More than half of adults believe that religious education (RE) lessons are worthwhile, with many saying the subject should be compulsory, according to a new poll.

It also found that many people feel that RE allows youngsters to learn about different beliefs and is essential in a multi-faith society.

The survey, commissioned by the Religious Education Council of England and Wales (REC), comes as MPs attend the first meeting of a new all-party parliamentary group (APPG) set up to raise awareness of the importance of RE in schools.

The findings show that 53% of the almost 1,800 adults questioned in England and Wales believe that RE should be compulsory in all state schools up to the age of 16 while around a third (32%) said it should not be mandatory. The others gave no preference.

Some 58% said it was beneficial for pupils to study the subject at school, with nine per cent saying it was harmful.

Half of those questioned who gave an opinion said that RE is a "valuable space" in the curriculum for youngsters to learn about different beliefs, and the same proportion said RE lessons are essential as they promote mutual respect, tolerance and understanding.

Just 13% said that RE should not be taught in schools and that pupils who want to study the subject should do so in their own time.

Six per cent of those surveyed said that RE lessons teach children to be religious, the poll also found.

A third (33%) said a GCSE or A-level in RE has the same credibility as the same qualification in a subject such as English, history or geography.

REC chair John Keast said: "RE is a core part of the education system and we and our member bodies are committed to offering all the support we can muster to help schools deliver high value RE.

"Our ambition is to promote widespread understanding of how academically rigorous and personally inspiring good RE can be, and how it equips young people to appreciate a range of religious and non-religious beliefs in our world. It's positive to see such a strong belief in the importance of the subject among the public."

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society (NSS), said: "In Britain we have religious evangelisation masquerading as religious education, and this is even more the case in faith schools.

"There is no attempt to give objective information about religion; the clear objective, sometimes even admitted, is to recruit the next generation of churchgoers."

The NSS suggested that children should have the right to withdraw from RE lessons when they are old enough to make an informed decision.

"Children have human rights too, and by 16 they are sufficiently mature to have the right to decide for themselves whether or not they want to study religion. Currently, the UK does not respect these young people's rights," Sanderson said.

The APPG on RE, which has the backing of a number of faith groups, is expected to focus on protecting RE in schools and its value to young people.

It is also likely to lobby on related issues, such as calling for the subject to be included in the Government's new English Baccalaureate (EBacc).

The exclusion of RE from the EBacc has created a storm of protest, with campaigners arguing the move could see the subject marginalised in schools.

Under current rules, every student in England should learn RE up to the age of 18.

According to last summer's GCSE results, there was a rise in the numbers of young people taking RE at GCSE.

In total, 221,974 youngsters entered for the subject compared to 188,704 the year before.

At the same time, history and geography saw a decline in entries.

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