New rules about religious studies exams sent to exam boards stipulate the study of only two rather than the three religions allowed at present, despite Mr Patten telling the School Examinations and Assessment Council that there should be three.
Critics of the council's decision say the new courses will be restrictive and result from pressure from right-wingers who want the syllabus to put more emphasis on Christianity.
Gwen Palmer, chair of the National Religious Education Council, which has representatives from all the main faiths, said: 'Young people won't be able to get the breadth of understanding of religion which is very important at that age. It is likely to be divisive. Which religion do you go for? I don't dispute the importance of Christianity, but if you add Judaism from which Christianity developed you completely ignore the fact that there are more Muslims than Methodists.'
Stephen Orchard, secretary of the Professional Council for Religious Education, whose members are RE teachers, said the issue was 'terribly sensitive in the area of race relations'. The attempt to put much more emphasis on Christianity was a misunderstanding of the nature of RE in schools. 'It has to be broadly based because it is not about nurturing or indoctrinating someone in a faith,' he said.
In February, Mr Patten wrote to Lord Griffiths, who retired as chairman of the exams council last month, asking him to think again and to allow the study of three religions because he feared that the restriction would deter pupils from taking the course.
But in March the council approved the rules unaltered. Lord Griffiths informed Mr Patten of the decision. The criteria which will determine religious studies syllabuses for pupils starting GCSE courses in September were sent to exam boards.
One member of the council's religious studies panel said it had not been consulted about Mr Patten's letter: two meetings, including the March one which should have discussed the letter, had been cancelled. 'If the Secretary of State had sent a letter commenting on the criteria, it seems strange that we were told that there was insufficient business for a panel meeting.'
The exams council refused to comment, though it confirmed that the criteria for GCSE religious studies exams in 1996 had been sent out to boards. However, minutes of a religious studies panel meeting on the new rules last year say that 'a three-religion option would almost certainly lead to an overly superficial treatment of the subject'.
The Government made clear its position last week when it rejected an amendment to the Education Bill from Baroness Cox, a Conservative peer, to limit to two the number of religions studied in locally-agreed non-GCSE RE syllabuses. She wanted to allow 'a more detailed study of Christianity'.
The Department for Education said it was up to the exams council to determine the criteria but opponents of the new rules believe Mr Patten will have to act shortly to restore his authority over the council.Reuse content