Bring on the bolts of lightning . . .

6th February 1998 at 00:00
The debate on religious worship in schools is widening, reports Seonag MacKinnon

Fred Forrester has yet to be struck down by lightning for wishing to banish religious worship from non-denominational schools. As joint secretary of the Scottish Joint Committee on Religious and Moral Education, the body which oversees religious education in Scotland, he is, however, confident of a backlash from clerics, teachers and lay people supportive of the status quo.

The debate is only in its infancy. Although the call was passed at a meeting of the joint committee's executive last month, it has not yet gone to full committee.

Forrester, better known as depute general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, is not shy about stoking the fires of debate. He describes as "an ongoing irritation" and "legislative archaeology", the requirement of religious instruction and observance rooted in the 1872 Education Act.

And he describes some of the religious services in schools as "frankly a travesty". It will be hard, for example, to persuade one Church of Scotland minister he knows of, who led a voluntary service at a secondary school before Christmas, ever to do so again. Very few members of staff were present, and the pupil contingent - such as it was - consisted predominantly of those who were required in school because their attendance record was under scrutiny.

Mr Forrester says: "It was really horrific. The man is used to a congregation interested in what he has to say. There he was, not being listened to, by a disproportionate amount of problem pupils with not enough teachers to control them. This is a nonsense which should not be inflicted on any school."

The legislative requirement to instruct pupils in religious observance has mutated into a requirement merely to educate them about different religions, because everyone - including the Scottish Office - turns a blind eye to the letter of the law.

The education minister, Brian Wilson, has made it clear that he does not have legislative time to remove the more thorny requirement of religious observance.

Mr Forrester argues that schools should be given a crystal-clear definition of observance as the act of witnessing, rather than participating. Teachers would merely have to arrange opportunities for youngsters to watch services and rituals in different places of worship. Before and after the visit, pupils would receive information on beliefs and practices, on the lines of:

"The congregation is now doing x and then they will do y, because they believe z." Or "Now these people are going up to the priest for communion wafers which they believe have been turned into the body of Christ."

Committed believers could find an outlet in school for their faith in a scripture union or Christian Chapter, he argues. Mr Forrester confesses to not being a practising church-goer but claims this is irrelevant.

"Many (church) ministers are not happy with the current situation, especially the more enlightened or younger ones, or those who have had a bad experience taking a school service. A good number of moderate members of the Church of Scotland will agree with what we are saying.

"You can't be a dragooned worshipper. You are not worshipping, full stop. Somebody else may be, but you are just going through the motions."

Douglas Campbell, of Bell Baxter High School in Cupar, Fife, is one headteacher who agrees.

"I would welcome clarity. My view is that schools should not have responsibility for organising and conducting religious services. In many other countries it is a family responsibility," he says. Mr Campbell views study of religions as an important part of education and places importance on assemblies which reflect on issues of a general moral nature. But the "hymn, sermon and prayer" format is not one he favours.

Parents have not called on his school to increase the Christian content of assemblies, he says. Some have, however, asked for children to be allowed to opt out.

The Rev John Stevenson, the other joint secretary of the committee on religious and moral education, argues for the status quo. "The Government regulations are regarded as a bit woolly, but it is useful because it allows them to be interpreted in different ways in different parts of the country. What happens in Inverness may be very different from the central belt. It is very difficult to legislate for the whole country."

Services perform a function, he says, in lifting children's noses out of all that is humdrum and materialistic: "They allow young children to come together and reflect on the major issues in life, spiritual values. They create an atmosphere of thinking and learning in which, for some, worship will be possible.

"In a good school, children will take part in the service and the planning of it, make use of the expressive arts, singing, drama. It will be totally inclusive, so that a young person of faith or no faith is able to take part. Services can be uplifting."


* Active periods such as reading aloud or singing involving some or all pupils; * Although not an act of worship, incorporate some recognisable elements of this, for example bells, flowers, candles; * Make assembly as small and intimate as possible; lIdentify and celebrate things felt to have meaning and purpose in the school and wider community; * Reflect on some of the deeper aspects of life such as love, beauty, goodness, joy, compassion, injustice, evil, suffering, death; lCelebrate religious festivals as diverse as Easter, Divali and the Chinese new year; * A few minutes' meditation will not offend those for whom a prayer is inappropriate; * Themes appropriate to children's experience and understanding, which may often arise out of class topics; * Think about seating (rows? semi-circle?) and venue (hall? classroom? church?) to create an atmosphere in which children feel at ease, and; * Variation: consider, for example poetry or a visiting speaker.

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