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Agreed Syllabuses 1944-1988: changing aims - changing content?
Derek Gillard
January 1991

copyright Derek Gillard 2001
This article is my copyright. You are welcome to download it and print it for your own personal use, or for use in a school or other educational establishment, provided my name as the author is attached. But you may not publish it, upload it onto any other website, or sell it, without my permission.

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Gillard D (1991) Agreed Syllabuses 1944-1988: changing aims - changing content?

In references in the text, the number after the colon is always the page number (even where a document has numbered paragraphs or sections). I regret that I am unable to provide page numbers for the Agreed Syllabuses discussed here.

ABSTRACT Between the major Education Acts of 1944 and 1988 the aims of religious education had changed dramatically. In this article, I survey a number of Agreed Syllabuses for Religious Education to assess the extent to which the content had changed to reflect the new aims.

In this paper I examine a number of local education authority Agreed Syllabuses from 1944 to 1988 to see how the declared aims of religious education changed during the period and then look at the suggested content of RE lessons to attempt to discover the extent to which this has genuinely reflected the stated aims.

I begin with a brief survey of the historical background to 1944, and then look at the religious education clauses of the 1944 Education Act itself - their provisions and assumptions - and review the statutory framework which the Act required.

In the main section of the paper I survey a number of Agreed Syllabuses from the periods 1944 to 1959, 1960 to 1974 and 1975 - 1988. I consider the principal aims of the syllabuses and relate these (where possible!) to the suggested content, style and methods of teaching. For this purpose I have chosen to concentrate on the 11+ year group, partly because it falls roughly in the middle of the child's school career and partly because I teach students of this age myself. I attempt to draw conclusions as to whether, and to what extent, the aims and content suggested in the syllabuses match up and, in particular, review whether, as the aims have changed, there has been a change in either the content or the methods suggested.

I conclude with a glance to the future, to see whether the 1988 Education Act has changed the situation; whether recent syllabuses are now therefore out of date; and whether this may mean further changes in the aims, content, style and methods of the subject.

Historical background

There has no doubt been religious education for as long as there has been education, but its inclusion by law in the curriculum of our state schools is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Of course, since many of the earliest schools were owned and run by the churches, religious education of a specifically denominational nature was a common feature. As the state began to set up its own schools - the 'Board' schools - decisions had to be made as to whether religion should be taught and if so, what and how? The churches were divided on the subject and fearful that other denominations would use religious education in schools to 'poach' potential members away from their own brands of Christianity. Indeed, Edwin Cox suggested that

suspicion between the Christian denominations had reached a point of acrimony that threatened to make impossible any teaching about religion in the increasing number of local authority schools (Cox 1984:18-19).
The answer to this problem was the Cowper-Temple clause in the 1870 Education Act which stated that 'no religious catechism or religious formulary which is distinctive of any particular denomination' was to be taught. This solved the problem of the squabbling churches by determining what was not to be taught but presented educationists with a further problem - what was to be taught?

In fact, almost all the school boards or the local education authorities did require their schools to offer religious instruction and issued guidance on the content. Often, these syllabuses were based on those of the church schools 'but with denominational peculiarities removed' (Hull 1984:74). Where boards wrote their own syllabuses, they often sought the help of local clergy, so that, despite the lack of any denominational character, the syllabuses were very much church-orientated and certainly entirely Christian in content. They dealt almost exclusively with biblical material.

As time went by, the rivalry between the churches declined and their willingness to cooperate with the local authorities increased, so that, by the 1920s, some 'thorough and relatively enlightened syllabuses were circulating among the various areas' (Hull 1984:74).

The first significant syllabus was that of Cambridgeshire, produced in the mid 1920s by an Advisory Committee whose brief was to draw up 'an Agreed Syllabus of Religious Instruction and observance which would be acceptable to all religious bodies' (Cambridge 1924). The Advisory Committee consisted of head teachers, churchmen and academics, both Anglican and Free Church - a group which foreshadowed the statutory Agreed Syllabus Conferences which were to come. The Syllabus was an enormous success - it was used in some 300 local authorities and led to the setting up of similar committees by many other authorities.

