In 2013, the Scottish Secular Society were alerted by a member that a chaplaincy team at a school in East Kilbride had seemingly sent very young children home with Young Earth Creationism books, refuting evolution and disputing the age of the Earth. As complaints flooded in, it soon became clear that there was a serious problem in some Scottish schools. The sect implicated in Kirktonholme is an extreme American church called the Church of Christ; who believe amongst other things that there are only 700 Christians in Scotland and that we are desperately in need of saving. They sent a mission of young, enthusiastic volunteers to “educate” Scotland and show them the way.
As more became known, further schools were implicated in the scandal and the outcry from concerned parents grew. Both the missionary team and the management team at the school were removed, and meetings were held to reassure parents that this could never happen again. However, without concrete provisions such assurances remained ethereal. Letters were written to MSPs and to the Education Authority to urge for real, concrete change which would rebuild the lost trust and reassure all parents in the LEA that this would never re-occur.
Today, we are pleased to announce that this situation has finally been properly rectified. South Lanarkshire Education Resources Committee met to consider a comprehensive report on the scandal, which recommended all the actions we had requested of the council to safeguard the rights, religious freedoms and indeed safety of the children in the local authority area. Every step and provision we requested has been accepted and implemented. So, what will change?
- All members of the school chaplaincy team must have full PVG. This is the criminal records check which as a parent I had assumed that everyone in contact with my son would have cleared. This was not the case with chaplaincy in Kirktonholme and the South Lanarkshire region.
- All religious groups must have a teacher present.Essentially this means that chaplaincy activities will not be unmonitored, and so those in school cannot deviate from the agreed agenda to promote their own views.
- If there is something done under the auspices of the school and a teacher will not be present (extra-curricular activities) parental consent must be given. It is often assumed by schools that religious based activities are good and therefore parents will be happy to have their children included. This is one of the most frequent sources of complaints from parents that we receive.
- All activities and resources used must be appropriate to the age and stage of the pupils and complement and endorse the school’s programmes of study, which will be based on Curriculum for Excellence guidance. This means no more allowing chaplains to teach Young Earth Creationism is correct and that science teachers are lying to them, or presenting other harmful beliefs like a Biblical view of homosexuality and marriage as truth.
- School handbooks must contain a statement about the development of ‘Spiritual, social, moral and cultural values.’ Many parents think that non-denominational means non-religious. This is simply untrue in Britain where all schools are Protestant unless they explicitly state otherwise. Helping parents to understand this means they can then make informed choices about what their child is exposed to.
- Annually schools must inform their parent council about the composition of the chaplaincy team. This information must be updated in the school handbook each year. The head teacher must engage in discussions with the chaplain(s) early in the school session about their role and the timing and subject of planned activities. Simply put, parents will know who is talking to their kids. Some churches are moderate, some less so. Parents will also be able to see if their own views are reflected on the team and whether it is representative of the make-up of the community.
- Parents must be informed about the times and subject of planned activities which will be delivered by the chaplaincy team. This information must be shared through parent council meetings, news bulletins, school newsletters or the school website. An outline of religious observance events will be made available on request.Open-ness about what RO is taking place, when and with whom, means a parent knows exactly what their child is exposed to and finally is able to make an informed choice as per the law about whether they participate.
- Under the terms of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, parents / carers have the right to ask for their children to be withdrawn from religious observance and / or religious and moral education. A statement to this effect must be included in the school handbook. In addition, parents must be reminded on an annual basis of their right to withdraw. This should be done through the school’s first newsletter. This very specific statement of how the right to withdraw must be communicated to parents means no more fudging the issue and sweeping their rights under the carpet. Parents will be annually informed, and given the full and proper information upon which to base their decision.
- If a pupil is withdrawn the school must make suitable arrangements for the pupil to participate in a worthwhile activity, in consultation with parents. If parents have any concern about religious observance they should approach the head teacher to discuss their concerns.Another common complaint from parents who withdraw their kids is that they are either left in an office alone with nothing to do, or effectively punished for withdrawing from RO. Children doing worthwhile activities, and parents knowing what they are and having a say in it is a significant step forward.
