How religious is your non-denominational school?

September 25, 2015

This piece originally appeared in the Winter 2014 edition of Humanitie magazine. 

How religious is your non-denominational school? You may be surprised by the extent to which religion, specifically Christianity, is involved in children’s education in Scotland – even in ‘non-denominational’ schools.

Although you have a legal right to opt your children out of both religious observance (RO) and religious and moral education (RME) by simply sending a note to the head teacher, there are a number of obstacles that make opting out more complicated than it should be. Below, two parents share their experiences of religion in Scottish state, non-denominational primary schools.


Both my sons were in nativity plays in their first years of primary’ school, an activity that it would have been very difficult to opt out of since many of the curricular activities were centred around the play.

Both my children play instruments in school and perform at the Christmas concert which takes place in the church. Although wc are unhappy with the religious observance that is part of this occasion, to opt them out of this event would deprive them of the opportunity to perform the music they have been practicing with their classmates for months.

Earlier this year, my older son went away for a week with his class to an outdoor centre in the north of Scotland, a trip he had been looking forward to for two years. This centre is run by a Christian organisation, and the children spend roughly 30 minutes at the end of each day reflecting on the day’s team-building activities ‘in a Christian context’.

Since this kind of reflection seemed to be one of the central purposes of the whole exercise I was reluctant to opt my son out of it even though I was concerned about the ‘Christian context’ in which the discussion took place.

Moreover, since my son has a number of close friends whose families are religious I am wary of ostracising him. Those children who do opt out of religious assemblies at school are publicly marched out of the hall at the beginning of these events.

So opting out at my children’s school involves taking a very public stance, which I am not comfortable imposing on my children.


As a parent of two children at a non-denominational school, I also have concerns about the extent to which religion is present in schools. The school’s RME programme is coordinated with the help of the local minister and religious material is sometimes presented as fact. The teacher admitted the minister shouldn’t have taught the class this way and apologised.

However, it is hard to know to what extent this has been addressed. Despite both RME and RO being presented as inclusive, in reality it is heavily weighted towards Christianity and fails to adequately explore non-faith based beliefs.

This year, my son’s class raised money for a church-related cause for the same church the minister runs. More than once, the minister has given my five-year-old colouring material showing Jesus being brutally beaten, which has upset my son. Violent material like this, which would normally be considered inappropriate for children, is freely given out in RME.

My eldest son was also wrongly told by the minister he was not allowed to opt out of RME. Despite having written a formal letter requesting he not attend religious assemblies, he has on occasion been put into them. This year I was made aware that the charity Operation Christmas Child, which the school participates in, was owned by Billy Graham’s son. Like many parents I had been donating annually to the cause unaware that evangelical literature, including a sinner’s prayer for children, accompanied the boxes.

Many organisations and schools have withdrawn from the scheme. It would seem the school has engaged with the church, who organise the event, despite there being a lack of transparency in communicating the true nature of the scheme. I happened to find out about some of these issues by chance, but it worries me to think what I might find if I actually went looking.

There seems to be a distinct lack of transparency and information in how schools present religion, both through RO and RME. Given the close relationship between the school and the local church, and the blurring of those subjects, parents must be given concise information as to what is covered in both, and how this is conveyed. Parents should also be informed of the extent to which the church is present in schools and be made clearly aware of their rights to opt out.

Names have been changed. 

Photo courtesy: Cassidy Lancaster, Creative Commons.

Book cover for "What is Humanism?'
What is Humanism? by Michael Rosen & Annemarie Young

Humanist Society Scotland and the British Humanist Association want to send the new children’s book What is Humanism? How do you live a good life without a god? And Other Big Questions for Kids to every primary school in the UK. It’s a fantastic book from the Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen and Annemarie Young which we think every young person should have a chance to read.

Please donate today to help raise the £50,000 needed to get this book into every primary school in the UK.

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