Losing your religion? The implications of the census for RE

Written by: Bushra Nasir | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The recent national census results reveal a sharp rise in the number of people who have no religion. This reaffirms the importance of a new vision for religious education in schools, says Bushra Nasir

Have you ever been asked about the meaning of life in the classroom? What about the origins of the universe or beliefs about what happens when we die?

If you have then you have the same experience as the more than 7 in 10 parents who talk about these topics at home with their child, this according to a survey by Culham St Gabriel’s Trust (2022).

It is unsurprising that a majority of parents in the survey saw value in the religious and worldviews approach to religious education.

You will have all seen the headlines from the census telling us that less than half the population now identify as Christian and that the number of people saying they have no religion has trebled in the last 20 years (ONS, 2022).

But although the census reveals that traditional religious affiliation is declining, society isn’t necessarily becoming less religious. Many people still engage with these questions because they are at the heart of what it is to be human.

Societies have pondered these questions for thousands of years – and it is our privilege as teachers to continue this tradition and help the next generation explore both religious and non-religious responses to them.

The reality is that everyone has a worldview. It is our unique way of understanding, experiencing and responding to the world around us.

The census results have emboldened the renewed focus among educators on how we teach religion and belief in the classroom. Many of these conversations have been informed by the thinking behind the Commission on RE report (2018) that recommended both religious and non-religious perspectives be taught through a worldviews approach; that this approach becomes the lens through which these ideas are taught.

What does this mean? To have a worldview is to appreciate the lived experience of religion or belief, and also that this may change over time. A worldview is a way of appreciating the pluralistic and diverse nature of belief in modern Britain.

People’s worldviews may be made up of both religious and non-religious ideas. For example, ideas about how people should behave may be rooted in a religious belief but may also have a moral or ethical perspective.

Research by the think-tank Theos prior to the census found that half (51%) of those who identify as non-religious said they do not believe in God (Waite, 2022).

While the number of atheists is significant in its own right, we should not take ticking “non-religious” in a census survey to imply people do not engage with some of the fundamental issues encountered in both religious and non-religious worldviews. They do so, but increasingly outside of a traditional religious affiliation.

A religion and worldview curriculum is about engaging with this idea in the classroom. Since the Commission on RE report, many schools have started to adopt these principles into their curriculum. I have witnessed first-hand the advantages.

Pupils find that they have more of a chance to express themselves as well as engaging meaningfully with events they may already be reading about on their phones or in the news. RE teachers report finding the approach more academic and a better use of their specialism.

Meanwhile, senior leaders appreciate the way this academic and knowledge-rich approach to the subject is consolidated and complements learning in English and humanities subjects.

What should I do if my school isn’t teaching a religion and worldviews curriculum? There are a number of very useful resources which teachers can access through the National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE) website, to bring the curriculum to their students.

However, as someone who is a Champion for RE in schools with the Rethink RE campaign, I am familiar with some of the statistics around the teaching of the subject.

More often than not, it is up to us as senior leaders to ensure there is space for the subject on the timetable. Teaching RE to all pupils is a statutory requirement, and a number of schools ignore this by offering a tokenistic version of the subject. This does young people a disservice and denies them their entitlement to the high-quality education in religion and worldviews that they need for life in the modern world.

At a recent debate in Parliament (2022), I was struck by the number of politicians of all parties who made this precise point. Not only can high-quality RE play a role in helping children get to grips with their worldview, it is also an important part of developing them as young citizens in modern Britain.

MPs praised the subject’s ability to provide young people with skills of critical thinking, debating and empathy for the viewpoints of others as well as an appreciation that beyond Britain, the vast majority of the world still follows one of the major religious traditions.

Returning to school in 2023, I look forward to the on-going conversations students are having in their RE lessons about the changing nature of faith and belief in modern Britain.

RE lessons are contributing to a more positive, curious and intellectually stimulating environment in many schools. I’d like to see every child in every school experience that.

  • Bushra Nasir is CEO of the Drapers’ Multi-Academy Trust, a MAT of five primary and secondary schools in Romford. She is also a Religion and Worldviews Champion with the Rethink RE campaign. Visit www.rethinkre.org

Headteacher Update Spring Term Edition 2023

This article first appeared in Headteacher Update's Spring Term Edition 2023. This edition was sent free of charge to every primary school in the country. A digital edition will also be available soon via www.headteacher-update.com/digital-editions/

Further information

  • Commission on RE: Religion and worldviews: A national plan for RE, September 2018: https://bit.ly/3VInzhF
  • Culham St Gabriel’s Trust: Parent survey: Religion and philosophy a hot topic between parents and their children, December 2022: https://bit.ly/3PhXd3p
  • NATRE: www.natre.org.uk
  • Office for National Statistics: Ethnic group, national identity, language, and religion: Census 2021, November 2022: https://bit.ly/3ULa9QH
  • UK Parliament: Religious Education in Modern Britain Volume 721, Hansard, debated on November 1, 2022: https://bit.ly/3VZRqSe
  • Waite: The Nones: Who are they and what do they believe? Theos, November 2022: https://bit.ly/3PhYyHt

This material is protected by MA Education Limited copyright.
See Terms and Conditions.


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up Headteacher update Bulletin
About Us

Headteacher Update is a magazine, website, podcast and regular ebulletin dedicated to the primary school leadership team. We tackle a wide range of leadership issues, offering best practice, case studies and in-depth information, advice and guidance. Headteacher Update magazine is distributed free to approximately 20,000 primary school headteachers.

Learn more about Headteacher update


Register to receive regular updates on primary education news delivered free to your inbox.