Kirk presses tardy minister

17th September 2004 at 01:00
A demand for the Education Minister to issue his promised circular on religious observance in schools was made by leading Church of Scotland figures last week.

David Alexander, convener of the Church's education committee, said it feared education authorities would not take action on the findings of the religious observance review group, published in May, until they saw the terms of the circular.

Susan Leslie, head of the Kirk's education department, suggested that, such were the sensitivities surrounding the matter, the Scottish Executive might delay its circular until it digested the reactions to the material on religious observance to be developed by Learning and Teaching Scotland.

Mr Alexander said the committee intended writing to the minister asking him to speed up the process so the momentum of the review group's report would not be lost. It would also be pressing the point on authorities.

A spokesperson for the Executive told The TES Scotland: "The circular is currently being worked on. We are aware of the need to get the circular out as soon as possible to allow people to take forward the recommendations of the review group, and we hope to issue it in the next couple of months."

The Church has, broadly, lined up behind the group's recommendations, and Mr Alexander said it anticipated the circular would not depart from them - although it is, of course, only guidance with no statutory backing.

The review group recommended that primary schools be brought into line with secondaries and provide opportunities for religious observance at least six times a year. This would be in addition to other celebrations "central to the life of the school".

Mr Alexander told church reps on council education committees that he believed religious observance would be strengthened if the report's recommendations, reinforced by representations from the Church, were adopted.

In particular, formal acts of worship could be held in schools if chaplains pressed the case and the school agreed. It would also no longer be possible for religious observance to be part of an assembly dealing with routine school matters, as it often is.

Mr Alexander challenged the "rosy picture" of past practice in religious observance which, in his time as a pupil, often consisted of little more than "rectorial rants".

He suggested that, if the report is implemented, headteachers could not excuse the absence of religious observance by saying that chaplains were not available.

But Mr Alexander conceded that there are Church of Scotland ministers who want nothing to do with chaplaincy, and some headteachers who are also hostile to religious observance.

Meanwhile, the Church is pressing for "contemplation areas" to be set up in non-denominational schools, particularly in those being modernised and rebuilt under the Executive's pound;2 billion public private partnership (PPP) programme.

Mr Alexander, a former senior depute director of education in Strathclyde and now an adviser on school building and design, said that most authorities are considering contemplation rooms of 60 sq metres, divisible into two, which is acceptable as the average size of a classroom.

Pressure to dedicate space where pupils could have "reflection time" has been led by Ewan Aitken, the Church of Scotland minister who is executive member for children and families on Edinburgh City Council and education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

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