Removing Church nominees from Education Committees: Good news from Petitions Committee

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The story so far: Our petition attracted over 700 signatures, some notable, and Spencer Fildes and I were invited to give evidence on it before the Public Petitions Committee last November (shown above; see here for more).  After submitting us to attentive but not unfriendly cross-examination, the Committee decided to write to a number of interested parties, whose submissions you will find on the petition website, together  with my own response. It met again last Thursday, to consider what action to take, and the official report  is now available here under Continued Petitions, and reproduced below for completeness.

Now read on: We had hoped that at this point they would decide to forward the matter to the Education and Skills Committee, going down much the same road as a related petition did three years ago. What happened, however, was potentially far more favourable to our case. It is relevant that the Convener is Johann Lamont, a very senior, independent-minded, and able parliamentarian, who has said of herself “I have been a committee convener, proud of building consensus where possible, to test legislation and to challenge the government of the day.”

While summarising submissions received, the Convener laid considerable emphasis on the equalities issue, referring to submissions from the Education and Human Rights Commission, and also (I was pleased to see) the Jewish Community, as well as our own response to submissions, in the following words:

The Equality and Human Rights Commission referred to its submission on the previous petition on this issue, PE1498, in which it comments on the requirements of the public sector equality duty. That was echoed by representatives of the Jewish community, and the petitioners, who note that, to date,

“none of these issues have been addressed”.

The petitioners maintain their position that the system is unfair and discriminatory, particularly in the light of changing demographics.

After brief exchanges with other members, she concluded discussion by saying:

We do not propose to close the petition until we have asked the Scottish Government specifically whether it has fulfilled its responsibilities with respect to the public sector equality duty. It is clear that there are strong feelings on both sides of the argument—what is interesting is whether there is a middle ground somewhere. We would want to know about the governance review and anything that comes out of it. On the point raised by the EHRC, I assume that the Scottish Government’s response to any of these questions will be assessed in light of its obligation under the public sector equality duty.

In other words, the issue is not going to go away. I do not know if the reference to “a middle ground somewhere” should be taken at face value, or whether it is simply a conciliatory gesture, but the real point of the paragraph is in the final sentence.  The Government is being very plainly told that it cannot pursue its previous policy of pretending all is well, and that there is a case here that it must answer.

We do not expect things to move at all quickly at this stage, because of interaction between consideration of our petition, and the current broad Governmental consultation on the entire Scottish school system, which was open to all for comment until early in January this year. This consultation made no mention of the issue of Church appointees, but one of the questions that contributors were invited to consider did mention equality (presumably having in mind the very real problems of social inequality and the way that these are passed down through the. education system), and the Scottish Secular Society in its submission took the opportunity to raise the matter of Church appointees.

Official report:

The final continued petition for consideration this morning is PE1623, by Spencer Fildes, on behalf of the Scottish Secular Society, relating to unelected church appointees on local authority education committees. The meeting papers include a note by the clerk and copies of the submissions received since our previous consideration of the petition in November.

The Scottish Government indicates that it has no plans to change the provisions, but refers to its education governance review, which has recently closed, and which sought views on the legislative framework that should be put in place to support education in Scotland.

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities regarded that review as an opportunity for community representatives to participate actively in the consideration of education services. It also noted that, with regard to the action called for in the petition, its members did not feel that non-elected representatives carried undue influence.

Submissions from Muslim and Jewish representatives did not directly support the action called for in the petition but considered that there might be options to more widely reflect diversity in communities.

The Scottish Parent Teacher Council suggests that education committees could

“reflect the population of our schools more effectively”.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission referred to its submission on the previous petition on this issue, PE1498, in which it comments on the requirements of the public sector equality duty. That was echoed by representatives of the Jewish community, and the petitioners, who note that, to date,

“none of these issues have been addressed”.

The petitioners maintain their position that the system is unfair and discriminatory, particularly in the light of changing demographics. Do members have any comments or suggestions for action?

We need to ask the Scottish Government, having carried out the education governance review, to assess the position of unelected church appointees in view of the public sector equality duty. We should refer to the issue of faith community appointees, too.

Okay. We need to find out when the Scottish Government will publish the findings of the education governance review. It is clear that the Government does not plan to address this issue—I do not think that there would have been a specific question about it in the review consultation. It is perhaps an issue that people would have to have raised. We can ask the Government about that. It may be worth checking whether the Government has reflected on the position of unelected church appointees in view of the public sector equality duty.

We just need more information about what was in the review.

I think that the closing date for submissions to the education governance review was 6 January. I was interested to see the submission from my local authority. It may be some time before the Government gets round to replying, given that the closing date has just passed.

We would just be looking for the timescale at this stage. We do not propose to close the petition until we have asked the Scottish Government specifically whether it has fulfilled its responsibilities with respect to the public sector equality duty. It is clear that there are strong feelings on both sides of the argument—what is interesting is whether there is a middle ground somewhere. We would want to know about the governance review and anything that comes out of it. On the point raised by the EHRC, I assume that the Scottish Government’s response to any of these questions will be assessed in light of its obligation under the public sector equality duty.

If there are no other suggestions, is it agreed that we follow that course of action?

Members indicated agreement.

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 February 7, 2017, in Education, Politics, Religion, Scotland and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Imagine if all this time and effort were being spent on trying to abolish reserved council seats for Freemasons or aristocrats, and the petition committee convener talked of strong feelings on both sides and raised the possibility of finding a middle ground. Strong feelings are not strong arguments, and there is no middle ground between democratic and non-democratic arrangements.

    This is, however, clearly hopeful news.

    Like

  2. Great to see some recognition of the lack of democracy in key areas of the Scottish education system. It should be an obvious quick fix for government on the recommendation of this committee.

    Like

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