This article was originally published in the 2015 Autumn edition of Humanitie magazine.
Faith, Education and the Curse of Aye Been by James McEnaney
Spend five minutes listening to the grasping, ill-informed assertions of Scotland’s politicians and you could be forgiven for thinking that our whole education system is on the verge of collapse, the victim of ill-conceived and dangerously radical ideas. The reality is, unsurprisingly, quite different; in truth, Scottish education is an area where genuine radicalism has been sadly lacking for far too long.
Despite our proud and progressive educational history, too many of our assumptions are now bound up in a fundamental stubbornness, an insidious conservatism which resists change for all the wrong reasons and can be summed up in just two words: ‘Aye Been’.
This attitude is the enemy of progress, encouraging us to cling to what we know even when it falls demonstrably short of our expectations and potential. It is a self-imposed ideological straightjacket masquerading as a safety net and ensuring that we continue to fail the next generation.
You can see this problem all over the education system, from the reluctance to properly embrace the sort of technology which has already changed the world to the ongoing obsession with ring-fenced individual subjects. Right now, government plans to introduce (or, more accurately, reintroduce) national standardised tests are casting a harsh light on our apparent inability to move beyond old, failed approaches to assessment. Plus ça change.
Another area where this mentality stifles vital debate is the question of religious faith in our schools. Viewed entirely objectively, the status quo is simply indefensible: were we building a public schooling system from scratch in the 21st Century, would anyone seriously be arguing that we should segregate four year old children based on their parents’ religion; that local authority education committees might be forced to appoint three unelected religious representatives; that children should have to be opted out of, rather than in to, religious observance; or that around a fifth of publically-maintained schools be permitted to operate openly discriminatory employment practices?
Even if such arguments were made, can we imagine a modern, democratic state with an increasingly irreligious population acquiescing to these demands if they did not have the weight of historical expectation behind them? Of course not, yet a collective blind-eye is repeatedly turned to blatant injustices because confronting them is seen as controversial, risky, difficult and – as far as politicians, policy-makers and various vested-interests are concerned – unnecessary.
It’s ‘aye been’ that way – just accept it.
But sometimes change, however small, becomes possible; sometimes events have consequences which we don’t initially foresee; sometimes cracks appear in the hulking edifice of fearful stasis and through them creeps just a little light. This could – and certainly should – become one of those times.
Last year, Scotland’s 16 and 17 year olds took part in the largest democratic event in the history of this country as they were enfranchised for the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. Across the length and breadth of our nation, young people listened, researched, debated and finally decided whether or not they thought that Scotland should be an independent country. Despite the well-worn assertions of those opposed to the move – who would have you believe that young people are a disengaged, uninformed underclass whose opinions are of no interest or value – Scotland’s youth did all of us proud by engaging with and participating in a decision which would affect their entire future.
As a consequence, 16 and 17 year olds will now have the right to vote in all future Scottish elections. This long overdue shift is a victory in its own right, but it also opens up new and important questions about the rights and responsibilities of young people.
One of the specific areas where we should now be challenging the status quo is the issue of religious observance in schools. At present, only a parent can legally withdraw a pupil from acts of religious observance or instruction (and most parents are not fully aware of their right to do so) but this arrangement is no longer tenable – if young people are to be trusted to make decisions about the future of our whole country then surely they should have the right to decide whether or not they wish to participate in activities which may not reflect their own beliefs.
In the case of 16-18 year olds, the right to withdraw should be transferred to the students themselves, and must apply regardless of the type of school in which they are studying. If we really want young people to become Successful Learners, Confident Individuals, Responsible Citizens and Effective Contributors then they must be trusted to form their own opinions and make their own decisions.
Religious groups would likely line up with various voices from the education establishment to tell us that it can’t be done, that chaos would ensue if and when large numbers of students exercised their rights to have their beliefs respected; in doing so they would – ironically – prove that reform is urgently needed.
Such a change would be resisted precisely because it would represent a small but vital blow against the ingrained – even deliberate – complacency which shackles Scottish education. It could also prove to be a first tentative step towards challenging the normalisation of religious privilege throughout the education system by making one thing absolutely clear: ‘Aye Been’ is no longer good enough.
James McEnaney is a Lecturer, Writer and CommonSpace Columnist
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