John Hull has described these early syllabuses as 'almost entirely ... dealing with the past' (Hull 1984:75). Their aims might be summed up in those of the 1945 Surrey Syllabus which stated that:

the aim of the Syllabus is to secure that children attending the schools of the County ... may gain knowledge of the common Christian faith held by their fathers for nearly 2000 years; may seek for themselves in Christianity principles which give a purpose to life and a guide to all its problems; and may find inspiration, power and courage to work for their own welfare, for that of their fellow-creatures, and for the growth of God's kingdom (Surrey 1945).
Edwin Cox and Jo Cairns suggested that, in this pre-1944 period, 'the aim of religious education can be broadly defined ... as to enable the young person to find meaning in experience as a result of embracing the values of Christianity' (Cox and Cairns 1989:9). And in their view the White Paper which preceded the Act, Educational Reconstruction, 'called on schools and religious education in particular to revive the personal and spiritual values of the nation' (Cox and Cairns 1989:10).

The 1944 Education Act

The 1944 Education Act gave statutory backing to these developments. The main provisions of its religious education clauses were that

  • the day should begin with an act of collective worship;
  • all pupils should be given regular religious instruction which (except in aided or special agreement schools) would be according to an Agreed Syllabus;
  • every local authority was required to make such a syllabus or use that of another authority;
  • a syllabus was to be made by an Agreed Syllabus Conference consisting of four panels representing the Church of England, other religious denominations, the local authority and teachers' organisations and nothing could be included in the syllabus to which any one of these groups objected;
  • parents were given the right to withdraw their children from the act of worship and from religious instruction, and, under certain circumstances, they could ask for alternative provision; and
  • teachers were also given the right to withdraw from the act of worship and from teaching religion;
  • local authorities were given the power to set up Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education (SACREs), though they did not have to do so.
Interestingly, the Act itself never mentions Christianity as the religion to be taught. Edwin Cox pointed out that 'perhaps the most peculiar aspect of the 1944 Act is that, while stipulating religious education ... it does not state which religion or religions are to be taught' (Cox and Cairns 1989:3). However, he went on to suggest that this was taken for granted: 'it was tacitly assumed that Christianity was the only faith that pupils were likely to encounter, the only faith about which they, therefore, need be educated' (Cox and Cairns 1989:3). Elsewhere he suggested that 'all the syllabuses are based on a study of the Christian scriptures and the history of the Christian church and this is beyond doubt what the legislators intended' (Cox 1966:16).

Whilst the introduction of the statutory requirement for religious instruction to be given in accordance with an agreed syllabus was 'fundamental to the success of the religious provisions of the 1944 Education Act' (Cox 1966:14), problems remained. Many of the early syllabuses consisted of 'excellent schemes of theological and biblical study for those already interested in such things' (Cox 1966) but they took little note of children's needs or abilities. A great deal of research into children's intellectual - and particularly linguistic - development had yet to be undertaken, so these shortcomings are understandable - 'they had to work within the knowledge then available' (Cox 1966:15).

I have chosen to divide the period into three parts: 1944 - 1959, 1960 - 1974 and 1974 - 1988. Whilst this division is somewhat arbitrary, it has been used, more or less, by various writers (Cox, Hull etc) for reasons which I hope will become apparent in due course.


This period was at first characterised by a flurry of activity as local authorities endeavoured to meet the requirements and the presumed intentions of the new Act. Many syllabuses were produced and adopted by other authorities. The Middlesex syllabus of 1948 is not untypical. Its General Introduction does not set out aims but 'Principles on which the Syllabus is Based'. There are four:

  • that 'the primary function of Christian religious teaching is to show the way in which Christianity offers the right relationship between God and man' (note the presumptions that religious teaching will be Christian and that Christianity is right);
  • that 'religious teaching must be based on the Bible';
  • that 'the chief task of the school is to train for Christian citizenship' (again, the assumption is that Britain is a Christian society); and
  • that each child should have 'the opportunity of gaining Christian religious knowledge appropriate to his or her age'.
The syllabus suggested the ages at which material should be taught by dividing the work into years and included a section on 'The Adaptation of the Syllabus to the needs of Backward Children' - a laudable aim despite the unfortunate terminology.

