Another wasted opportunity

31st January 2003 at 00:00
When I heard through the grapevine that a Church of Scotland spokesperson would be replying to my article on religious observance, I expected that I would get a drubbing. However, Jack Laidlaw (TESS, January 24) lets me off lightly. There is little in his article with which I would take issue.

In Circular 691, the Scottish Office's education department used all its ingenuity to persuade us that religious observance should be an educational experience. As Jack Laidlaw observes, this was far removed from the prayers and the Presbyterian school services at the time of the 1872 Education Act.

The problem for headteachers from 1991 onwards was that the content and format of new-style religious observance was exceedingly vague. There was confusion between religious observance and secular school assemblies, a fudging in which headteachers quickly took refuge. The problem with "educational religious observance" is that the educational content is rightly seen as belonging to religious and moral education.

Mr Laidlaw says that the current working group was precluded from considering whether the 1872 provisions should simply be repealed. Well, if that was what they believed, they should have had the courage to say so, regardless of their restricted remit.

Now we have Mr Laidlaw, who was a member of the group, saying that its principal recommendation requires "unpacking in a Scottish context". That is a kind way of putting it. The best he can sayabout his group's consultation paper is that it is offering "a formula that is potentially much more inclusive but not formally religious". As guidance for a headteacher who is planning a programme of religious observance events, the group's formula is useless.

Mr Laidlaw acknowledges that many headteachers and school chaplains "feel traditional school assembly is difficult and irrelevant to the needs of today". He also comes close to admitting that "the label religious observance is no longer appropriate".

So we very much need an honest appraisal of the relevance of this archaic legislation (the only survivor of the 1872 Act) to the Scottish education system of today. Regretfully, the working group does not provide this. Its report is another wasted opportunity.

Fred Forrester North Larches, Dunfermline

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