7th September 2001 at 01:00
As the Scottish Executive prepares to review religious observance in schools, Raymond Ross reports that in today's multicultural and secular Scotland, the relevance of Christian assemblies is questioned and more flexibility is proposed

The majority of non-denominational secondary schools in Scotland are failing to provide time for religious observance, according to an HMI report published last month. In particular they are disregarding the Government's 1991 circular that whole school assemblies "of a broadly Christian character" be held on a monthly basis.

Dundee's director of education, Anne Wilson, is to head a religious observance review group to look into the matter. One thing she may find in both secular Scotland and some church quarters is resistance to the very idea that religious observance ought to include some form of worship.

While many headteachers and school chaplains welcome the inquiry, many other heads - not to mention pupils - are less than enamoured with the idea of a formal role for religion in non-denominational schools.

Canny heads who oppose the national guidelines may well keep below the parapet or at best speak out anonymously.

One headteacher admits: "I think religious assemblies should be done away with, as should religion in schools altogether. There should certainly not be any compulsion with regard to observance or religious and moral education.

"I don't see the point in telling children there is life after death. It's all nonsense."

Another headteacher, of a special school, tells of his first attempt to meet the 1991 national guidelines on observance: "The older pupils told us to stuff it up our anatomies."

Atheism and bolshie adolescence are only two aspects of a complex problem which the review group must seek to resolve.

The problem is basically a historical one. How does what was deemed essential in the 1872 Education Act fit with a largely secular and increasingly multicultural Scotland?

"The Act of 1872, which is the basis of it all, talks in terms of instruction, though now we talk of education," says the Rev Gordon McCracken, Church of Scotland minister for Whitburn South and chaplain to Burnhouse Special School (and Polkemmet Primary) in West Lothian.

"I don't think observance has ever been compulsory. Originally the Act probably meant catechism by 'instruction'. We need to review the wording. It's ambiguous and unhelpful and a review is overdue to clear up what the actual expectations are and what exactly is meant by terms like observation, worship and instruction."

The Rev Jack Laidlaw, convenor of the Church of Scotland's education committee and a former religious education adviser, argues similarly that "the whole issue has been hanging around since as far back as 1872" but he points to former education minister Michael Forsyth's 1991 circular as causing the present day "tension".

"When Forsyth's circular spoke of 'broadly Christian' assemblies, it seemed to many to set up a tension between a spirit of open enquiry in the RME classroom and what seemed to be a piece of faith-led religious observance,"he says.

"While the content of assemblies must include the young person, it is only legitimate as an act of religious observance if the young person is invited to take part, not forced to.

"Worship is a problematic word. You can't force allegiance to a particular faith or form of worship. Worship is something that happens in a faith community, not in a non-denominational, multicultural school. This is not an opinion. It's a fact."

Richard Holloway, the former Episcopal Bishop of Edinburgh, says: "I find the term 'broadly Christian' worrying. It's a catch-all for all points of view.

"There is a place for using assemblies in a broadly human way to talk about life issues and meaning issues without proselytising but while including Christian views. But I'm nervous about subliminally pushing an ideology at kids in a non-faith school."

Bishop Holloway recalls his own childhood school assemblies as "dire and painful". He adds: "It's difficult to do a good assembly and the abilities required are closer to theatre and rhetoric than to teaching. It's a very precise art. It's no good pouring pap over kids once a month. You have to get their attention and hold it or they'll just tune out."

Leaving aside the question of "pap", how can a school with a multi-faith or multi-ethnic population reconcile a diverse constituency with assemblies of a broadly Christian character?

In Edinburgh, 15 to 20 per cent of Drummond Community High School's pupils are Muslim, while the majority of pupils claim no religious affiliations.

Acting head Muriele Buchanan says: "We have two assemblies a month, a full assembly led by the senior management team and a house assembly led by guidance. We deal with moral issues but it's certainly not religious or doctrinal.

"We don't go in for worship in any formal religious sense at assemblies, though we do make special arrangements for any religious groups to make their own observance. For example, we set aside a room for prayer during Ramadan and we acknowledge main festivals such as Christmas and Eid.

"It is inappropriate for us to have Christian worship in our assemblies, though they are important as an opportunity for raising the school ethos. And I have to say, our pupils take pride in the multicultural nature of their school."

Arguing that Christian worship or observance is inappropriate will not necessarily win over school inspectors. The head of Bellahouston Academy in Glasgow, Jim Cassells, says: "After our inspection in 1997, the HMI report said it wished us to follow national guidelines for a broadly Christian observance. But this is something we find difficult to do when a third of our pupils are either Muslim, Sikh, Hindu or Buddhist.

"According to the guidelines - circular 691, paragraph 7 - policy on religious observance should be formulated in discussion with your school board. Our school board is broadly representative of our multi-ethnic community and they wrote to the inspectorate saying that, given the religious diversity in the school, they firmly believed that religious observance of a broadly Christian character could be divisive.

"But HMI will not move on this and I'm as uncomfortable with the present guidelines as my school board is.

"I see the importance of religious and moral education to give an understanding of all religions and for pupils to undertake their own search. We can give opportunities for private thought and prayer, but I don't see where observance or worship comes in. Corporate worship is not possible."

