Call to improve religious education
Children should begin learning about religious beliefs and visiting places of worship such as churches, mosques and synagogues around the age of four, it has been suggested.
A new review of religious education also calls for primary school pupils to be taught to discuss their own and others' views on topics such as whether God is real, and the origins of the universe.
The study, published by the Religious Education Council for England and Wales, sets out plans to revive RE in schools, amid concerns that it is in decline and has been marginalised.
It comes just weeks after an Ofsted report warned that m ore than half of England's schools are failing to give pupils good RE lessons
Under the current system, RE is compulsory in England's schools, but there is no mandatory curriculum. Instead local councils and schools themselves decide on a syllabus to follow.
The Council, which represents more than 60 faith groups and professional bodies, said it was not proposing to change the status of RE.
Its review sets out guidelines for a new RE curriculum, with details of what children should learn at each stage of their education, and says that schools should see this as a "national benchmark".
RE is a legal requirement for all pupils, including children in the reception year which is classed as part of early years education, the report says.
At this age, when children are around four years old, they should "encounter religions and world views through special people, books times, places and objects and by visiting places of worship," it suggests.
It adds that youngsters should listen to stories, use "all their senses" to explore beliefs, ask questions and reflect on their own feelings and experiences.
Between the ages of five and seven, RE lessons should include topics such as learning about different festivals like Easter and Diwali, different religious symbols and actions, and to how retell and suggest meanings for religious and moral stories.
The guidance says that between seven and 11 RE could include classes on discussing and presenting views on challenging questions.
As an example, it says pupils could "discuss different perspectives on questions about the beginnings of life on Earth, so that they can describe different ways science and religions treat questions of origins".
In secondary school, pupils should "extend and deepen their knowledge and understanding of a range of religions and world views," the Council says.
Council chair John Keast said the new guidance was an "important step in securing the future of RE in our schools".
" Some schools boast good and outstanding RE, yet many cannot," he said.
"In recent years RE has fallen into a vacuum. Falling back on the safety net of statutory provision is not enough to ensure consistent high standards, strong teaching, adequate examination provision and clarity on what the subject covers. Having a thoroughly reconsidered national curriculum framework is a means of changing both practice and attitudes to RE."
Ofsted's report, published earlier this month, found that RE is being ''squeezed out'' by other subjects - leaving youngsters with little knowledge and understanding of different faiths.
Schools are confused about the reasons for studying RE, the watchdog said, adding its inspectors had also found low standards in the subject, poor teaching and problems with the way it is tested.
In July, Education Secretary Michael Gove admitted that RE has suffered as a result of the Government's school reforms.
At a Church of England seminar, Reverend John Pritchard, the Bishop of Oxford, said that the move to leave RE out of the English Baccalaureate, alongside other reforms such as halving specialist RE teacher training places and a lack of bursaries for trainees, had ''been quite demoralising'' for the RE community.
Mr Gove said that because RE has a ''special status'' in the curriculum he had believed it was protected.
''I think, if I'm being honest, over the last three years I've thought 'well that's protection enough' and therefore I've concentrated on other areas and therefore I think RE has suffered as a result of my belief that the protection that it had in the curriculum was sufficient, and I don't think that I've done enough,'' he said.
In a foreword to the report he said the review "demonstrates a commitment to raising expectations and standards of the RE received by all children and young people".
He wrote: "All children need to acquire core knowledge and understanding of the beliefs and practices of the religions and world views which not only shape their history and culture but which guide their own development."
The Accord Coalition for Inclusive Education said it was disappointed that the review had not made an outright call for RE to be made part of the national curriculum.
Accord Chair, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, said: 'Unless this happens, RE will always suffer, with community schools varying in what they cover according to the whims of the local SACRE, while faith schools can teach one faith only to the exclusion of all others. RE needs to change from a Cinderella subject and be recognised for its importance both as a matter of general knowledge and as an aid to social cohesion as children and young people emerge into a diverse society."
Ed Pawson, chair of the NATRE, the subject association for RE said: 'NATRE welcomes the publication of the RE Review, containing a new national curriculum statement for RE to parallel recently published National Curriculum documents for other subjects. It is a great achievement that, with no access to government funding, this process, led by the Religious Education Council, has come to fruition.
"This curriculum framework sets out a clear, well-articulated structure, suitable to guide RE teaching from early years through to the end of key stage 3, creating challenging and stimulating learning opportunities for all."