No offence, but what do you really believe?

13th December 2002 at 00:00
Religious observance is still a thorny issue for schools, but the latest report on it is misguided, says Fred Forrester

The late Ian MacInnes of Orkney, one of the best EIS debaters of his time, once memorably told the union's annual conference that a particular motion was so full of woolly thinking that "delegates could use it to stuff their downies".

This was at the University of Stirling, where punters were accommodated in single study bedrooms with duvets - something of an innovation in the early Seventies.

I thought of this when reading the report of the Religious Observance Review Group, set up by Jack McConnell as Education Minister in August 2001 and chaired by Anne Wilson, director of education for Dundee. This is a lightweight document that dances round the issue without coming to grips with it.

It is part of a tradition of discussing religious observance without offending any of the vested interests. Unless the position is tightened up during the consultation exercise, which runs until February 12, we'll be no further forward and religious observance (RO) will continue to wither on the vine.

The first problem with RO is to define it. Successive Education Acts, while making RO compulsory in schools, have signally failed to provide a working definition. The review group does not take us much further. It says RO consists of "community acts which aim to promote the spiritual development of all members of the school community and express and celebrate the shared values of the school community".

How many of us know what "spiritual development" means? It trips easily off the tongue or the pen, but it is completely elusive as an educational concept. I wonder, also, about "the shared values of the school community". The work of all schools is driven by the curriculum, formal, informal and hidden, but it is extraordinarily difficult to construct an assembly or other event that meaningfully reflects these various aspects. It is arguably possible in a denominational school but completely impractical in schools that are non-denominational, secular and multicultural.

The review group does make the useful statement that "the appropriate context for an organised act of worship" is as "part of the range of activities offered for example by religions, groups, chaplains and other religious leaders".

In other words, worship is an extra-curricular activity outside the mainstream programme of the school and perhaps outside the school day. Yet the group insists that assemblies or year gatherings should allow the school community "to reflect upon a range of stimuli from religious traditions and other sources such as literature, art and music".

When it considers the audience for these events, the group speculates that some of those present may be involved in a form of worship while others are engaged in "meditation and reflection on what it is to be human". As a template for an event in an educational community, this is ludicrous.

The one exemplar that the group provides for an RO event is a morality tale from the Muslim tradition. After the story has been read or acted, the audience is invited to answer questions and draw conclusions about their own values and behaviour. If this story is to be included in the school programme, it should be under religious and moral education (RME).

Indeed, one problem of RO is the damage it inflicts on RME as a respectable academic subject struggling to win status in a competitive and overcrowded curriculum. I know that many specialist RME teachers share my view on this, though they are sometimes wary of saying so too openly.

Now there are occasions when a school community may wish to mark a particular event, whether a happy one or a sad one. With tragic events, in particular, there is a temptation to reach out to the trans-substantial and to include a prayer and a hymn. This is understandable but is ultimately damaging to the development of a genuine school ethos. Many non-religious bodies (sports clubs, political parties, etc) are capable of marking collectively the death of a member in a way that is dignified and yet non-offensive to those without a religious belief.

I hope that the Scottish Executive will use this insubstantial and misguided report and the associated consultation on it as a means of ridding Scottish schools of inherited hypocrisy while supporting the development of RME and citizenship as important features of the primary and secondary curriculum.

Fred Forrester is former depute general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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