The work for the 11+ year group was entirely Bible-based. It fell into two sections: 'The Life of Christ' and 'The History of Israel up to the Disruption of the Monarchy'. The first section included background information about 'the country, the people and their daily life, the Roman occupation and the dependent position of Herod and of the High Priest and Sanhedrin, the religion and institutions of the Jews' etc and then prescribed Bible readings on 'The Birth and Early Life of Jesus', 'The Preparation for the Ministry of Jesus', 'The Beginning of the Ministry of Jesus' etc. Each series of readings was followed by suggestions 'for consideration' - 'The need for direct whole-heartedness in life. Tolerance towards other people trying to do good. Intolerance of factors which undermine character. The need for steadfast endurance.' etc.

The introduction to the second section suggested that 'the most pressing consideration in presenting this course ... is that of relating the immense quantity of material to the capacity of classes.' This was certainly an understatement! The first section alone, if taught in full, would require at least a whole year of religious education lessons, and the second section was no less daunting in quantity. It included sections on 'Moses and the Founding of the Nation', 'The Covenant', 'The Desert Period', 'The Conquest of Palestine', 'The Judges', 'Conflict with the Philistines', 'The Establishment of the Monarchy' etc.

To what extent did this content match the four principles? Did it show the way in which Christianity 'offers the right relationship between God and man'? Perhaps. Was it Bible-based? Absolutely! Might it contribute towards a developing sense of citizenship? I doubt it. Was it appropriate to the age of the pupils? Some if it, perhaps.

On balance, then, the only principle which is fully supported by the content is that the teaching should be Bible-based.

The City of York produced its own syllabus in the same year as Middlesex. It borrowed much from those of Durham and Surrey. There were no stated aims, but the introductory section suggested

  • that (in the words of the Spens Report) 'no boy or girl can be counted as properly educated unless he or she has been made aware of the existence of a religious interpretation of life' (Spens 1938:208);
  • that the teacher should promulgate 'traditional Christian values';
  • that (in the words of Archbishop Temple) 'what matters most is the free play of intercourse between the mind of the teacher and the mind of the learner';
  • that the child should be encouraged to play an active part in the Christian church: 'unless the child as an individual ... finds his way into the congregation of church or chapel he is likely to lose a great deal of the religious teaching and inspiration that the school has given him.'
It is hardly necessary to repeat that, as in the case of Middlesex, this syllabus assumed that the task of religious education in schools was to produce practising Christians.

The content of the syllabus was set out in a similar way to that of Middlesex. There were sections for the nursery school, for infants, juniors and secondary schools. The content for the 11+ age group was also similar, though here it was divided into three sections: 'The Old Testament as a Preparation for the Coming of Christ', 'The Life of Jesus in Relation to his Time and Country' and 'Heroes of the Kingdom.'

The first section traced the history of the Jewish people from Abraham to the establishment of the Kingdom. Bible readings were suggested and background notes provided. But there were no 'topics for consideration' which sought to relate the Bible material to issues of contemporary life.

The middle section was very similar to the Middlesex work on Jesus. It gave a great deal of background information about the land at the time, the life of the people, the Roman occupation and so forth. It traced the life and ministry of Jesus, offering Bible readings and background notes, but, again, there was little attempt to relate these matters to issues of living or to the children's own experiences.

The final section concerned 'man's response to God expressed in service' and was simply a list of 'teachers and writers' such as The Venerable Bede etc, 'Reformers' like Martin Luther, and 'Leaders in Brotherhood' such as William Penn. No notes were provided to suggest what the teacher might do with these lists.

It is hard to see how this syllabus could fulfil the aim of making children 'aware of a religious interpretation of life' - it was almost entirely a history syllabus. It would require a pretty able teacher to bring this syllabus to life and make it meaningful for the pupils of today (or even 1948).

The syllabus of Carlisle, Cumberland and Westmorland (1951) was set out very differently from the previous two. However, its stated aim would not be out of place in either of the others. It was 'to train [the pupils] to live a particular kind of life, which, to the Christian, means nothing less than helping them to become servants of God.' It went on to suggest that 'this aim is most likely to be achieved if the school itself can be developed as a Christian community.'