The problem is also one of definition. What is meant by "broadly Christian"?

"We have to ask what do we mean by spirituality in a school? This is what we have to move forward on," says Mr Laidlaw. "We can share spirituality by sharing a sense of awe and wonder, by sharing what challenges and moves us in life and by, for example, exploring issues of justice. But, strictly speaking, you cannot worship together without at least some doctrinal agreement and that is not present in non-denominational schools.

"The most you can do is, from time to time, to take account of what Christians believe without asking pupils to sign up to it."

Broadly Christian observance for many schools means little more than acknowledging festivals such as Christmas and Easter.

Even in a rural school such as Lockerbie Academy, where there are very few pupils from a non-Christian religious faith, assistant headteacher Barbara Lewis says assemblies focus on exploring issues such as doing your best, respect and consideration for others and caring for the environment, all of which she describes as Christian ethics, rather than focusing on worship per se.

"A lot of our pupils come from wee villages where the minister is still very important and a lot of our staff are committed Christians. Two or three times a year we do take the pupils to the local kirk. Very few opt out, including our Catholic pupils, and we always hold a Remembrance Day service, which I feel is important," she says.

Like Bellahouston, the size of Lockerbie's school roll (800) means whole school assemblies are impossible and even the church visits require two cohorts.

Similarly, Mr McCracken says: "We try to exercise a pastoral ministry, though observance does take place following the major festivals, but I don't know of any secondary school in West Lothian which has a monthly assembly which could be deemed worship or observance."

Mr Laidlaw says: "Assemblies are problematic because of the size of the audience and a lot depends on how well the pupils know or can relate to the person taking it. Our experience shows that the more successful assemblies are those in which pupils take part."

The idea of participation is catching on and many schools now have at least some pupil-led assemblies. At Christmas time, pupils often give the readings as well as providing the choir.

However, many headteachers (or senior managers) who are not committed Christians find the idea of leading a religious assembly embarrassing if not hypocritical.

"As a Christian non-church-goer, and there are a lot of us," says one head, "I would feel self-conscious putting over a point of view I don't actually practise."

Whatever the review group recommends, it would seem flexibility and consensus will be paramount.


The school's relationship with its chaplain - where there is one - forms an important part of the religious observance debate. The Rev Jack Laidlaw, convener of the Church of Scotland's education committee and a former religious education adviser, says: "Chaplains are appointed by schools themselves but religious observance remains the responsibility of the headteacher, though it is often handed over to the chaplain, especially in secondary schools."

That handing over may well suggest a shifting of responsibility rather than a genuine partnership, and while church ministers may well be skilled in addressing large audiences, these are not necessarily young audiences.

Moreover, Mr Laidlaw's point about the person taking assembly being someone the pupils can relate to or know well, coupled with the rhetoricaltheatrical skills that Richard Holloway, the former Episcopal Bishop of Edinburgh, sees as important, suggests that in the case of school chaplains both further training andor a closer relationship with the school might be necessary.

Three years ago the Church of Scotland produced a Chaplains in Schools handbook to offer some guidance to its chaplains and they are exploring the idea of specific training.

"There's a need for local authorities and churches to devote resources to training school chaplains," agrees the Rev Gordon McCracken, the Church of Scotland minister for Whitburn South and chaplain to Burnhouse Special School in West Lothian. "A lot of ours are not trained at all."

This is not a matter of ministers going into schools "with the idea of converting the heathen", he says jokingly. Rather that chaplains are a pastoral and community resource which schools could make much more use of.

In country areas, he argues, the role of chaplain tends to fall to the parish minister; but in more populous areas he sees a future for team chaplaincies and argues that all churches and faith groups should receive adequate training as far as possible.

The Rev Jean Gallacher, school chaplain and parish minister in Dunnipace, Stirling, is researching the role of the chaplain for a doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary in the United States.

"We must explore new models," she says. "In a multicultural community the idea of a collective multifaith chaplaincy, including Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian, might well be the way forward. Speaking personally, I'd certainly recommend it. What I don't want is no chaplaincy at all.

"There should always be a place for observance in schools, ideally shaped and formed by the pupils where they can explore their own faith or sense of natural enquiry.

"I'm delighted the review group has been set up. I'm not negative at all. I feel we're on the threshold of something positive.

"Faith should always be living and growing and the bottom line must always be to do what is good for the pupils."


The March 1991 circular on religious education and observance says: "Religious observance" refers to occasions set aside for different forms of worship I The Secretary of State (for Scotland) is of the view that religious education and religious observance are valid and important educational experiences at all stages in primary and secondary schools I The Secretary of State considers that religious observance I is an important contribution to pupils' spiritual development I In non-denominational schools religious observance should be of a broadly Christian character. But where appropriate, schools may wish to organise special acts of observance for particular religions I All (primary) pupils should take part in religious observance not less than once a week. The precise form of observation will be determined by school policy I in individual classes, or by stage or as a whole school I All (secondary) pupils should take part in religious observance at least once a month and preferably with greater frequency I there should be opportunities for year, stage or whole school observance I The Secretary of State recognises the valuable contribution to school life which can be made by the active participation of a chaplain or team of chaplains. The main involvement of chaplains should be in the planning and conduct of religious observance, in pastoral duties with staff and pupils I

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