Philosophy should replace religious observance in Scottish schools, delegates heard at an event that put the value of traditional faith-based assemblies under the spotlight.
Small discussion groups allowing pupils of all ages to decide which moral and ethical issues to explore would be far preferable to whole-school celebrations of Christian holidays, according to Claire Cassidy, a senior lecturer at the University of Strathclyde's School of Education.
Religious observance - which schools must offer at least six times a year - is a legacy of 19th-century education legislation. Speakers at the event described how it had changed over time to become less overtly faith-based, with many schools preferring to call it "time for reflection" and one even dubbing it "a party with the headteacher".
"That's the key - that it's non-religious. If we tag it with a religious label then it becomes something different," Dr Cassidy told TESS.
Rather than large assemblies, she would prefer children to work in settings where "everyone can see and hear each other". On this point, she found common ground with Reverend Sally Foster-Fulton, convener of the Church of Scotland's Church and Society Council, who said: "If young people are sitting by themselves for 45 minutes at a time in a school assembly, we really need to do better than that."
Philosophical discussion might be stimulated by an article, a visiting speaker or a television programme, Dr Cassidy said, but the direction of debate should largely be determined by pupils. "The ownership of the dialogue should belong to the children: there's no one there proselytising, there's no one telling them what they should think," she added.
Susan Leslie, a lecturer in religious and moral education at the University of Dundee, pointed out that the last major review of religious observance, more than a decade ago, could be criticised for not including "a humanist perspective". Delegates at the event in Edinburgh, A Time for Reflection on Religious Observance?, also heard that former education minister Michael Forsyth's 1991 circular saying that religious observance should be "broadly Christian" still applied.
The focus on Christianity in schools "breeds tokenism", Dr Cassidy said, and Easter festivals and nativity plays were a form of "preaching" which did not encourage children to question the nature of faith as philosophical discussion groups would.
She added: "I don't think it's about questioning, I don't think it's about thinking.People have fun [with nativities] and like seeing their kids, so it sounds a wee bit mean, but there are other ways we can display their children's talents."
Call for `collective wisdom'
Reverend Foster-Fulton, meanwhile, said that religious observance would have the biggest impact if it "called on the collective wisdom of the whole community".
Her comments came days after it was reported that hundreds of pupils at East Lothian's North Berwick High School had signed a petition protesting against assemblies where Christianity was emphasised to the exclusion of other religions.
Reverend Steve Younger, a Baptist minister and academic who is finishing a PhD on spiritual development within Curriculum for Excellence, said it was a common misconception that religious observance allowed evangelism and proselytising; in fact, these were "not permissible". He also told delegates that chaplains of any kind had no right to enter schools and could do so only with the permission of a headteacher.
Delegates also heard that although it had always been possible to opt out of religious observance, few families did so. The results of an Edinburgh survey on the issue, shared at the event, showed that 160 pupils had opted out across 89 city primary schools, and 11 students at 23 secondaries.
`Fear' of evangelism
At the event, Dave Bremner, chairman of Christian charity Go! Youth Trust, talked about working with schools in Falkirk.
He said that his was an "unapologetically evangelical organisation", and that he found headteachers were "very timid and fearful" about inviting in religious speakers.
The charity's activities include personal development programmes for children with challenging behaviour lasting from six to 10 weeks; one-to-one mentoring, primarily with boys; and extracurricular programmes.
"We don't think religious observance can be done well until you understand the community you're trying to serve," he said. "We see religious observance as being one small cog in what we do...When I think about the people I know who do religious observance well, it's people who are constantly in the school, who know the pupils, who know the staff, who know the parents, and who form a part of the community of that school."