Removing Church appointees from Education Committees; more good news

Things continue to go better than we could have hoped.

The story so far: For historical reasons, dating back to 1872 and beyond, all Local Authority Education Committees in Scotland must by law include three full voting members nominated by the Churches. Our petition, PE01623, asks for their removal, on grounds of democracy and equality, especially in view of the fact that most parents now describe themselves as having no religion. Spencer Fildes and I gave evidence before the Public Petitions Committee last November, and the Committee, having sought additional written submissions, met again in February.  At that meeting, the Convener, the redoubtable Johann Lamont, laid considerable emphasis on the equalities issue, and quoted the comment from the Jewish community that “none of these issues have been addressed.” The Committee agreed to write again to the Scottish Government, asking about the timescale of the current review of educational governance, and its response to the matters raised.

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Spencer Fildes and Paul Braterman give evidence to the Public Petitions Committee, November 2016

Now read on: Last month, the Scottish Government responded, and we in our turn have replied to that response. We see a steady softening in the Government’s position, from asserting in 2014, when faced with a similar petition, that the presence of the Church appointees “provides support to the authority in discharging its duties”, to a 2016 letter saying that it “was viewed” in the 1973 legislation as providing such assistance,  to its present position, which after a review of the legal background goes on to state:

Please be assured that we will seek to undertake an Equality Impact Assessment on any policy proposals emerging from the Education Governance Review. It is our intention that once this process has been undertaken we will then consider any of the Scottish Secular Society’s proposals that are not addressed through any changes made by the Education Governance Review.

The Government letter also mentions the large number of responses submitted to the Review, including our own, all of which will be taken into account.

There are two points of substance here. Firstly, a recognition that equalities issues would need to be considered in “any policy proposals emerging from the Review”, and secondly, an undertaking to consider any of our proposals that had not thereby been addressed. This is a far more encouraging response than we had dared to hope for.

In our response to this letter, we urge the Committee to leave the petition open until the Review has taken its course and we have had the opportunity to comment on the situation as it will then be.

The Convener had also asked at the February meeting “whether there is a middle ground somewhere”. We accordingly suggested that Education Authorities might be explicitly empowered to co-opt representatives of Churches or of non-religious worldviews, if they so choose, but that as a matter of principle such representatives must be non-voting.

The Committee is provisionally scheduled to review our Petition again on April 27. It may accept our request to keep the petition open, or it may equally well decide on procedural grounds against doing so. Either way, we have achieved more than we imagined possible when we committed ourselves to this undertaking over a year ago. Our contacts at Holyrood inform us that this hitherto obscure topic is now a matter for open discussion, with many MSPs agreeing that the present arrangement is unsupportable. The reforms which five years ago seemed like a remote dream now appear destined to become reality, and not too far in the future at that.

What has happened? Two things, I suggest. Demographic change and changes in personnel. Demographic change: it is now, for the first time, clear that the majority of Scots of an age to be sending children to school are non-believers. This strengthens our moral argument against the imposition by the Church appointees of their own views on an electorate to which they are not answerable, and reduces the political cost of reform. Personnel changes: government reshuffles, changes in the composition of the Scottish Parliament, and presumably changes in personnel within the Scottish Learning Directorate, will all have reflected these demographic changes.

One final irony. The Scottish Secular Society decided in September 2015 to launch this petition, but deliberately delayed doing so until after the May 2016 Scottish Parliamentary Election, in the belief that things would then quieten down politically. As readers may have noticed, they haven’t.

Appendix: documents referred to

All these are available on the Scottish Government website at https://www.parliament.scot/GettingInvolved/Petitions/ChurchAppointees  or, for the first document quoted, http://www.parliament.scot/GettingInvolved/Petitions/PE01498

Scottish Government response, 2014, selection: [T]he involvement of religious representatives, as set out in the 1973 Act, in the decision making process at local authority level provides support to the authority in discharging its duties in respect of meeting the educational needs of all children in their area and supporting the desire by parents for both denominational and non-denominational schools.

