It is not our job to dictate on religion

31st January 2003 at 00:00
The Education Minister, Cathy Jamieson, recently announced there was to be a new consultation exercise on religious observance. She stated that schools were finding it difficult to deliver this aspect of school life in a meaningful way. The First Minister, Jack McConnell, has stimulated debate on the future of denominational schools.

I totally agree with the need for a review of religious observance. In Kilsyth Academy, we meet the guidelines by having a fortnightly religious assembly for each year group conducted by one of our team of chaplains.

Let me indicate what happens. At 08:50 our warning bell rings and the pupils of a year group enter the hall to sit in their classes. At 08:55 the start of day bell rings and form teachers arrive to take the register. The assistant headteacher in charge of the year group meets the minister briefly and after a few seconds they enter the hall.

The AHT delivers urgent intimations and announcements and hands over to the chaplain, who then gives a short talk followed by a very short prayer.

Usually the assembly overruns and the 09:03 bell has rung before the minister has finished. The pupils will have sat in absolute silence during the assembly. Observation of their faces shows the blankness of thoughts far away. The chaplains usually express satisfaction with the assembly and with the children's attitude.

I have doubts as to whether an outsider would view this as religious observance. Indeed, during our last HMI inspection the lay observer commented that the assembly she saw was "devoid of any religious experience". This was one of the comments excised from the final report which expressed satisfaction about the religious observance input. That chaplain is no longer with us.

We have two Muslims on our roll, no Jews, no Sikhs, no Rastafarians and a large number of Roman Catholics. No religious observance input is delivered specifically for these faiths. Our Jehovah's Witnesses have decided they might as well attend our religious assemblies as sit for eight minutes in a classroom by themselves.

I am not unhappy with the delivery by our chaplain team. Attempts by previous team members to brighten the events with guitar playing, audience participation and Bible reading have all met with varying degrees of failure, and consequential embarrassment for the attending teachers.

We deliver religious education competently and each child has four years of education related to the variety of religions in the world and the meaning of faith. In S2 they even visit a church (a novel experience to the majority) as part of their course.

Our seniors voted several years ago that they did not want RE as part of the compulsory elements in their S56 course and we accepted that.

Religious fervour does not play a big part in the life of Kilsyth Academy.

This does not mean that the pupils behave in an unchristian way to each other. I am convinced that the relationships and moral standards within our school bear comparison with any other, whether Roman Catholic or not.

Our ethos is one of being open and friendly to all other members of the school community - staff and pupils. We follow all the Christian tenets apart from the insistence on belief in a particular faith or in any faith.

In the 21st century, should we not accept that for a huge number of people, Scotland is no longer a Christian country? One only has to visit the new "religious centres" of Braehead on the outskirts of Glasgow or The Gyle in Edinburgh on a Sunday morning to realise the change that has taken place.

It is surely no longer the job of schools to try to demonstrate one type of religious belief to young people. Is that not a role for parents or grandparents?

In the United States schools are secular. This does not seem to make the country less religious than the UK. As visitors will know, church attendance and levels of religious adherence in the USA are much higher than in Scotland. Perhaps the two are linked.

Lack of space, or perhaps courage, prevents me from raising thoughts about the need for separate religious schools in Scotland. I know that my comments will reinforce the views of Catholic colleagues that the need for Catholic schools continues, if only to save their children from the hands of people like Mitchell.

John Mitchell is headteacher of Kilsyth Academy, North Lanarkshire. If you have any comments, email week: Sheilah Jackson, head of Queensferry Primary, Edinburgh

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