Religion - Parent group backs end to forced worship
Rules that compel Scottish schools to offer opportunities for religious observance should be scrapped and replaced with a secular focus on developing "the whole person", a leading parent group has said.
The compulsory requirement for schools to provide chances for worship are outdated in a "multi-faith and no-faith society", according to the Scottish Parent Teacher Council (SPTC).
"The concept of religious observance has been watered down in an attempt to fit it to Scotland as it is today," said Eileen Prior, the SPTC executive director. "We feel the time has come to remove the compulsory requirement for religious observance in schools and replace it with a more secular duty for the development of the whole person, as recognised in the curriculum."
The controversial move came as the Scottish Secular Society announced plans to compile a database of information on the role that religion plays in every school in the country.
The society is petitioning the Scottish Parliament to change the law so that parents can opt in to religious observance, rather than having to opt out, even in denominational schools.
Currently, Scottish schools are obliged to provide at least six opportunities for religious observance during the course of the school year. Government guidance states that schools should cater for students of all faiths and none, and that parents should be informed of their right to opt out.
A survey commissioned last year by the Humanist Society Scotland showed that almost 40 per cent of parents did not know about their right to opt out. Meanwhile, the Scottish Secular Society maintains that most parents have no idea what religious observance in school actually involves.
The SPTC said it had reviewed the Scottish Secular Society's petition, and had received conflicting opinions about what should happen next. Overall, the council felt that it was the appropriate time for change.
"We think the nature, organisation, venue and frequency of school-based religious gatherings should be determined locally, with the agreement of the school community," Ms Prior said.
"In some areas, this might mean religious observance, with a faith or belief element. In others, the focus might be on more secular `spiritual' development."
Secularists hope that allowing parents to opt in to religious observance, rather than opt out, will increase transparency.
The Scottish Secular Society has written to every school in the country with 23 questions that it hopes will shed light on their religious practices. These include what religious observance and religious education involve; who they are delivered by; the details of any groups invited in to school to support delivery; and whether the school has a chaplaincy team, and who is on it.
The responses will be collated for a database that parents will be able to search.
Caroline Lynch, chair of the society, said: "This is the kind of information that parents should have access to, but at the moment don't.
"Some Scottish schools adopt a `time for reflection' model for religious observance, where it's not about religion but the connectedness of humanity and what makes us human. However, in other schools religious observance is about singing hymns and prayer, and there are schools that invite in evangelical groups who terrorise the children and preach all kinds of noxious views."
However, primary headteachers' body the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland has argued that a change from opt out to opt in would "create a considerable additional administrative burden on schools without making any change to the flexibility open to children and families".
The Church of Scotland, meanwhile, branded the petition "defeatist". It called for people to work together to find common ground and create inclusive models of religious observance. If that happened, the issue of withdrawal would become "a moot point", said the Rev Sandy Fraser, convenor of the Church of Scotland Education Committee.
Religious observance enhanced students' emotional well-being and respect for others, helped them to understand different beliefs and developed informed ethical views of complex issues, he said.
However, the Rev Fraser acknowledged that poor practice existed and that the phrase "religious observance" itself "creates difficulties". "Time for reflection" would be a better name, he suggested.