From formal prayer to spiritual development

Jack Laidlaw replies to Fred Forrester's recent criticisms of the review of religious observance

IT was the 1872 Education Act that first made reference to "religious instruction" and "religious observance". Through the years successive education Acts have retained the legal obligations first framed then. In the 19th century, "religious instruction" would have included a basic knowledge of the Bible and learning the Shorter Catechism. Religious observance would have included regular prayers in classrooms at the beginning and end of the school day with occasional school services with or without the local minister.

At a time when the Kirk was giving up control of schools, that piece of legislation offered the reassurance that what was common practice in those days would continue and not be easily swept aside. Religious instruction and observance was Christian and Presbyterian.

Some 130 years on, society has changed a great deal. The current consultation exercise recognises that "schools have difficulties because they are not sure what is meant by religious observance in a predominantly secular and increasingly multi-faith society". Those who inhabit a secular society accept religious education in the schools system. Our education system enables and encourages the pupil to pursue a personal search into what might give life meaning, purpose and value. Hence it was relatively easy for "religious instruction" to have a make-over and be reinstated as "religious and moral education".

It was the 1972 Millar report that confirmed the change from "religious instruction" to "religious education". Interestingly, Millar took a brief but inconclusive look at "religious observance", assuming it had to do with worship. Some members of the Millar committee concluded that, on educational grounds, they could not really justify Christian worship in a non-denominational school, while others felt that it should continue so that pupils could experience worship which they regarded as crucial to an understanding of religion.

The remit given to the current working group on religious observance is to look at the issues and offer advice so that a new circular can be issued to deal with the problems of the two-thirds of secondary schools not complying with the current guidelines. However, the remit does not allow the group to ask the basic question: "Is this kind of legal provision, now some 130 years old, relevant in this day and age?". Politicians are reluctant to amend legislation if it might be controversial.

The definition offered by the group asks us to regard religious observance not as worship but as "community acts which aim to promote the spiritual development of all members of the school community" and express and celebrate the shared values of the school community. Two things we might note.

First, in that short sentence there are a number of phrases that do require unpacking in a Scottish context and perhaps the most crucial of these is "spiritual development". The consultation paper continues by claiming that each individual in the school community is entitled to develop as a spiritual being or "whole person" and to be helped to recognise, reflect upon and develop a deeper understanding of the value and worth of each individual which comes from one's dignity as a person.

To some ears this rhetoric may be attractive but how would this idea be given practical effect within a school? Spiritual development is not yet part of the popular discourse of Scottish education. Maybe it should be.

Our colleagues in England and Wales are much more familiar with the term which is incorporated into their education Act.

Second, there is no mention of any religion (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or any other), not just in the definition but throughout the consultation paper. If Christian worship is no longer associated with religious observance, maybe there needs to be an honest admission that the label religious observance is no longer appropriate.

The consultation paper is offering a formula that is potentially much more inclusive but not formally religious. It will disturb some religious folk who would like schools to be proclaiming an exclusively Christian message, but it may be a relief for many headteachers and school chaplains who feel traditional school assembly is difficult and irrelevant to the needs of today.

The Rev Jack Laidlaw is convener of the Church of Scotland's education committee and a member of the religious observance working group.

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