The first half of the syllabus set out 'An Outline of Christian Faith and Practice' covering topics such as 'The Place of Doctrine', 'The Search for God', 'What God wants of Us', 'Our Failure and its remedy' etc. This was very much a theological treatise. The second half of the syllabus suggested content. For the 11+ age group it offered

  • What the Bible is and how it came together;
  • A Life of Jesus - 'The Coming of the King';
  • 'First Principles of Christian Living' as taught by Jesus and worked out by his followers;
  • The Story of the first Christians - 'The Beginnings of the Kingdom'.
The first section was entirely historical in content. The second followed the life of Jesus as set out in Mark's Gospel and some historical background material was provided. The third section offered a list of Bible readings to illustrate Jesus's teaching about such things as prayer, fatherly care, neighbourliness, forgiveness, etc. The final section was again historical, using readings from the Acts of the Apostles.

Did the content match the aim? While there was much historical material, some of it would appear at least to offer an opportunity to relate Biblical material to the pupils' own experiences of life, so it is reasonable to conclude that it was an attempt to 'train them to live a particular kind of life.' Whether the attempt was successful is probably another story. However, Goldman was impressed with this relatively early syllabus, describing it as containing 'brave experiments with various types of courses' (Goldman 1965:200).

These three syllabuses, then, had aims which were clearly Christian and confessional in nature and content which was largely historical and unrelated to pupils' lives. Few teachers would subscribe to such aims today. Indeed, as Ninian Smart (1966:97) has written, 'propaganda is not the aim of teaching, but the production of a ripe capacity to judge the truth of what is propagated ... the role of the teacher is not that of taking advantage of the young.' And even if one were to accept that such aims were right and proper for religious education in schools, it is doubtful that the content suggested would be a particularly suitable vehicle for such indoctrination.


If the period following the 1944 Act saw a flurry of activity, this middle period was no less hectic. Many local authorities began to revise their agreed syllabuses. There were many reasons for these changes.

In education, it was the period that saw intense interest in developmental psychology (Piaget, Bruner etc); the publication of Readiness for religion (Goldman 1965) and the Plowden Report (1967), both of which were grounded in the work of, especially, Piaget; the abolition of the 11+ exam and the introduction of comprehensive schools. Education began to change (albeit slowly) from being the 'authoritarian imparting of facts which the teacher knew and the pupils respectfully accepted' (Cox 1983:17) towards an 'inductive' or child-centred approach.

This change was strongly promoted by the Plowden Report, though it has to be said that, in its section on religious education, this document was somewhat behind the times: 'they should be taught to know and love God' (Plowden 1967:207). However, it did recommend, in relation to the current agreed syllabuses, that 'There is an urgent need for a reconsideration and reappraisal of what aspects of religious faith can be appropriately presented to children, at what time and in what way' (Plowden 1967:207-8).

In society, it was a period of rising prosperity and increasing immigration but decreasing interest in religion. Society was thus becoming more secular and pluralist. These factors led Birmingham to revise its syllabus in the early 1970s to include work on a variety of faiths, taking into account the 'considerable numbers of Sikh, Muslim and Hindu children ... attending Birmingham schools' (Hull 1984:82). (They were less successful at introducing work on non-religious philosophies, especially communism).

And religion itself was coming to terms with what many described as 'the new theology' which, perhaps surprisingly, became 'the subject of popular interest' (Cox 1983:18) with the publication of John Robinson's Honest to God in 1963.

All these factors persuaded local authorities that their syllabuses needed revision. And, in any case, it was natural that, fifteen years or so after the 1944 Act, 'interested parties should begin to enquire how far it (the statutory framework set up by the 1944 Act) was succeeding' (Cox 1983:13). Several research projects indicated that 'there had been no obvious increase in national godliness ... churchgoing had further declined and juvenile delinquency had increased. Nor had the subject aroused noteworthy enthusiasm in the majority of pupils' (Cox 1983:13).

But perhaps the main reason for the revisions was the increasing concern that the existing syllabuses were simply not appropriate for pupils whose intellectual and linguistic abilities and limitations were now being intensively researched. Goldman summed up the conclusions of many writers and researchers in six points:

First, the complexity of religious concepts as compared with the limited intellectual development of the young. Second, poor attainments in terms of Bible knowledge after many years of Bible teaching in schools. Third, an increasing sense of the unreality and irrelevance of religious teaching as childhood is left behind and adolescents begin to think for themselves. Fourth, the importance of motivation and attitudes in the formation of religiom ideas and beliefs. Fifth, the incremental nature of religious growth and learning, depending upon many varied experiences of life. And finally, there is a unanimous conclusion that the current syllabuses for religious education in our schools and the methods by which they are generally taught are quite unsuitable in the present situation (Goldman 1965:193-4).
Goldman was concerned that many of the revised syllabuses of the time 'continue with many of the old ideas' (Goldman 1965:199).

