Category Archives: School prayer

An affront to democracy; unelected Church nominees sit and vote on Council Education Committees in Scotland (and England)

A question for your Holyrood candidates

I will be asking my Scottish parliamentary candidates how, in their view, Council Education Committees ought to be selected.  Should they simply consist of elected councillors, plus others (e.g. teachers) that they vote to co-opt? If not, what arrangement would the candidate prefer? And readers may also want to ask about this; I would love to hear the candidates’ answers. Why I am asking this strange question? Because of these strange facts:

The scandal


Edinburgh HQ of Church of Scotland, which appoints 33 Committee members

By pre-devolution law, all Council Education Committees must include three individuals nominated by Churches. One nominee is from the Catholic Church, and one from the Church of Scotland. The third is from a religious body selected by the Council, having regard to local demographics. The elected councillors themselves have no further say in the matter, nor do those they represent. Non-believers, and members of any other than the three privileged denominations, need not apply. Nor need experts in curriculum development, child health, social planning, or any other form of worldly expertise.

And just in case any of my English friends are thinking “silly old Scotland again”, did you realise that there are two such nominees on every English Local Authority Education Committee, one Church of England and one Catholic? Presumably the larger number in Scotland reflects the more fractious nature of our ecclesiastical politics:

Churches_of_Scotland_timeline.svg (1)

Education Committees control a larger part of Council budgets than any other Committee. They are the ultimate employers of School Principals and teachers, as well as being represented on senior teacher selection panels.  They decide on the opening and closing of schools and whether a school should be denominational or nondenominational, and control local practice in such matters as religious education, religious observance, and instruction about sex in human relationships.


The Episcopal Church, with 25,000 communicants, was offered 10 places on Committees and has filled 7 of them

The requirement for representatives of religion on these Committees dates back through Acts in 1994 and 1973 to the 1929 reorganisation of local government in Scotland, and the earlier provisions on which it was based. To a time when the formation of the public education system was fresh in the memory, and when the population of Scotland was overwhelmingly religious.*

Almost a century later, none of this is still true. According to the 2011 census figures, the largest single religious category is “None”, while only 54% of the population describe themselves as Christian. These numbers vary greatly from region to region; the legal requirement does not. The 2014 Scottish Government Social Attitudes Survey shows 68 percent of 18-24 -year-olds and 56 percent of 25-39 -year-olds describing themselves as “no religion”. So the Nones are an actual majority in the age cohorts now beginning to send their children to school. And surely no one would claim that the pre-1918 system gives the Churches an inherited right over education. We are talking about children, not property.

The role of the Church nominees is real, not ceremonial. According to the Church of Scotland itself, they hold the balance of power in 19 of Scotland’s 32 Education Committees, so that in an actual majority of Councils, the wishes of the controlling party or coalition can be overridden if these nominees side with the opposition. Given, moreover, the admirably conversational tone of much Scottish politics, their influence will not be limited to such formal occasions. And from time to time they represent the Council on teacher selection panels.

Why this matters

Space does not permit full elaboration of the case for abolition of these privileged positions, so the following incomplete summary must suffice:

The arrangement violates human rights. It excludes nonbelievers, and followers of any belief system other than the three represented, from equal participation in the process of government

It is anti-democratic. It places part of the machinery of government under the influence of individuals in whose appointment the electorate has no say. The point here is not that these individuals are religious; so indeed many elected councillors. It is that they are unelected. They sit and vote on the most important of all local authority committees, having completely bypassed the democratic process

It assumes a consensus in favour of religion that no longer exists. Nonbelievers are now the single largest group in Scotland, and an actual majority among the young

It restricts the ability of elected Councillors to co-opt individuals of their own choosing, since both law and common sense require that the Committees have a majority of elected members

It has proved difficult if not impossible to follow in practice. Freedom of Information request found that, as of July 2015, seven councils had failed to fill all positions; one (Orkney) had appointed no religious representatives; eight had filled the third Church Representative position by newspaper advertisements that had attracted only one applicant; one representative had nominated himself when asked to consult with colleagues; and for these or other reasons, in 18 out of 32 councils the process had clearly proved defective.


The Rev. David Fraser’s church quotes experts 99.9% sure that they have found Noah’s Ark (this, from his Church’s web site, is just a scale model). The Rev. David Fraser, who sits,unelected, on Clackmannanshire’s Education Committee, believes (see website) that “The vast majority of those dying are entering hell.”

