Any advice from Peter Peacock about sustaining religious observance "of a broadly Christian character" may be ignored or adapted by local authorities and schools.
David Alexander, convener of the Church of Scotland's education committee, on Tuesday cautioned the General Assembly in Edinburgh that a forthcoming circular on observance carried no certainty that headteachers would follow the guidance.
The Education Minister has promised to issue a fresh circular to back up the recommendations of the religious observance review group, chaired by Anne Wilson, education director in Dundee. Its report was finally published last Friday, although the Scottish Executive view was released late last month (TESS, April 30).
Mr Peacock, backed by Jack McConnell, the First Minister, tweaked the review group's recommendations by firming up that observance should be within Scotland's Christian traditions, a move that has drawn criticism from some quarters and praise from others.
But Mr Alexander, a former depute director of education in Strathclyde Region, cautioned commissioners on the Mound: "Circulars have no legal standing, offering guidance that can be accepted, rejected or amended.
Circular 691 was altered substantially by many of the former regional authorities."
The previous 1991 circular carried the hallmark of Michael Forsyth, the former Tory education minister, who beefed up observance by emphasising its "broadly Christian character" and stipulating that observance or assemblies should take place at least once a week in primaries and once a month in secondaries.
Schools, as HMI subsequently highlighted, ignored the advice, particularly in the secondary sector. Any new circular was only the first step in providing a better form of spiritual development, Mr Alexander said.
He told commissioners there was "no golden age" for observance. "My experience as a pupil in the late 50s and 60s is not a particularly spiritual one. It consisted of an assembly, weekly, where we sang a hymn, had a prayer and occasionally the chaplain spoke.
"The assembly was preceded by what was quaintly known as religious instruction, which consisted of learning a hymn for the following week's assembly. If we did not know that hymn word perfect, we were belted."
Never at any time was there a spiritual discussion about the meaning of the hymns. "The information that we have suggests that the world has not changed much. Indeed religious observance in most of the schools is honoured more in the breach than in the observance and that which is observed is not particularly good. It is time to move on because young people deserve a better form of spiritual development."
Mr Alexander's predecessor as education convener, the Rev Jack Laidlaw, reinforced the message that observance had to mean something to pupils and warned against a hardline approach when responsibility for promoting the Church lay with its members.
"We cannot force the schools to do something that is really the task for us to do within our communities," Mr Laidlaw said.
The Rev Bill Wallace, a school chaplain in Wick, disagreed. "We are getting forced into a corner where we are being told to dumb down our Christianity in our presentation. In a recent census, in Scotland today only 1 per cent practise a faith other than Christianity. The vast majority of people subscribe to the Christian faith and we should not be ashamed of that," Mr Wallace said.
However, Alison Campbell, Edinburgh, said Scotland's Christian tradition was obvious. "I do not think we need to rub this in people's faces and this harks back to an attitude of mind that caused problems in the past," she said.
Commissioners backed the education committee's proposals.