There now exists a consensus for reform of Religious Observance in Scotland

At this time of year many parents will face the frustration of having to decide between allowing their children to be taken to a Christian church under the guise of ‘Religious Observance’, or asking for them to be withdrawn, and facing the social isolation and stigma that comes with it.

This frustration was expressed this morning by Limmy on twitter:

Within the space of one month we have seen two high-level reports call on the Scottish Government to take action to reform the requirement for Religious Observance in Scottish schools.

On Friday 13th November The Arts and Humanities Research Council on Collective Worship published a report titled Collective Worship and Religious Observance in Schools: An evaluation of Law and Policy in the UK. As well as making some general UK-wide suggestions, the made three Scotland-specific recommendations; two of them were ‘that Education Scotland provide clear guidance as to what constitutes religious observance’ and ‘that the term ‘Religious Observance’ be formally changed to ‘Time for Reflection’ in order to be more inclusive’.

Also, published on Monday 7th December the independent Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life (CORAB) published its report titled Living with Difference: Community, Diversity and the Common Good. Among the recommendations were that ‘Governments should repeal requirements for schools to hold acts of collective worship or religious observance and issue new guidelines building on current best practice for inclusive assemblies and times for reflection’.

This is also reinforced by a judgement in the UK High Court on Wednesday 25th November. In a decision by Mr Justice Warby, that the UK Secretary of State for Education acted unlawfully by excluding Humanism from the English and Welsh RE curriculum, he commented that ‘…an opt-out is not an adequate substitute for the provision of an educational programme which accords the Parents their right to respect for their convictions. The need to withdraw a Child would be a manifestation of the lack of pluralism in question.

This has profound ramifications for the system in Scotland, where Humanist and non-religious parents who object to evangelising content in Religious Observance are left with with only one option; to withdraw their children from their peer group. Parents get in touch with us at HSS often to seek advice, and many are very conflicted about this decision. They object to much of the content of RO, but the decision to withdraw their child, and the possibility of stigmatization which accompanies it, often means they decide not to.

This recent action echoes a joint statement made by Humanist Society Scotland and the Church of Scotland in January 2014 to the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee. In the joint statement we said ‘we urge the Public Petitions Committee to make strong recommendations for the change of Religious Observance to ‘Time for Reflection.’ This removes the religious exclusivity of the current system and brings about fairness and equality for all.

This, and the controversy over the ‘Kirktonholme scandal’, when a US evangelical Christian group was discovered to be distributing creationist propaganda in a state Primary School, prompted Education Scotland to produce updated guidance for schools organising external visitors in November 2014.

I think it’s time to acknowledge that a consensus for change now exists. With current public opinion showing that nearly one-in-two people in Scotland have no religion, and almost three-quarters of 14-17 year olds are irreligious, it’s time that our education system modernise to reflect this. It’s time for the Scottish Government to take action and remove the formal requirement for Religious Observance, leaving space for inclusive ‘Time for Reflection’.

There’s no doubt that an understanding of the various ethical and belief systems in society is essential to a rounded education. The presumption that ethical reflection, or moral discussion must be conducted through a religious lense ignores the fact that so many in Scotland lead ethical and fulfilling lives without reference to the supernatural.

It’s time that education policy reflect that reality. Schools are for teaching, not for preaching.

Gordon MacRae

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