Petition: make Religious Observance in Scottish schools opt-in, not opt-out

No sooner have I decided to broaden the range of topics on this blog, than I find myself writing two posts in as many days about religion in British schools. This is in response to events, and normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.


The United Kingdom is one of the very few developed countries that includes Religious Observance (RO, i.e. school prayers) in the school timetable. In principle, parents (or children, above a certain stage) can opt out. In practice, this rarely happens, and many parents are not even aware that they have this option. As a result, RO must contain many pupils who are only there out of hypocrisy and coercion.

According to Scottish education policy, “There is a statutory provision for parents to withdraw children from participation in religious observance. This right should always be made known to parents and their wishes respected,” and “Parents should be provided with sufficient information on which to base a decision.” This doesn’t happen, nor is it likely to happen under the present opt-out arrangements. Official guidance has in the past stated that the school handbook should notify parents of the right to opt out, but even this requirement has now quietly been dropped, and only 20% of parents surveyed said that the school had informed them of this right at all.

Mark Gordon, an Inverclyde father of 3, backed by Secular Scotland, has now, with the support of Secular Scotland, has petitioned the Scottish Parliament to change the registration procedure for Religious Observance from opt-out to opt-in (Press release here). If you live in Scotland, and support this petition, sign here. (Disclosure: I am on the board of Secular Scotland, and contributed to the drafting. Note for Scottish Noire fans; Chris Brookmyre is among the first signatories.)

This change should be welcomed by non-believers, who now, according to the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, make up an actual majority of the over-18 Scottish population, since it will free them from the onus of singling out to their children, in an act of dissent from the school’s assumed norms. It should be welcomed by believers, who would then have reason to hope that those present at such observance are there of their own free will, and are taking part in good faith. It should be welcomed by all those concerned with the quality of Scottish education, since it will inevitably lead to a productive discussion of the role of RO in the timetable.

Such a discussion is long overdue. RO is mandated in the Education (Scotland) Act, 1980, continuing a legal tradition that dates back at least as far as 1872. In the words of the Religious Observance Review Group 2004 Report, it is intended to consist of “community acts which aim to promote the spiritual development of all members of the school’s community and express and celebrate the shared values of the school community”, while also being “equally sensitive to individual spiritual needs and beliefs, whether these come from a faith or non-faith perspective.” It is not clear how it is to reconcile these two rather different functions when no religious nomination commands even nominal affiliation from more than a third of the Scottish population, when the General Register Office reports that more marriages in Scotland are nonreligious (Registry Office or Humanist) than religious, and when a growing number of younger Scots, including presumably those registering schoolchildren for the first time, have no religious affiliation whatsoever. Moreover, despite these fine words, in practice RO even in nominally non-denominational schools tends to be strongly confessional, predominantly Church of Scotland, with additional input from groups such as Jesus and Me, allied to the Young Earth Creationist AnswersInGenesis, and evangelical groups such as the Lighthouse touring bus.

When you register your children to school in Scotland, you will be presented with a copy of the school handbook. Buried within this may or may not be the statement that you can tell the school if you wish your children not to take part in RO.. When surveyed,  only 20% of parents said that the school had told them of the right to withdraw their children from RO, and 39% never learnt of it from any source whatsoever.

Even when the school informs parents of their right, it may do so in a strongly discouraging manner. Parents are typically told to write to the Head Teacher, or to discuss their concerns, clearly implying that the request is considered unusual or misguided.

In such circumstances, you may very reasonably feel inhibited about exercising the right to withdraw. By doing so, you are clearly going against the assumptions made by the school, and you may not wish to place your children in the situation where they are singled by dissent from the presumed majority ethos.

If you do succeed in registering your right to withdraw your child, teachers will not necessarily even be aware of the fact. Mark Gordon’s petition was triggered by an incident when his own child was sent by default to attend a church service, despite Mark having opted out of RO. Mark objects to having his children told that they are born sinful, that they can be freed of this sin only if they believe without question that certain ill-attested events took place in the Middle East some 2000 years ago, and that those, including their father, who do not share this belief are destined for eternal damnation. Now you may regard these objections as completely unreasonable, but his right to act on them is incorporated into law, and should be respected.

Finally, as a result no doubt of the small numbers involved, schools do not carry out, and may even be completely unaware of, their legal obligation to opted out students, which is for the school “to make suitable arrangements for the child to participate in a worthwhile alternative activity”. There is no shortage of materials for such activity. I can immediately think of books such as Maybe yes, Maybe no, or Dawkins’s The Magic of Reality. Other materials are available from humanist and rationalist associations, and even, regarding the teaching of biology, from the Templeton Foundation (!) (I would welcome further specific suggestions frm readers.) If the numbers opting out were commensurate to the real demand for alternative materials, the resulting discussion would force a healthy evolution of what is now all too often a hollow sectarian ritual into a meaningful emotional, moral, and, if I may use the word, spiritual exercise, much as at its best Religious and Moral Education has evolved from dogmatic indoctrination into a valuable discussion of comparative religion, and of moral and philosophical issues in general.


About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on June 3, 2013, in Education, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, School prayer, Scotland and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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