- Publications must not be sold to pupils by either individuals or groups. Head teachers must consider carefully the materials that they send home. If they think any materials are of a sensitive nature they must discuss them with their chaplaincy team and / or their parent council prior to issue and must seek advice from Education Resources staff. Presentations and any associated materials or publications which are used must be age and stage appropriate. The school must ensure that presentations and associated materials are at an appropriate level and should be interesting and stimulating. Handouts or other materials must be discussed with the head teacher in advance of events, to ensure their suitability and appropriateness. If the chaplaincy input is a team approach then fellow members of the team should view any materials prior to their issue. Clearly this addresses the nature of the materials sent home, and the possibility of groups such as the Challenger buses who tour schools selling Creationist materials direct to pupils.
We are extremely pleased that South Lanarkshire has taken extensive and comprehensive steps to address our concerns and those of the parents in the authority. These steps ensure schools are able to have chaplaincy provision and to use it to support them in the delivery of the curriculum and the care of the pupils and staff, but effectively curtail the ability of rogue religious groups to abuse the trust they are given. They safeguard children and enable parents to understand what their children are exposed to, and that will greatly help to rebuild the relationship of trust.
The new guidelines from South Lanarkshire illustrate perfectly how secularism can balance the freedom of people to believe and follow their beliefs with the freedoms of those do not share that faith. However, these steps are not solving the issues in their entirety. They apply only to non-denominational schools, and only to those schools in the South Lanarkshire area. Parents in other areas remain un-informed of their rights and of the religious activities in the childrens’ schools. We would ask parents everywhere to question the school and find out who is having contact with their children, how often, and what views do they convey? Are they fully PVG checked, and are they supporting their childrens’ education or contradicting it?
As for denominational schools, children and parents within the denominational school system surely do not deserve to be less informed or protected? We accept it would not be possible to detail every provision of RO in a faith school, but neither is it acceptable for faith schools to assume that every parent and child under stands and accepts all the religious beliefs which the school represents. Faith schools must acknowledge that some parents send their children to such schools because of proximity, or the educational record of the school, and so educating them about what the school stands for is just as essential.
For one authority to take such extensive action while the government is saying there is no problem makes the government look naïve and ill-informed. We intend to ensure that the government does not remain ill-informed, and that they see the wisdom of implementing the measures above on a national level. We will be writing to each LEA to request they voluntarily follow suit, and to the government to suggest national uptake. It is honest communication with parents about religion in schools that will ensure religious representatives can be open participants in the school lives of those who want them, and these steps ensure parents can trust the school and authority to look after the safety and the best interests of their children with integrity.
Inverclyde parent, Mark Gordon, who initiated the Scottish Secular Society’s 2013 petition at the Scottish Parliament asking for Religious Observance to be made an Opt In rather than an Opt Out activity, had this to say.
“South Lanarkshire Council’s recent review of matters completely vindicates our position, highlighted in both the petition to change religious observance and the petition asking for head teachers to be given guidance on the presentation of separate creationism or so called intelligent design. The failure at Kirktonholme showed that head teachers need guidance in this regard. What South Lanarkshire Council have shown is a positive step and it is to be welcomed. It is a refreshing change of attitude.
Contrary to what our many well-funded and vociferous detractors have said, we have no desire to remove religion completely from the public space. We merely want parents and children to be given full information on what will be presented, for them to be given real choices and for their rights to be practical and effective rather than illusory. For many parents opting out is problematic because meaningful alternatives to religious observance are not available. Many parents are not even aware of their rights. South Lanarkshire Council’s approach, including a promise to remind parents annually of their right to opt out of religious observance, is a sensible one and I would hope that in the short term councils across Scotland see fit to determine a similar approach. More importantly it is clear that the educational professionals in South Lanarkshire have seen that the Scottish government’s so called safeguards are not sufficient as we have been saying all along. The Scottish government must now review their position on the provision of advice on creationism. Failure to do so will result in a confusing patchwork of standards across the country.
Until this is resolved across Scotland we would ask parents to check what is going on their child’s school and identify if it is suitable. Is the chaplain promoting one faith over another? Is the chaplain promoting religious ideas as fact? Is he promoting religious ideas that are detrimental to the teaching of accepted science? If so we would urge the
parent to question this. If the situation is not suitable we would ask the parent to consider opting out of religious observance altogether”