To what extent did all this research affect the aims and content of the newly-revised syllabuses?

The Surrey syllabus was revised in 1963 - just before Plowden and Goldman. It contained a suggested 'Prayer for the School', 'Suggestions on Method' and 'Seniors' Memory Work', articles on 'The Old Testament', 'The Sources of the Synoptic Gospels' etc. and then a list of content. The aim of the syllabus was clearly stated: 'to secure that children attending the schools of the County ... may gain knowledge of the common Christian faith held by their fathers for nearly 2000 years; may seek for themselves in Christianity the beliefs and principles which give true purpose to life, true standards of value and a light on the problems and difficulties of life; and may find inspiration, power and courage to work for their own welfare, for that of their fellow-creatures, and for the growth of God's kingdom' (Surrey 1963). No sign, yet, then, of any bowing to secularism or religious pluralism!

The work for the 11+ age group consisted of a purely historical study of 'Palestine and the Jews', beginning with 'From Abraham to the Division of the Kingdom', then 'From the Division of the Kingdom to the Roman Occupation' and finishing with 'The Holy Land: Geographical and Social Background'. Bible readings were suggested and background notes were offered: 'Be careful about the plagues. They can be read as a sequence of natural disasters...'

There was thus no change from the earlier syllabuses and no greater match between aims and content than before.

The beginnings of change can be seen in the syllabus published by Cornwall a year later (1964). In its introductory section, 'The Place of Religious Education in Schools', DW Burrell suggested that 'most teachers in this country shrink from the idea that they should assist in propaganda and indoctrination.' Furthermore, 'this is a subject which ... involves the most private and intimate of the pupil's reactions and experiences.' And again, 'another way of avoiding commitment or undue pressure is to give all religions a fair hearing.' It is difficult to overstate the change these views represented as against the old confessional, purely Christian, syllabuses. Here can be seen the beginnings of the phenomenological approach to religious education, in which religions are treated as phenomena to be studied but with no pressure on pupils to accept them for themselves.

However, we must not get too carried away! The content of the syllabus was remarkably familiar: the 11+ year group was to study 'Some Outstanding Personalities of the Old Testament' and 'The Life and Ministry of Jesus, as described by St Mark'. Nonetheless, there was an attempt here to relate the historical material to pupils' lives - Joseph was described as 'the spoiled child who became a dependable leader' and David as 'the shepherd boy who became a king - and the king who knew trouble, and heartbreak, and repentance'. And the section on the life of Jesus offered 'Things Jesus stood for - forgiveness, friendship, a sense of proportion, health, Christian marriage, real values' etc.

The suggestion in the introduction that pupils might study a variety of religions was not followed up in the content section, which was entirely Christian, so the content of this syllabus failed to live up to its promising introduction. However, the seeds were being sown.

Two years later, in 1966, the West Riding of Yorkshire published its revised syllabus. Interestingly - and significantly - it was titled 'Suggestions for Religious Education' and demonstrated the effect that much of the research of the time was beginning to exert. It suggested that the syllabus

  • must satisfy the religious needs of children and young people at all stages of their development;
  • must be related to life and experience; and
  • must provide opportunities for shared experiences to be enjoyed.
Unlike the Surrey syllabus of three years earlier, there was no demand that teachers should teach the whole syllabus: '"getting through the syllabus" must no longer be regarded as the teacher's main purpose.' It also suggested the stages through which children pass in 'intellectual and spiritual development' and listed these as 'early childhood', 'middle childhood', 'late childhood', 'pre-adolescence' and so on. There was then a section on the 'Personal Needs of Children', based on these developmental stages.

There is no doubt, then, that the underlying principles and philosophy had changed. But what about the content?

