Religion - Battle lines are drawn in Scotland's holy war

15th November 2013 at 00:00
The influence that faith organisations wield over education in the country is increasingly coming under fire from secular critics. Emma Seith hears from both sides of the religious divide

Breathtaking landscapes flash up on screen, but a voiceover is telling viewers that Scotland is a spiritual wasteland, a godless society that needs to be saved.

The scene cuts to images of young volunteers from a US Christian sect working in Kirktonholme Primary School in East Kilbride, leading the children in song in the gymnasium and helping out on trips. These assistants are an asset, says Karen Baumann, depute head, talking to camera.

It is unlikely that Ms Baumann could be persuaded to repeat these remarks. Since the video was released on YouTube, the two headteachers who were job-sharing at Kirktonholme have been removed after parents complained about the school's involvement with the religious group.

The student helpers were from Adventures in Missions, a two-year programme run by the Sunset Church of Christ, based in Lubbock, Texas, for "college- aged students interested in serving the Lord through mission work". Kirktonholme was targeted as a "mission".

Parents became aware of the extent of the church's involvement in the school when children were sent home with books on creationism. The relationship had been going on for eight years. A minister from the group was on the school's chaplaincy team; students had even raised money to help build a church.

One of the books the children were sent home with was called Truth Be Told: exposing the myth of evolution. It aims to refute "the most commonly taught evolutionary ideas" and show that the universe was created by "an all-powerful God".

Transparency and consent

The Kirktonholme scandal demonstrated the need for more transparency around religious education and religious observance in schools, said Caroline Lynch, chair of the Scottish Secular Society (SSS). The body has lodged a petition with the Scottish Parliament calling for religious observance to become an "opt-in activity" - it is currently an opt-out one.

The society wants schools to send tick-box consent forms to parents at the start of each year detailing the activities due to take place under the auspices of religious observation, from assemblies and visits by clergy to trips to religious institutions and festivals. Under the plans, consent would also be sought for any additional activities organised during the year.

The SSS said: "Doing this would in fact benefit the school greatly, as they would have clear numbers for those who wish to participate in religious observation and those who require alternative activities."

However, the idea might not prove as simple as it seems. Certainly, primary and nursery school leaders' organisation the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland (AHDS) is sceptical. Such a change would "create a considerable additional administrative burden on schools without making any change to the flexibility open to children and families", said Greg Dempster, the body's general secretary.

Scottish schools are obliged to provide at least six opportunities for religious observance over the course of the school year. Government guidance also states that schools should cater for students of all faiths and none, and that parents should be informed of their right to opt out. Where a child is withdrawn, they should participate in "a worthwhile alternative activity".

But the SSS argued that parents were rarely aware of their right to withdraw children. A YouGov survey commissioned last year by Humanist Society Scotland showed that 39 per cent of parents did not know they could opt out.

The SSS also said that schools seemed "at a loss" when it came to providing suitable alternative activities. Children sat with secretaries, sharpened pencils and cleaned classrooms, the society claimed. It added that local authorities could be open to legal challenge because, although the right to opt out was present, it was "impractical and illusory".

But Iain Nisbet, head of education law at the Govan Law Centre, disagreed. The law already allowed parents to opt out without consequences, he said, adding: "I would have thought, therefore, that the courts would conclude there were sufficient safeguards in the system."

This week, the petition was continued by the Scottish Parliament's Public Petitions Committee, which decided to write to the government about some of the points raised. And the issue is unlikely to go away: the Edinburgh Secular Society (ESS) is calling for compulsory religious observance to be scrapped altogether, as is the Scottish Parent Teacher Council (SPTC).

The requirement for schools to provide opportunities for worship was outdated in a "multi-faith and no-faith society", according to the SPTC, which called for school communities to determine what was appropriate. "In some areas, this might mean religious observance, with a faith or belief element," chief executive Eileen Prior said. "In others, the focus might be on more secular `spiritual' development."