It gives power to unelected individuals with extreme and unrepresentative views. I blogged on this in 2013, and the situation has not changed. The haphazard procedures described above make it easy for extreme Churches to gain the right to nominate a representative. Thus, from the limited information available on Church websites, we know that there are at least six representatives of Churches (in Clackmannanshire, Highland, Inverclyde, Na h-Eileanan Siar, North Ayrshire and Souh Lanarkshire) who believe that the prescribed Earth and Life Sciences syllabus is a pack of lies, the same number believing in the literal physical eternal punishment of those who reject Jesus, and one who believes in the curing of physical ailments by laying on of hands. For the nominees of these Churches, holding these extreme views becomes a job requirement for Education Committee membership, despite the science content of the Curriculum and the educational goals of tolerance and inclusiveness

It risks placing teachers and school management teams in an impossible position. I know of cases where a six-day creationist is simultaneously a member of school chaplaincy teams, and of the Education Committee overseeing these same schools. Consider the dilemma of a science teacher who may wish to confront him

It gives double representation to specific privileged viewpoints. If a concern arises related to the special interests of one particular religious group, constituents belonging to that group can appeal, both to their own council members, and to the relevant Church nominee

Finally, it gives the Councils an unwanted and unwarranted voice in the internal affairs of religion itself. They are forced to nominate one from the numerous religious organisations in their area, at the expense of all the others. And in the event of schism within a Church, for which there is precedent, they would be required to choose between rival claimants.

The simple remedy

A one-paragraph Act, revoking one clause of the existing legislation, is all that is needed to remove the offending requirement. If the elected councillors still wished to co-opt representatives of Churches, or the public chose to elect them to office, they would, of course, be free to do so. But imposed Church nominees on Education Committees are an indefensible anachronism, incompatible with the realities and aspirations of a modern democratic Scotland. It is time for them to go.


Adapted from my op-ed in The Scotsman, which attracted this comment:

It’s a simple argument. Council education committees currently have unelected special interest members, this a legacy quid pro quo from when the churches handed over their schools to be run by the state. The issue should not be that these members are religious but that they have not been elected. Only those who have been elected should have voting rights.

* Parallel legislation regarding England specifies two representatives of religion, one from the Church of England and the other from the Catholic Church; the difference between England and Scotland presumably reflects the more fractious nature of religion in Scotland; the 1929 Act was presumably drafted just before the (partial) healing of the Great Disruption that had split the Church of Scotland since 1843.

Church of Scotland offices by Kim Traynor via Wikipedia under Creative Commons licence. Committee membership as of September 2015, from FoI responses by Councils. Church history diagram by Hogweard via Wikipedia, public domain; click to enlarge or see here for full scale view. St Mary’s cathedral Church, Edinburgh, by Finlay McWalter via Wikipedia under GNU licence; church membership figures for Episcopalians as of 2013, from Church Times

Scottish friends; send John Finnie MSP your views on his bill to abolish Church appointees on Council education Committees

This is the first stage of the consultation process. Here’s my input. You can find the outline of the bill, and associated questions, here. All you need do is copy the questions, give your own answers (mine below might help, but please don’t cut and paste; it spoils the whole effect), get organisations you’re involved in to consider doing likewise, and pass the word on.


Response to your proposal to remove Church representatives from education committees.

I am Paul Braterman, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, 48 Nith Street, Glasgow G 33 2AF, responding as an individual.

Q1: Do you agree that the obligation on local authorities to appoint three church representatives to Education Committees (set out in section 124 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973) should be removed?

Yes, most strongly. It is an affront to democracy, completely anachronistic and in no way representative of the current Scottish population.

At least two of the church representatives owe their positions to their nominating churches, to which they are in the first instance answerable, rather than to the electorate. This is intolerable. In addition, members of the represented churches have dual access to the council, through their elected representatives and through the church representatives. This is inequitable. Finally, churches do have their own institutional interests. This is corrupting.

I note also that some church representatives represent strange views, which should certainly not have a privileged position within the educational system. For example, Dr Nagy Iskander (South Lanarkshire) is a six-day creationist, while the Rev David Fraser (Clackmannanshire) represents a church that believes in the special creation of Adam and Eve as characters in history, and a literal historical Fall that left their descendants “corrupted in every aspect of their being”, and has told its members that Noah’s Ark had been found on Mount Ararat.

Q2: Do you agree that at least two-thirds of the members of all local authority committees should be elected councillors?

Yes. That would allow even a very small committee (4 members) to co-opt 2 if it wished.