The syllabus divided the work into the developmental stages listed in the introduction. In the 'Themes and Activities for Early Adolescence (11-13 years).' we find 'Discovering Jesus', based largely on Mark's gospel. As in previous syllabuses, there was much historical material, though there were attempts to relate it to life today. Suggestions included topics on temptation, illness, danger, hunger, Sunday, exploitation etc. 'The story should be linked wherever possible with relevant up to date information which shows the impact of Christ today: e.g. in the lives of people such as Leonard Cheshire and movements such as Christian Aid.'

So, although the aims and philosophy had changed, there was little change in the - still entirely Christian - content, though the approach was slightly different.

This period, then, saw intense activity in terms of research into children's intellectual and spiritual development, and important changes in society and its attitudes and values, all of which began to be reflected in the aims and principles underlying the agreed syllabuses. Significant changes in the content of the syllabuses would have to wait still longer.


Phenomenology was to become the watchword for this period. Confessional teaching and indoctrination were out (at least in theory). John Marvell has described phenomenology as being 'concerned with a "propositionless" approach to that which is essential and unique to the essence and manifestation of religion. Thus, unlike the empirical approach it does not avoid the central issues, nor ask, as does the theological approach, that certain a priori assumptions be made which are not universally acceptable' (Marvell 1976:71).

The processes which had resulted in changes in the previous period (research into children's learning, societal changes etc) continued apace, and much debate ensued about the role of religious education. Edwin Cox (1983) discussed the problems of dealing with sacred literature, of religious language, of the relationship between religious and moral education.

But perhaps more importantly, Britain was perceived, at least by those actively involved in the debate, as no longer a Christian society. The 'post-Christian era' was talked about, and Edwin Cox, among others, discussed secularism and religious pluralism:

What is the existing situation? It is that in Britain ... we have a multiplicity of religious and of non-religious faiths. Some are Christians in the old church-going style. Others have a kind of residual Christianity or folk faith ... There are those who think all religious beliefs are non-scientific and superstitious ... these are the Humanists, the scientific determinists, the Communists and the like (Cox 1983:117).
To this list he added the agnostics and then
those immigrant faiths that have come among us, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Baha'i, and others, and those fringe cults that attract the young for a while, forms of Zen, the Jesus cults, scientology, followers of Sun Myung Moon, astrology, the occasional mysticism and others similar (Cox 1983:117).
How would all this affect the syllabuses, their aims and content? The aim of Hampshire's new syllabus of 1978 (used by many other local authorities in whole or part) was 'to enable pupils to understand the nature of religious beliefs and practices, and the importance and influence of these in the lives of believers.'

So, no longer were teachers being asked to turn their pupils into practising Christians - or practising anything else, for that matter - pupils would now study religions as things other people believed in and did. Many other syllabuses of the period - Cheshire (1976), Dorset (1979), Cambridgeshire (1982), Devon (1983) etc - had similar aims.

Some syllabuses, however, tried to relate this study of 'other people's faiths' to the pupils' own beliefs: Lincolnshire, for example, stated that religious education should 'enable pupils to reflect upon their experience and upon mankind's quest for and expression of meaning in life' (Lincolnshire 1980) while Sunderland wanted its religious education to 'contribute to the spiritual and social development of pupils in such a way that growth towards any commitment to a faith or philosophy of life shall be open to knowledge and discernment' (Sunderland 1980). A drastic change from the earlier syllabuses!

But did these very different aims for the subject lead to changes in content? Northamptonshire's new syllabus of 1980 had aims similar to those expressed above, but what of its content? It was divided into sections based on the age ranges of the schools in Northampton itself (though not of the rest of the county): 3-9, 9-13, 13-18.

The first section included themes such as 'Myself', 'Families', 'Growth', 'Celebrating' and so on. The only explicit religious teaching occured in the 7+ and 8+ age groups - 'Things Jesus did' and 'Stories Jesus heard and told'. Goldman must have approved!

The 9-13 section covered such topics as 'Rules for Living', 'Praying', 'Festivals', 'Background to the New Testament' and so on. Perhaps the most significant difference here was that the syllabus really did cover a variety of religions. 'Rules for Living', for example, covered rules and religious belief in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism and Buddhism, as well as discussing rules in secular society. Other sections were more traditional in style and content - the life of Jesus, for example, with its lists of Bible readings and rather 'ecclesiastical' commentary.