The ESS, meanwhile, said that issues related to providing suitable alternative activities and concerns over inclusiveness "could all be resolved, or at the very least greatly reduced, if (religious observance) was simply removed from schools".

The body cited research conducted into religious observance by Church of Scotland minister Ewan Aitken et al in 2008, which found that schools did not have an understanding of "non-religious `spiritual development'". The "inevitable result", the study states, is "(religious observance) of the `lowest common denominator' that gravitates to moral exhortation and communal singing rather than spiritual development".

But that research took place shortly after new government guidelines were published in 2005 aimed at taking better account of an increasingly pluralistic Scotland; today there were many examples of good practice, argued Mr Aitken, a former education spokesperson for local authorities umbrella body Cosla and a former leader of the City of Edinburgh Council.

"When the church set up schools after the Reformation, it did it so people could become the citizens we would want them to be," he said. "Maintaining religious observance in schools is not about the Church, it's about society. If society is made up of people who have had the chance to explore what they believe, it will be a better place for all of us."

High-quality religious observance added something "unique and significant" to the curriculum, argued Sandy Fraser, convener of the Church of Scotland Education Committee. It helped people to feel secure in and communicate their beliefs and values, as well as developing their emotional well-being and understanding of, and respect for, others.

The minister did, however, concede that "the very phrase `religious observance' creates difficulties for some" and said that a name change to "time for reflection" would be "very helpful".

Encouraging independent thinking

When the SSS petition came before a parliamentary committee, MSP Jackson Carlaw asked whether it would be better to encourage children to become independent thinkers, as opposed to removing them from religious observation. "Imposing a view that no one should be exposed to any kind of religious education is itself a rather doctrinaire approach," he said.

Ms Lynch countered that the SSS had no issue with the teaching of religious and moral education, but said that religious observance was different because it constituted "active participation in religion".

The society is now in the process of compiling a database containing details of how religious education and religious observance are tackled in every school in the country, which it hopes to make available to parents online.

It has also been putting pressure on the government to issue "immediate and clear" guidance for schools prohibiting the discussion of creationism, intelligent design and similar ideas as viable alternatives to scientific theories on the origins of the universe and evolution. This would bring Scotland into line with England and Wales, the society argued.

But the Scottish government has rejected the call. In his response, Alasdair Allan, minister for learning, science and Scotland's languages, said that what was taught in schools was at the discretion of the headteacher, based on the eight areas within Curriculum for Excellence. Creationism was not a scientific theory or a topic on the curriculum, he said, adding that all teachers had the "capacity and wherewithal to intelligently answer questions from young people about creation".

The ESS, meanwhile, has lodged a separate petition with the Scottish Parliament, calling for an end to the legal obligation on local authorities to appoint three unelected religious representatives to sit on their education committees, a practice the society described as "profoundly undemocratic". The independent MSP John Finnie has also lodged his own proposal for a private members bill that would strip such religious representatives of their voting rights.

The ESS has, in addition, criticised the increase in chaplaincy teams attached to schools.

So how should schools go about striking the right balance? One example of good practice, Ms Lynch said, was Jordanhill School in Glasgow - the only non-specialist state school directly funded by the Scottish government.

Jordanhill's religious observance policy is published on its website. In it, parents are informed of who the school chaplain is, told that there are six opportunities for religious observance throughout the year, and informed about what these are and where they will take place. The document also tells parents of their right to withdraw their child.

But Jordanhill's rector, Paul Thomson, said that the policy was not dissimilar to those posted on local authority websites, although they might not be displayed by individual schools.

"Setting to one side the merits of religious aspects of religious observance events, these activities are learning opportunities for young people," he said. "They learn, for instance, how to conduct themselves in the formal setting of a church, which is an important life skill; likewise, a mosque or a synagogue.

"Whatever your personal views might be, it is important that if you are in such a place, you learn the conventions of that establishment and to have respect for other people's beliefs."

39% Proportion of parents in a 2012 poll who did not realise they had the right to withdraw their child from religious observance.

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