Q3: Do you agree that any unelected members of committees should no longer have a right to vote?

Yes. It is an affront to democracy that unelected members could ever sway an issue by voting.

Q4. Do you agree that all votes taken by councils and committees of councils should be recorded in a manner which would allow constituents to identify whether their elected member(s) had been present and able to take part in the vote?

Yes. Representative democracy depends on this sort of thing.

Q5: Do you agree with the following proposed categorisations of votes and no-votes? If not, what categories would best achieve the aim of greater accountability?

Names of all members present for that vote

Names of those voting yes

Names of those voting no

Names of those abstaining

Names of those ineligible to vote and the reason (e.g. because of a conflict of interest).

Names of those present and eligible but who did not vote


Q6: Beyond meetings of the whole council and its committees, are there any other meetings which should be covered by such a provision? How should such meetings be defined so as to apply clearly to every local authority and allow for variations in structure?

I do not know what kind of meeting could be referred to, but if it is any meeting at which individuals are eligible to vote by virtue of being councillors, or by virtue of some other position that they hold because they are councillors, they should be covered.

Q7: Do you agree that councillors should be obliged to record, in the same way as set out at question 5, any votes taken regarding local authorities’ statutory functions that take place in organisations and bodies out-with the local authority?

See my answer to Q6.

Q8: Do you agree that local authorities should be obliged to webcast all meetings to which the public are currently permitted?

Q9: Should the scope of this measure go beyond meetings of the full council and its committees and sub-committees? If so, what other meetings should local authorities be required to webcast?

Q10: Do you agree that, in addition to live webcasting, local authorities should be required to make archived recordings available for a period following the meeting? What would an appropriate period be?

I do not know enough about webcasting to have strong opinions on this. I do, however, feel that in all these cases, the minutes of meetings should be posted on the website, and archived indefinitely; and that if any materials are webcast, the archived recordings should remain available for a period including the next two council elections.

Q11: What is your assessment of the likely financial implications of the proposed Bill?

I do not know enough about webcasting to speak to its financial implications. The other proposed changes would probably result in a small financial saving.

Q12: Is the proposed Bill likely to have any substantial positive or negative implications for equality? If it is likely to have a substantial negative implication, how might this be minimised or avoided?

The proposed bill would enhance equality, by removing the privileges associated with religious organisations to which most Scots no longer belong (the combined membership of the Catholic Church and the Church of Scotland was less than 50% at the last census).

Q13: Do you have any other comments or suggestions relevant to the final proposal?

Merely that, like most Scots, I was unaware of the existence of these reserved seats until very recently, and now that I am so aware, I am amazed that they were not abolished generations ago. Church spokesmen defend their existence, on the grounds that they have valuable experience. So have many others, such as parents, teachers, policemen, social workers, and medical personnel, and councils can co-opt such people, or take testimony from them, when they feel the need to do so. The claim that Church spokesmen are of such high virtue that they should be on council committees whether anyone wants them there or not, is breathtaking in its arrogance.


My Scottish friends; please write to your MSPs in support of opt-in petition; draft letter here

As many of you know, the Scottish Secular Society has petitioned the Scottish Parliament for a change in practice from opt-out to opt-in for religious observance. The petition has attracted wide attention, including support from the Herald, and now seems to me to have a greater chance of success than would have seemed possible even a year ago. In any case, it is doing a great job in opening up debate on the entire embarrassing question of church-state relationships, which politicians wold much rather ignore, and it is important that it receive as much visible support as possible.
You can find your MSP using
below is a suggested draft letter, rehearsing the main arguments. Tweak as appropriate.
Time is running out; the 2nd hearing in committee is November 12.
And please consider passing this on to your friends. Our basic problem is that the religious establishment are a clearly defined constituency. The reply must be, to show that we’re a constituency too.

Dear XXX,

I write as your constituent to ask your support for Petition 1487, Religious Observance in Schools, which seeks to replace the present “opt-out” system for Religious Observance (RO) with “opt-in”.  The petition and responses are at, and the Petitions Committee will be holding its second hearing on November 12. We believe that the proposed change will end serious problems with the present system, lead to improvements in communication between home and school about the nature of RO, and help RO fulfil its aim of celebrating shared values.

The present system presumes agreement with the school’s practice of RO. Not all school handbooks even fulfil the legal requirement to state that opt-out from RO is available. Children who opt out are not properly catered for, and are made to feel exceptional, while there are examples of schools putting pressure on parents to reverse their decision, or even on occasion denying that the right to opt out exists in their school. The proposed change to opt-in would prevent such wrongs.

