant that the study of non-religious beliefs would have been explicitly covered as part of a renamed Religion and Worldviews in academies in England.

Influencing other nations

‘Religion in Schools: Learning Lessons from Wales’ argues that there is much that other nations could learn from the Welsh reforms and suggests that reform of the law in this area should be based upon five principles:

  1. The law should ensure that the composition of local decision-making bodies on religious education and worship and the content of religious education and worship reflect the full ambit of freedom of religion or belief and that a pluralistic and critical approach is adopted.
  2. There is a need to make such pluralistic teaching on religion or belief compulsory in all schools including those with a religious character. There is an argument that the syllabus of this should be agreed nationally or at school level rather than at a local level.
  3. The law should then enable schools with a religious character to teach denominational religious education in addition to this as a separate subject, with a right to opt out by parent and pupils who are legally competent.
  4. There is a need to reform the requirement for religious worship to require that all schools provide for the spiritual development of their learners, reflecting freedom of religion or belief (including the freedom not to hold a religion or belief) through collective assemblies which should take place at least weekly and which, as now, can include groups or ages of learners at a time rather than the whole school.
  5. The law should then permit schools with a religious character to make provision for denominational worship but this should be in addition to the requirement laid out in the fourth principle.

‘Religion in Schools: Learning Lessons from Wales’ is published by Anthem Press and can be ordered in paperback or as an eBook from their website or from other online book sellers, here.

Professor Russell Sandberg

Cardiff University Law School

Russell is a Professor at Cardiff University Law School. He writes on Legal History & Law and Religion, with focus on marriage law and education law reform.