Schools have been accused of ignoring the views of their Christian pupils while paying careful attention to children of other faiths.
According to Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, teachers are failing to educate children in the core beliefs of Christianity, ignoring their legal obligation to do so.
An Ofsted report released today says stories from the Bible are often used simply to teach children about their feelings or about how to empathise with the sick, but their religious significance is neglected.
The inspectorate finds there has been a sharp decline in the quality of religious teaching, particularly in secondary schools, over the past three years.
“Insufficient attention was paid to … pupils who were actively engaged in Christian practice,” the report notes.
“Often, their experience was ignored … this sometimes contrasted sharply with the more careful attention paid to the experiences of pupils from other religious traditions.”
Critics argue that too many teachers are both ignorant and embarrassed about Christianity and are frightened of causing tension in multi-faith schools.
However, supporters of the approach identified by Ofsted argue that teachers are simply reflecting the secular views prevalent in society.
Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester, said: “There is generally in the culture a kind of embarrassment about talking openly about Christianity that doesn’t apply to other faiths.”
He warned that teachers were in danger of presenting religions as a “smorgasbord of interesting rituals and feasts”.
Christine Gilbert, the chief inspector of schools, said: “All young people should have the opportunity to learn about religion [and] learn from religion. This requires good teaching based on strong subject knowledge and clarity about the purposes of religious education.”
The teaching of religion has become increasingly fraught. Last year, a primary school teacher from Tower Hamlets, east London, claimed he had been forced out of his job because he had complained to his headmistress about an anti-Christian bias among pupils.
Some had allegedly praised the September 11 hijackers, while one boy had said he was glad about the death of a lawyer who had been stabbed “because he’s a Christian”.
Schools are obliged to teach religion, although it is not part of the national curriculum. Lessons are also supposed to reflect the fact that Christianity is the main religion in Britain, while taking account of the other leading faiths.
To assess how well they were meeting their obligations, Ofsted inspectors studied 94 primary and 89 secondary schools and compared the teaching with what it had found in a similar study three years ago.
The report says: “There is an urgent need to review the way the subject is supported.” It adds: “In the sample of primary schools … not enough [religious education] was of good quality. The quality of RE in the secondary schools visited was worse than in the schools involved in the 2007 survey.”
Ofsted says: “It was common for teachers to use Jesus’s parables to explore personal feelings or to decide how people should behave, but not make any reference to their religious significance.”
In one primary school lesson, a teacher told the story of Christ’s healing of a blind man and said the purpose was to understand how it felt to be blind.
The pupils were given a “feely bag” and asked to write a poem about what they would miss if they could not see.
“The pupils were confused and began to lose interest,” the report notes.
Ofsted also found that teaching about Islam in secondary schools avoided any reference to controversial topics such as the place of Islam in Britain.
Andrea Minichiello Williams, director of the campaign group Christian Concern for our Nation, said: “It’s good Ofsted is starting to recognise the marginalisation of Christianity. Increasingly teachers feel they are not free to talk about faith … Christianity is not given a level playing field.”
However, Keith Porteous Wood, director of the National Secular Society, said: “In the last week, we have had complaints of children in community schools being forced to pray before lunch and their libraries having far more books on religion than science. Yet Ofsted is pressing for the indoctrination of pupils to be stepped up.”