Coping with a multifaith Europe: differing approaches to religious education

All European countries are multicultural entities, and growing religious diversity is an important dimension of this. Analysis of the role of religious and moral education1 (RME) in schools can lead to a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities of dealing with multicultural societies.

The REMC research project explored the perspectives of young children on religious identity formation. REMC also yielded insights into the role that parental religious affiliation plays in the choice of school and the influence of schooling on religious socialisation more generally. The project focused on primary education because of its potentially crucial role in the formation of religious beliefs and values among children.

The multidisciplinary project REMC drew on insights from sociology, education, theology, comparative study of religion, equality studies and economics, and analysed existing data such as the European Values Study2. In addition, it involved in-depth qualitative interviews with a total of 69 teachers, 127 parents and more than 35 groups of children in Malta, Ireland, Scotland, Germany and Flanders (Belgium). The proportion of separate faith schools3 in these countries ranges from 2 per cent (in Germany) to 98 per cent (in Ireland) of all primary schools. The researchers also interviewed key stakeholders such as religious groups, education management bodies and teachers’ unions to explore the changing institutional context within case-study countries.

Religion is one of several factors guiding a parent’s choice of school for their children. Not surprisingly, religion is a more dominant factor in choice for families from minority faith groups – but even here it is complex, as parents may wish not only to preserve their religious tradition but also to maintain their cultural identity or to provide a ‘safe haven’ to protect their children from being treated as different.

The nature of religious and moral education (RME) is influenced by the type of school. In faith schools, RME is devised by the relevant religious authority, whereas in state schools, the nature of RME varies widely. For example in Germany and Flanders, families can choose from a number of different faith options, including (in the case of Flanders) a secular ethical education strand. However, not all religious groups are encompassed by this system, and in both countries access to an Islamic education strand is rare. In Scotland, state schools provide a RME curriculum which emphasises ‘learning about religions’ and exploring ethical values.

The researchers emphasise that in all countries studied, the communication of religious/moral values is not confined to RME lessons. Faith schools engage in practices including prayer, attending religious services and celebrating religious festivals. Despite the ‘neutrality’ of state schools, tacit Christian values and assumptions may be embedded within the school ethos.

Potential challenges for European societies are:

  • Educational systems provide for faith formation for Christian groups to a much greater extent than for non-Christian groups, even when faith formation is not an explicit goal of schooling.
  • There is a mismatch between the fixed categories under which faith schools and RME provision are generally organised (Catholic, Protestant, Muslim etc.) and the complex and fluid way that parents and children define their own religious identities.
  • Children attending faith schools and receiving instruction in a specific religion reported less knowledge of and contact with other religious/moral belief systems, except in Germany where the intake into some state-maintained faith schools was fairly multi-religious.

The main implications for national and EU policy are:

  • Dress was found to be the most difficult issue for schools to deal with, and all countries adopted different approaches for managing this. However, many countries found it relatively easy to deal with issues of diversity relating to food practices.
  • There are potential clashes between EU equal opportunity legislation (which prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, belief or sexual identity) and faith community demands concerning employment of teachers. For example, in Scotland all teachers, of whatever faith, in Catholic schools are expected to support the church’s philosophy of education.
  • EU human rights legislation underpins the right of parents to have their children educated in accord with their religious beliefs. Therefore, children’s rights to choice are usually subservient to those of their parents. This is contrary to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which emphasises the right of children to participate in decisions that affect them.
  • Children are active agents in their own religious formation and schools must attempt to balance parents’ and children’s rights to choice and autonomy, respecting the wishes of parents while at the same time allowing children to have a say in issues affecting them.
  • It is important to recognise the ways in which dominant religious and moral ethos permeates all aspects of school life, and the considerable variation in how schools treat diverse groups.
  • Teacher education plays a vital role in ensuring that parents and students of all religions, as well as those who do not practice a religion, feel their beliefs are respected. It must incorporate knowledge and awareness of religious diversity and prepare teachers for inclusive education. Schools can be supported by the availability of relevant resources and curriculum materials.


1 Religious and Moral Education (RME) – In the context of this project, the term RME was used to represent a subject area in primary schools that deals with religion, morals and values. REMC acknowledges that there are differences between countries with regard to the use of the term, with some countries differentiating between ‘religious education’ and ‘values education’. However, the term RME is used to facilitate cross-country comparability.

2 See:

3 Faith schools – In this project, the term ‘faith school’ was used to refer to a school owned and/or managed by a specific religious group. Countries differ in the terminology used with some countries adopting the term ‘denominational school’.

REMC - Religious Education in a Multi-Cultural Society: School and Home in Comparative Context (duration: 1/1/2008 – 31/12/2009) was a Collaborative Research Project funded under the 7th Framework Programme for Research of the European Union, Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, Activity 3 – Major trends in society and their implications.


Contact: Dr Emer Smyth,