AST week I met a school chaplain from one of the smaller Protestant denominations. In one of the primary schools known to him, only three pupils out of 90 have any connection with a church. This will not be a surprise to anyone involved in Scottish education. It does, however, represent a massive shift in the position that would have existed even a generation ago, when a sizeable percentage of children would have contact with a church, because of involvement in the Sunday school, Boys' Brigade or similar organisations, or because their parents attended at least occasionally.
When I went to primary school in 1970, almost all of my classmates knew the basic Bible stories - Adam and Eve, Noah and his Ark, David and Goliath - and about Jesus. Even those whose parents had no religious faith were familiar with the essentials of Christianity. The position today is quite different, with most pupils having encountered the name of Jesus Christ only as a profanity.
In light of this seismic shift in attitudes, many people of faith, and indeed many without, will have read with dismay the views of the Rev Ewan Aitken, education leader on Edinburgh City Council (Platform, March 1). Mr Aitken argues that religious education should be phased out as a separate subject, and replaced with discussion on beliefs and moral decision-making.
Religious and moral education has come a long way in the past 20 years. Now available at Standard grade and Higher, there is an opportunity for those with a special interest to pursue their studies in the subject. However, for the majority of pupils RME will be limited to one period a week. As far as the religious element goes, there is usually a study of comparative religions. But the emphasis is on Christianity.
Ewan Aitken's contribution allows us to ask the question: should religion be taught in schools at all? Humanists would no doubt argue that it should not, and will take comfort from his views. However, I believe there is an understanding among Scottish parents, even those who have no faith themselves, that our Judaeo-Christian heritage is the foundation of much of modern society, and that it is entirely appropriate that children should learn the basis of the Christian religion. With growing ethnic minorities, it is also appropriate that other world religions be taught, in proportion to their strength within our society.
Schools should not be places where there is evangelisation of children. But most parents want to see their children taught the fundamentals of Christianity, and other faiths, and see schools as the place where this should be done. Of course, all parents retain the right to remove their children from RME if they have an objection to the content of the teaching.
Mr Aitken's view that the exploration of belief should replace teaching about religion is in line with a body of opinion within our churches which takes the view that there are no longer any certainties in the world, and that God is what you want Him (or Her) to be. Interestingly, it tends to be churches, and individual congregations, which take this liberal view that are losing members the fastest. The churches today reporting success in recruiting members tend to be more fundamentalist in nature. But one does not need to be an evangelical to see the value of religious education in the curriculum.
Mr Aitken argues against faith schools. There is a wider debate to be had here, but what should be undisputed is the right of parents to choose an appropriate education for their children. If they wish to send them to a Catholic school, because it has a particular religious and moral ethos, who is the state to refuse them? What we should be doing is encouraging greater diversity within the state system, as exists in England, not closing down the options available to parents.
In Scotland today, the number of people with a church connection continues to decline at an alarming level. If we do not have RME then our youngsters will lose all contact with a rich religious heritage, and with it the opportunity for a journey of self-exploration. Rather than arguing against it, and then being surprised when people start losing faith in the church, ministers like Mr Aitken should see RME as a vital part of the curriculum to be safeguarded and encouraged.
Murdo Fraser MSP is the Scottish Conservative Party's deputy spokesman on education and chairman of the Scottish Conservatives and Churches Forum.