The work for the 11+ group consisted of 'Music and Religion' (nine pages of amazingly detailed notes in the syllabus), 'The Story of the Exodus', 'Jesus according to the Gospels', 'The Church in Northamptonshire' and 'Living in Community - The Religious Life'. This was certainly a much broader syllabus than the earlier ones, though to what extent it related to the real lives and experiences of the pupils is debatable - how many pupils would have any experience - or even know anyone who had any experience - of monastic life, for example?

Despite these doubts the syllabus did make a real effort to widen the horizons and it did deal with the major world religions - if not on the same level as Christianity, at least with honesty and respect.

Northamptonshire was one of the last counties to produce a syllabus with the content spelled out in detail. From this point on, syllabuses became slimmer and smaller and tended to consist, to a greater or lesser extent, of lists of aims or principles. The climax of this process was probably Brent's syllabus of 1986 which offered no content at all.

ILEA (the Inner London Education Authority) published its new syllabus in 1984 and it was fairly typical of the time. It stated that 'The aim is to help young people to achieve a knowledge and understanding of religious insights, beliefs and practices, so that they are able to continue in, or come to, their own beliefs and respect the right of other people to hold beliefs different from their own.'

Christianity predominated, but the syllabus also provided for teaching 'about other important faiths which are held in contemporary British society. It is no part of the responsibility of the county school to promote any particular religious standpoint' (ILEA 1984).

Again, the phenomenological approach was clear. It is also interesting to note the inclusion of the theme of respecting the faiths of others. This was a reflection of the multicultural state of Britain by this time, and especially of London. Religious education was here being seen as contributing to personal, social and moral education. Gone were the lists of Bible readings. Instead, the content consisted of 'themes which teachers have found to be useful in their scheme of work.'

These were divided into 'explicitly religious topics' such as 'places of pilgrimage', 'places of worship', 'stories from sacred writings', 'religious festivals' and so on; 'topics in which RE is the central purpose' such as 'light', 'right and wrong' and 'peace'; and 'general topics in which RE is an element' such as 'the family', 'signs and symbols', 'journeys and travel'.

It is not possible to indicate the work of the 11+ age group here as there were only suggestions for the secondary stage as a whole. The syllabus suggested the study of 'basic concepts, historical roots and phenomena of specific religions as expressed in writings, lives of key figures, institutions, organisations, myths and legends...' etc.

Whether or not one accepts the validity of the stated aims of this syllabus, one would have to accept that the content was in harmony with them, if only because the content section is so vague and general that it could hardly be otherwise! However, I do not wish to be so cynical: it seems to me that, put into practice in the spirit of the syllabus, the potential for fulfilling - or at least, working towards - the stated aims, is there.

The 1974 - 1988 period, then, saw drastic changes to the aims and intentions of religious education and to its underpinning philosophy. In terms of content, there was a lack of clarity, so that teachers were to be left with more responsibility for what they taught and how they taught it.

1988 and after

A detailed critique of the religious education clauses of the 1988 Education 'Reform' Act has been provided by Edwin Cox and Jo Cairns in their book Reforming religious education (1989). In relation to the aims, content, style and methods of religious education, two points are worth making here:

  • whereas the 1944 Act never mentioned Christianity - though it was undoubtedly intended to be the religion to be studied - the 1988 Act made clear that 'the teaching is to reflect the mainly Christian nature of British religious traditions' (Cox and Cairns 1989:46);
  • 'the special place of RE in the curriculum is preserved in the new arrangements. It is not a foundation subject, and so is not at risk of being taken out of the compulsory curriculum as those subjects are (at least in principle); nor does it, for the same reason, come within the provisions for assessment' (Leonard 1988:17). This was seen by many as a two-edged sword. On the one hand, religious education was a compulsory subject and so was, in a sense, protected. On the other, since it was not covered by the requirements for programmes of study, attainment targets and all the other paraphernalia of the National Curriculum, there was a danger of its being marginalised.
Westhill College published Attainment in RE in 1989 as a response to these concerns. It was based on the principles
  • 'that the structures for RE should be, as far as possible, within the same broad educational guidelines as those for the Core and Foundation Subjects of the National Curriculum;
  • that in RE, priority should be given to defining attainment and that the processes and outcomes of the subject should not be determined by what can be precisely measured;
  • that the provisions for RE should be built on the progressive educational foundations of recent Agreed Syllabuses and good practice in schools; and
  • that determining details of content (i.e. which religions should be studied) is a matter for LEAs.' (Westhill 1989:3)
The scheme offered ten attainment targets arranged in three groups:
A Knowledge and Understanding of Religion
A1 Worship and Meditation
A2 Celebration
A3 Lifestyle
A4 Authority
A5 Belief and Identity

