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Faith, hope and clarity

The review of religious observance has taken an honest look at the realities in schools and responded appropriately, says Ken Coulter

In a Viewpoint article ("Noah's ark has no room for religion", TESS, July 22), Anne Pirrie of Glasgow University asked serious questions of the religious observance review group report. She pointed to:

* The striving for consensus between members of the review group, but viewed this as a weakness not a strength.

* The dearth of the word "religion" in the report - it was alleged that the review group were guilty of a collective act of "bad faith".

* That to be "inclusive" the report places "emphasis on the spiritual development of the individual while invoking the notion of "shared values"

rather than a framework of belief.

The article alleged that the report is a backward step allowing religious observance to reflect the diversity of faith and belief in contemporary Scotland instead of being located clearly within the Christian tradition.

The author had in her sights what she described as 19th century fossilised atheism and stated that the review group dodged the required confrontation with this fossil.

I believe, however, that the review group is to be fully commended on producing its report after much deliberation. Its well-considered report gives Scottish education a positive way forward in a task which has presented acute difficulty for all schools. Those involved at the sharp end of religious observance in schools, with traditional large assemblies of belligerent pupils and cantankerous staff, will see the report and subsequent Scottish Executive circular as opening the door to creative possibilities which reflect the spiritual-integrity of all.

Our postmodern culture tolerates and encourages diversity and has rejected religious imperialism, but not faith and spirituality. Most polls put the percentage of the population having faith at 60-70 per cent, but participation in organised religion as low as 10 per cent. No amount of Canute-like proclamations will change this. The report works within this reality.

The report also puts Scottish education at the cutting edge of education and theology in Europe by being person-centred, yet still drawing on the rich heritage of faith in Scotland. By affirming that all people are spiritual, we are led beyond the fossilised debates of a previous century and individual and corporate spiritual avenues can be explored.

Sensitive and tactful opportunities are created for spirituality. The circular crucially allows, at the discretion of the senior management team, faith groups and faith representatives to be involved in the spiritual development of all within the school. The report states the need for resources for, and accountability and evaluation of, spiritual input within the school. These last requirements bring religious observance into the heart of school life.

Religious observance as envisaged in the report clearly supports three of the five national priorities: inclusion and equality; values and citizenship; and learning for life. And religious observance, if allowed to be, is also symbiotically linked with the remaining two national priorities of achievement and attainment and the framework for learning.

It also sits well with the vision of Ambitious, Excellent Schools. A strong programme will contribute effectively towards the four aspirational capacities expressed in A Curriculum for Excellence - successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors to society.

It would take longer to elaborate than this short article will allow, but I believe that appropriate religious observance can also be seen to support other initiatives such as Assessment is for Learning, Better Behaviour, Better Learning, health-promoting schools, eco schools, outdoor education, post-McCrone pastoral care and enterprise in education.

In short, this report liberates religious observance to be the soul of the school and central to the development of all pupils, staff and the corporate community. This liberation is to be greeted with hope and supported with enthusiasm.

An old Jewish story tells of Elimelech being asked six questions at the gates of heaven. To each he answered "no". He hadn't dealt faithfully with others, he hadn't studied, he hadn't hoped, and so on. To the surprise of all watching, the reply was: "An honest man! Come in, come in."

An honest report! Come in, come in. Over and above all the positive values of the report as already stated, it is on this criterion in particular that it is to be commended and is worthy of positive support. It is honest about where we are in Scottish schools and with honesty hope is affirmed.

Religious observance as set out in the report is inclusive and allows all in education to be reflectively honest about what they believe, to understand and interpret the world as it is, dreaming for what it could be, and thus to grow individually and collectively. Here is hope.

Ken Coulter is development officer (religious observance) with Learning and Teaching Scotland.

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