Ministers support the involvement of religious representatives in the decision-making process by councils in relation to education and do not have any plans to change the existing provisions within the 1973 Act. [Emphasis added]

Scottish Government response, 2016, selection: [A]t the time of the relevant legislation, the involvement of religious representatives, as set out in the 1973 Act, in the decision making process at local authority level was viewed as providing support to the authority in discharging its duties in respect of meeting the educational needs of all children in their area and supporting the desire by parents for both denominational and non-denominational schools.

The Government has no plans to change these provisions. [Emphasis added]

Selected remarks by the Convener, February 2017: 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….

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 Equality and Human Rights Commission, 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.

Scottish Government’s response to the above (in full), March 2017:

Thank you for your letter of 3 February in respect of Petition PE1623 from the Scottish Secular Society calling for changes to the current practices under Section 124 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 which requires that local authority education committees must include members nominated by various churches.

Following your meeting on 2 February you requested the Scottish Government’s timescale for publishing the Education Governance Review findings and whether an assessment of the position of unelected church appointees had been undertaken in respect of the Public Sector Equality Duty.

As you are aware, the Education Governance Review was launched by the Deputy First Minister on 13 September 2016 and ended on 6 January 2017. The purpose of the Education Governance Review was to ask consultees about the role that every part of our education system plays to deliver education in Scotland and how this could be improved. The consultation asked 17 questions, covering 5 key areas:

  1. Empowering teachers, practitioners, parents, schools and communities
  2. Strengthening ‘the middle’ – how teachers, practitioners, schools and other local and regional partners work together to deliver education – including through encouraging school clusters and the establishment of new educational regions
  3. A clear national framework and building capacity in education
  4. Fair funding – learner-centred funding
  5. Accountability

The Scottish Government received over 1100 responses to the consultation, including a response from the Scottish Secular Society, in addition to this over 700 people attended the public engagement sessions.

The consultation responses, where permission was given, were published on the Scottish Government’s consultation hub on 3 February. The Scottish Government is now taking time to consider these responses, and wider evidence, and will publish their findings in due course.

In relation to the issues of an EQIA, in 1996, section 124 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 was substituted into that Act by the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994. As this predates the Equalities Act 2010 there was no requirement to carry out an assessment of this provision in terms of the public sector equality duty at the time it was instructed.

The Public Sector Equality Duty in the Equality Act 2010 has three main elements. It requires public authorities to have ‘due regard’ to the need to:

(a) Eliminate discrimination, harassment, victimisation and any other conduct that is prohibited by or under the Act

(b) Advance equality of opportunity between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it

(c) Foster good relations between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it

Please be assured that we will seek to undertake an Equality Impact Assessment on any policy proposals emerging from the Education Governance Review. It is our intention that once this process has been undertaken we will then consider any of the Scottish Secular Society’s proposals that are not addressed through any changes made by the Education Governance Review.

Scottish Secular Society’s response to the above (in full), March 2017:

We thank the Scottish government for their letter of March 3rd, in which it states that it will be considering the Equalities impact of any proposals emerging from the current review of educational policy, and furthermore undertakes to review the Equalities concerns emerging from our petition, to the extent that they are not dealt with by those proposals.

However, one consequence is that until that point is reached, it is not possible to say whether the matters raised have been properly dealt with. For this reason, we particularly welcome the statement by the Convener at the committee meeting of 2 February that ” 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”; to which we would add that the Scottish Government should not be sole judge in its own cause as to whether it has in fact done so. For that reason, we would respectfully ask the Committee to keep the petition open until such time as the Scottish Government has explained its as yet unstated position, and we and other interested parties have had the opportunity to comment.

The Convener also asked “whether there is a middle ground somewhere”. We would respectfully suggest that some such middle ground might consist in replacement of the present arrangement by one in which the elected Councillors could if they so wished invite representatives of faith groups and of other bodies representing diverse world views. We would ourselves, in such case, continue to argue that such representatives should be non-voting, as are the invited representatives of parents and teachers, both as a matter of deep principle and to protect the process from party political considerations.

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 April 2, 2017, in Education, Politics, Religion, Scotland, Society and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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