Put away the prayers

MINISTERS of the Scottish Executive have a track record in ending compulsion in schools when compulsion has palpably failed. Modern languages illustrates the point. Ten years ago they were deemed essential and mandatory by Conservative ministers. Now a language is still essential but not compulsory, following the traditional Scottish tradition of issuing guidelines and forging consensus.

Ministers of the Church of Scotland were invited to adopt a similar approach when asked to consider ending complusion in religious observance, which has fallen into disrepute in secondaries. It may have been sidelined at the General Assembly but the question is worth pursuing. The inspectorate itself has called for a re-examination, after discovering that only one in three secondaries followed the 1991 guidance, which stipulates that observance should be once a week in primaries and once a month in secondaries and "of a broadly Christian character". That bore the hallmark of Michael Forsyth.

Douglas Osler, senior chief inspector, said last August that it was time to review "the relevance of this advice for schools in the 21st century" and set up the national review group on observance, which has hardly been conspicuous in recent months. Ten years on, it is time to match the position on languages.

As HMI points out, it is purposeful to bring pupils together regularly and encourage them to consider the spiritual dimension of their personal development and reflect on their values. The inspectors duck the ending of compulsion, although their message is clear that the intentions of the 1872 Education Act, updated by the 1991 circular, are not being fulfilled in a pluralistic, multifaith, and no faith, society. Compulsion does not work, especially when many headteachers, teachers and pupils do not subscribe to the Christian ethos.

But what will Jack McConnell do? The First Minister threw his weight behind the amendments to sex education guidelines and is unlikely to support what might be seen as further weakening of the religious position, and not in an election year. The review group on observance may take some time to reach its conclusions. Ending compulsion may not be among them, sadly.

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