At present, while RO is intended to be a celebration of universal community values, it is often in practice dominated by one particular worldview, generally, in so-called non-denominational schools, Protestantism. This at a time when the number of Scots having no religious affiliation exceeds a third, and is greater than that of the Church of Scotland, the most numerous denomination.

The practice of RO varies enormously from school to school, and recent events at Kirktonholme Primary, where to parents’ dismay, creationist and anti-scientific books were distributed during RO, show how far it is at times from achieving its ideals. Such abuses would be most unlikely under the improved school-home communication that would result from opt-in.

Finally, we believe that the proposed change will reinvigorate RO by leading to general discussion of its nature and purpose, discussion that in our present diverse society is essential for its long-term survival.


Petition to Abolish Church Seats on Scottish Education Committees; 10 Good Reasons to Sign

As I explained in my last post, a pre-devolution law requires three unelected church representatives as full voting members of every Council Education Committee in Scotland, and I strongly urge my friends to support the Edinburgh Secular Society petition ( to read and, if you agree, sign, click here) to change this. I recently discovered that the law also requires Diocesan representation in England, from Church of England and the Catholic Church. I suspect that the reason for having three representatives in Scotland is the fractious history of Scottish Presbyterianism.

The Rev. David Fraser’s church  quotes experts 99.9% sure that they have found Noah’s Ark (this, from his Church’s web site, is just a scale model). The Rev. David Fraser sits,unelected, on Clackmannanshire’s Education Committee 

Anyway, there we are, stuck (as the law stands) with three representatives of religion, whether anyone wants them or no. One chosen by (not just from) the Church of Scotland, one by the Catholic Church, and one chosen to represent local religious belief. Holding the balance of power in 19 out of Scotland’s 32 councils. This despite the fact that more than a third of all Scots no longer identify with any religion, and 65% of young Scots identify themselves as non-religious.

So what are the implications for my own chief concern, the teaching of science? In the summer of 2015, the Scottish Secular Society use Freedom of Information requests to obtain a full list of these church appointees, and how they obtained their positions. At least ten of of them give particular reason for concern.

David Fraser, Baptist, Clackmannanshire, nominated himself when asked to consult with the District’s Baptists. He represents Alva Baptist Church, which links to Answers in Genesis on its website, while David Fraser himself hails from Metro Calvary Santa Monica. This church believes in the special creation of Adam and Eve as characters in history, and a literal historical Fall that left their descendants “corrupted in every aspect of their being”. I’m not sure I like the idea of my children’s education being directed, in part, by someone who thinks they are corrupted in every aspect of their being. And, that of the 150,000 people who will die today, the vast majority are entering Hell. However, there is some good news; they think they’ve found Noah’s Ark. Perhaps the Rev. David Fraser will make sure this discovery makes it into the syllabus of his Council’s schools.

John Jackson, East Dunbartonshire, represents Kirkintilloch Baptist Church, whose web site says almost nothing about the church’s beliefs. This does not bode well, although the list of sermon topics shows a commendable concern for social justice.

Falkirk Council gives us Michael Rollo, of Larbert Pentecostal Church, an affiliate of the modestly named “Assemblies of God”, whose beliefs include biblical infallibility, bodily resurrection, and “the everlasting conscious punishment of all whose names are not written in the book of life”. Charming. The Rev. Rollo owes his position to the fact that the Church of first choice, Episcopalian, failed to answer requests to nominate.

In Fife, we have Mr Alastair Crockett, from Cupar Baptist Church, whose statement of beliefs refers to the divine inspiration of the Bible, but does not mention infallibility. Promising, and I am aware that “Baptist” is, like “Evangelical”, a broad term including many whose attitude towards science is exemplary. As always, the devil (if I may so put it) is in the details. Regarding the Rev Graeme Clark, Central Baptist Church, Paisley (Renfrewshire) I can say even less, since his church seems to have lost its website.

No such ambiguity attaches to Mark Fraser, Assistant Pastor/Youth Minister, of The Bridge Church, Irvine (North Ayrshire), sole respondent to a newspaper advertisement, which maintains that “[t]he one who physically dies in his sins without Christ is hopelessly and eternally lost in the lake of fire and therefore, has no further opportunity of hearing the Gospel or for repentance. The lake of fire is literal.” It also believes in divine healing through the laying on of hands. So now we know. He believes that anyone who disagrees with him, including a clear majority of the children whose education he is influencing, is going to suffer eternal torment, and serve them right.

