The rising influence of religion in education

11th March 2016 at 00:00
The position of faith is weakening in other areas of society but strengthening in schools, study finds

A new report has highlighted the “strengthening” of the influence of religion in Scottish education. The study, funded by the Humanist Society Scotland (HSS) and conducted by the University of Glasgow, found a weakening in the position of religion in all other areas of society. Here we explore the ways in which religion continues to influence the delivery of education and how a body like the HSS could end up with its own state-funded schools.

What does the report say?

It claims that there is relatively little evidence of current religious influence over Scots law but education is an exception. The report does not claim that the content of teaching has become more religious – in fact, it says it has “been secularising for some considerable time”. But it highlights “changes in curricular and governance structures” that have strengthened the place of religion in education.

What kind of changes?

The report cites things like the right of religious representatives to sit on council education committees – three places must be reserved. It also highlights the fact that every school has to provide opportunities for religious observance six times a year, and has a statutory obligation to deliver religious education to all pupils. It also notes that two places on the teaching watchdog, the General Teaching Council of Scotland, are set aside for one member from the Church of Scotland and one from the Roman Catholic Church.

So the law makes it compulsory for all pupils to participate in RE and religious observance?

No, parents have the right to withdraw children from participation in RE and religious observance and schools are supposed to make parents aware of what will be taught so they can make an informed decision. A petition to Parliament sought to make religious observance an opt-in activity, as opposed to opt-out. It cited a YouGov survey, which showed that only one in five parents was properly aware of their right to waive the lessons. However, the petition was ultimately unsuccessful.


Primary headteachers were against it. They pointed out that the change would create a considerable additional administrative burden on schools without making any change to the flexibility open to children and families.

What do the children who are withdrawn from RE and religious observance do?

Schools are meant to make “suitable arrangements for them to participate in a worthwhile activity”. But there have been stories of children sitting in the school office, whiling away the time by drawing under the watchful eye of the school secretary. The University of Glasgow report predicts that an issue that “might attract further attention in the future” is that children do not have the right to opt out for themselves.

Are there other ways in which the status quo might be challenged?

The teaching of RE in schools in a council area could come to an end if the majority of residents voted for its discontinuation. According to the report, provision has been in place since 1929, reinforced in 1946, for the setting aside of the statutory obligation to teach religious education, if a majority of electors within a local authority vote in favour.

However, it goes on to say that this has never happened. Aberdeen City might be the place that such a vote could be successful, one of the report’s authors, Professor Callum Brown, recently speculated. It had the lowest levels of religious adherence of any Scottish council, he said. The authors also say that other “belief bodies” could petition councils for a school, including humanists. Professor Brown continued: “A good case can be made under existing legislation for a nonbelief body, such as a society of humanists, especially one recognised in other spheres as a belief body, to have a school fully funded by the state.”

What do the report’s authors conclude?

The report questions whether the current setup, where religion is present in all state schools, is suitable, given that 37.5 per cent of people in the 2011 census said that they did not adhere to any church or religion.

What was the reaction of the Humanist Society Scotland to the report?

Gordon MacRae, chief executive, said that it would soon outline the reforms it would like to see to the education system in Scotland.


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