The new model syllabuses, drawn up by a steering group of different faiths, ensure that children will study Christianity throughout their school career and also each of the five other principal religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism.
Traditional Christians are angry that recommendations that at least 50 per cent of RE time should be spent on Christianity have been dropped and that primary schools are advised to teach two other religions as well. But the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, welcomed the syllabuses. Humanists said they ignored the needs of a third of pupils who had no religion at all since traditions such as theirs were excluded.
Under the 1988 Education Reform Act, RE has to be 'in the main' Christian, but John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, decided that it was impossible to specify the precise amount because the legal meaning has never been tested in law.
Lady Olga Maitland, Conservative MP for Sutton and Cheam, predicted yesterday that a parent would bring a legal challenge to test the amount of Christian religion which ought to be included.
She said: 'It is absolutely absurd to downgrade Christian teaching to the point that it is now so optional that some schools could reduce the Christian element to 25 per cent.' She argued that Mr Patten had distanced himself from the syllabuses.
Mr Patten, who attended the launch, emphasised that the syllabuses, drawn up at his request, were not the law, nor were they government recommendations. He said: 'It is not for the Secretary of State to be involved in the detail of RE syllabuses. I am personally glad to see that the models being launched today have Christianity at their centre and indeed that they would allow for the great majority of time to be devoted to Christianity.'
Local conferences which are responsible for deciding RE syllabuses for schools in their area will be able to decide whether they use one of the two national models.
The syllabuses say that from 5 to 7 children should study Christianity and normally one other religion; 7- to 11-year-olds and 11- to 14- year-olds Christianity and two others; and 14- to 16-year-olds Christianity and one other. Dr Carey said: 'I reject the view of some Christians that these syllabuses give insufficient attention to Christianity. Christianity is the only religion to be taught at every stage of a pupil's education.'
Sir Ron Dearing, chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, which set up the steering group, said: 'In the early years it seems desirable to develop a curriculum that draws principally on the particular traditions the children bring with them to their school so that religious education can develop from the beliefs and insights the children already have. In most cases this will be the Christian tradition but in some localities another religion may predominate.'
The models were not meant to be exclusive. If another religion was important in a locality, it should be covered. Detailed programmes of study for each religion had been included and the differences between religions acknowledged. 'To pretend that all religions are really modifications of a single model would be an injustice to the religions themselves,' he said.
Roy Saich, of the Humanists, claimed the proposals would turn teachers into preachers. 'To be genuine education, the subject needs to cover belief systems not just religions as narrowly defined,' he said.