B Awareness of Life-experiences
B6 Natural World
B7 Relationships
B8 Ultimate Questions
B9 Expressing Meaning

C Exploring and Responding
C10 Exploring and Responding

There were suggested programmes of study and attainment statements for each of these attainment targets at each of the four key stages. Westhill later published Assessment in RE.

Is this the way for religious education to go? Certainly many think so. A number of local authorities are reviewing their syllabuses to see whether they comply with the 1988 Act. Oxfordshire has a working party which looks set to recommend adoption of the Westhill document with some additions and minor alterations. I have reservations. On the one hand, I can see the logic of using the format of the other National Curriculum subjects for consistency and to prevent religious education being marginalised in relation to the rest of the National Curriculum. On the other, I am anxious that we do not go too far down the road of assessment, especially where it involves measurement. In my view, what can be measured and what is of value are often two opposite ends of a spectrum.

Religious education, like the society in which it is based, has changed greatly since those early syllabuses. Although much of the content may appear to be - superficially at least - similar, there has been a sea-change in its aims and underlying philosophy.

Appendix: Analysis of aims in recent syllabuses

from Handbook for Agreed Syllabus Conferences SACREs and Schools (Religious Education Council of England and Wales 1989)

Twenty-three LEA Syllabuses (1973-1987) were examined. The following aims are either explicitly stated or are mentioned in articles within the Syllabus. It should be noted that although many use the words 'religion' and 'religious', the content of the Syllabus usually refers directly to one or more religions (always including Christianity).

No. of
To explore, understand and/or respond to the attitudes, beliefs, experiences, key ideas and practices of religion (or of 'others')23
To help pupils to form their own beliefs, commitments and judgements, and to find ultimate meaning and values17
To appreciate Christianity and the Christian tradition15
To explore world religions and to understand living in a multi-faith society13
To foster reflection and search11
To understand the distinctive nature and the source of religion10
To appreciate the contribution of religion to moral, personal and social issues and practices8
To contribute to the individual's educational development3
To appreciate the nature of evidence and/or a balanced viewpoint in the study of religion2
To help pupils to continue in their own beliefs2


Cox E (1966) Changing aims in religious education London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

Cox E (1983) Problems and possibilities for religious education London: Hodder and Stoughton

Cox E (1984) Agreed Syllabuses in JM Sutcliffe (ed) A dictionary of religious education London: SCM Press Ltd 18-20

Cox E and Cairns JM (1989) Reforming religious education London: Bedford Way Papers/Kogan Page

Goldman R (1965) Readiness for religion London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

Hull J (ed) (1982) New directions in religious education London: The Falmer Press

Hull J (1984) Studies in religion and education London: The Falmer Press

Leonard M (1988) The 1988 Education Act Oxford: Basil Blackwell

Marvell J (1976) 'Phenomenology and the future of religious education in Hull' Learning for Living 16(1), reprinted in J Hull (ed) (1982) New directions in religious education London: The Falmer Press 69-76

Plowden (1967) Children and their Primary Schools Report of the Central Advisory Council for Education (England) London: HMSO

Smart N (1966) Secular education and the logic of religion London: Faber and Faber

Spens (1938) Secondary Education with Special Reference to Grammar Schools and Technical High Schools Report of the Consultative Committee London: HMSO

Westhill (1989) Attainment in RE Birmingham: The Regional RE Centre (Midlands), Westhill College, Selly Oak, Birmingham B29 6LL

Agreed Syllabuses referred to in detail:

City of York (1948)

Middlesex (1948)

Carlisle, Cumberland and Westmorland (1951)

Surrey (1963)

Cornwall (1964)

West Riding (1966)

Northamptonshire (1980)

ILEA (1983)

This article is a modified version of an essay submitted in January 1991 as part of my MA in Religious Education course at the University of London Institute of Education.