Neil Munro reports from the General Assembly in Edinburgh
A HEADLINE from The TES Scotland - "Kirk no to Christian RE" (March 26) - was produced on the floor of the General Assembly last Friday. The report had "greatly disturbed Christian teachers", the Rev Hugh Wallace from Mount Florida, Glasgow, told the Church of Scotland's education debate in Edinburgh. Mr Wallace wanted a reaction from the Kirk's education department.
The Rev John Stevenson, general secretary of the department, said headlines did not always convey accurately the information underneath. But the report was "perfectly true in the sense that we do promote a Christian approach but Christian RE is not promoted per se by the department".
The discussion took place against the sensitive background of the Church's review of its 1972 policy on denominational education which declared that "the separation of Roman Catholic schools within the structure of public education in Scotland ought to be ended and that an integrated system of education be established".
Andrew Blake, the Kirk's education convener, said the language of that era had to be tempered. "To progress to our ultimate desire of non-denominational education, the approach must be based on persuasion not confrontation. There are many educational concerns high on parents' agenda such as standards, resources and class sizes. An interdenominational argument must not allow politicians to detract from these vital issues."
This year's report also broadens the Church's stance into a general argument that "nurture in any particular faith is the responsibility of the family and of the faith community, and not of the education system. The Church of Scotland should not depend on schools to provide that Christian education which should be part of the education programme of its congregations. It is the view of the committee that in schools religious education is not about mission or proselytising."
The education committee largely rested its case on the improved state of religious and moral education over the past 20 years. But Mr Blake acknowledged there was an ongoing fight to preserve separate RE departments in secondary schools. The Church is scrutinising HMI reports to pinpoint the extent of the neglect of RE in secondaries, particularly in the upper school.
One former teacher said he had struggled in vain to convince his head of the value of RE. "Eventually I turned to a brick wall and found I was more comfortable hitting my head against that," the Rev Leslie Donaghy from Dumbarton said.
The Kirk should be pressing for the same rights of access to schools as the Catholic Church had, the Rev John Matthews from Ruchill in Glasgow said. Many pupils in non-denominational schools were receiving no exposure to the Christian faith at all.
But his view came under attack from Jack Laidlaw, a member of the education committee and former RE adviser in Tayside. "The grass is not quite as lush in denominational schools as has been suggested and I am not sure that pressing for some kind of bogus access would resolve any problems," Mr Laidlaw said.
All the evidence from HMI was that RE had never been healthier thanks to the 5-14 programme, and it was continuing to improve.
The assembly also heard a plea from the Rev David Dutton, Stranraer, not to assume that "RE only takes place in schools with an overtly Christian ethos". This was brought home to him recently when he was visited by a "secular" group of pupils who had been brought to an awareness of issues such as baptism which would not have disgraced the assembly.
It was clear, however, that the assembly was not entirely convinced that RE was sufficiently robust to shore up the position. Craig Kirkwood, an elder from Dundee, won support for his call to integrate Christian values within the broader school curriculum, making them part of history and science as well as RE.
Dr Kirkwood said there was a danger of Christianity being marginalised if it was restricted to religious and moral education. Young people would treat it as an irrelevant "God-slot".
But Mr Blake, the retired head of Lockerbie Academy, had an easier ride on denominational schooling than he might have expected, and the committee's report was approved.