THE Church of Scotland should not control religious education in non-denominational schools and "has no wish to do so", Andrew McLellan, the outgoing moderator, said ahead of the General Assembly which opens this weekend.
The Church was a "huge resource" to draw on but teachers remain the best people to control education, the Rt Rev McLellan said in a TES Scotland interview. "Schools are a public service in which all people have a right to feel they are completely and freely served and that there is no special treatment given to one group of teachers or one group of pupils."
Mr McLellan was responding to comments at the Roman Catholic secondary heads' conference in which the Church of Scotland came under fire for its alleged lack of action on education. Jack McConnell, Education Minister, rejected any criticism while indicating he may act to reinforce the spiritual dimension of non-denominational schools.
"I am absolutely delighted Mr McConnell is affirming the value of religious education and spiritual development and I believe passionately that religious education is a core element of decent, civilised people," Mr McLellan said. "I believe opportunities for spiritual development are exciting and have such potential for growth that it is in the interests of every school to encourage them."
However, he believed the different structural arrangements in the Catholic sector made it more appropriate for the Catholic Church to be "in partnership" with teachers of religious education.
"I think our Church in the past has shown both imaginatin and commitment in providing support to non-denominational schools," Mr McLellan said. "Mr McConnell may be right that more could be done at local level but what would be very helpful indeed is if he could make it possible for all headteachers to be as encouraging to school chaplains as some headteachers are."
Mr McLellan's wife teaches in a Catholic secondary in the capital and he retains a favourable view of the sector's contribution. But he maintains the party line. "As long as we have Catholic schools, Catholic schools are a very good thing. It is the view of our Church and General Assembly that the more we can do to create all-inclusive schools in Scotland, the better. That is a carefully thought-out view in terms of educational practice and the nature of Scottish society," he said.
As a former Liberal councillor in Greenock, Mr McLellan has never been afraid to touch on political matters and expresses "disappointment" that Government practice has yet to match its mantra of education, education, education. "But I do have hopes that the Scottish Parliament is more and more recognising that this is what all Scottish people think should be a priority," he said.
"I wish we could be more generous as a nation to the funding of students - but that's another matter."
Back on his tours, Mr McLellan has found an "astonishing" interest in religious education in secondaries, both in S1 and S2 and in RE as an examination subject. "In primary schools, I saw much less sign than I had expected that religious education was being ignored."