The Rev. David Donaldson, of Greenock Elim Pentecostal Church, also obtained his position in response to a newspaper advertisement. He received his training at  the International Christian College in Glasgow, now replaced by the Scottish School of Christian Mission, and his Church’s beliefs include the literary infallibility of the Bible, a historical Fall, the universal sinfulness of all men since that Fall, rendering man subject to God’s wrath and condemnation, and the eternal conscious punishment of the wicked.

In South Lanarkshire, we have yet another sole respondent to a newspaper advertisement, Dr Nagy Iskander, of Westwoodhill Evangelical Church. This name will be familiar to my habitual readers for his direct association with Answers in Genesis, his presence (until last August) on the chaplaincy team of Calderglen High, and his commitment to the view that evolution and creationism are equally untestable, and should therefore be discussed evenhandedly. By all accounts, including those of his intellectual opponents, Dr Iskander is a thoroughly nice guy, and if (I’m not sure) he thinks I’m gong to burn in Hell forever, I am confident that he deeply regrets the fact, unlike some.

And finally, the Western Isles. Here the Church of Scotland is represented by the Moderator of the Presbytery of Lewis, currently threatening to secede over the ordination of gay ministers. We have the Free Church of Scotland, committed to biblical infallibility. There is a Catholic representative, although on my reading of the law there doesn’t really need to be one here. And then we have the Free Presbyterian Church, which regards all other churches as having fallen away in either doctrine or practice, maintains “that the Bible is the Word of God, inspired and infallible, from beginning to end” and that “[t]he duty of the civil magistrate is to protect the Church of God”, and devotes a page on its website to explaining why Christians shouldn’t celebrate Christmas.

All of the above, remember, sit and vote on committees designing educational policy for all the children in their area, believers and unbelievers alike, whether anyone else wants them there, or not.

Original post October 2013, updated October 2016. The petition to remove these unelected clergy is live for signature and comment, by Scots and others, here until November 16 2016.

Petition: End Church nominations to Scottish Education Committees

By pre-devolution law, three unelected church representatives sit as full voting members of every Council Education Committee in Scotland. Edinburgh Secular Society is petitioning the Scottish Parliament to change this. I strongly urge my friends, especially my Scottish friends, to support this petition (link here; if you live in Scotland, take care to say so). This petition is supported by the Scottish Secular Society, the Humanist Society of Scotland, and the National Secular Society.

   According to AnswersInGenesisDr  Nagy iskander, shown here with his wife Nashwa who shares his mission, “teaches the books of the Bible in government schools as part of the official religious education curriculum,” and is “One of Europe’s most active creationists.” Dr Iskander is an unelected religious representative on South Lanarkshire Council Education Committee. 

A pre-devolution law forces every local authority in Scotland  Education Committee to co-opt three representatives of religion, whether they want to or no. One of these must be nominated by the Church of Scotland, one by the Catholic Church, and one chosen to represent local religious belief. This third representative is typically chosen from respondents to newspaper advertisements, making it very easy for Councillors who support a particular religious viewpoint to tip off their favourite denominations. The representatives of religion, although completely unelected and (apart from their parent Church) unmandated, have the vote on what is always the largest and most important of all council committees, and, according to the Church of Scotland itself, hold the balance of power in 19 out of Scotland’s 32 councils. This despite the fact that more than a third of all Scots no longer identify with any religion. That last number almost certainly under-represents the proportion of the non-religious among parents of school children, to say nothing of the children themselves when old enough to form their own opinions, since 65% of young Scots identify themselves as non-religious.

These religious representatives bring more to council meetings than the benefit of their wisdom. They will, by definition, bring a certain view of what kind of place the world is. They will, by profession, regard religion itself as a highly important aspect of life, otherwise they would not have chosen to devote their own lives to it. So when it comes to deciding how much importance to give Religious Observance, or how much time and effort the school should put into maintaining its chaplaincy team, they will have their own biased point of view. They will also have their own special interests, based on those of their Church, affecting such issues as the locating of schools, and whether or not new schools should be denominational.

Edinburgh Secular Society has published data (full details here) on the identities of the religious representatives in every Scottish council. In some cases, the identities of the religious representatives give particular reason for anxiety. My own specific concern is with the teaching of science, and the brute fact that some versions of religion flatly reject the facts of the antiquity of the Earth, and of evolution of living things from a common ancestor. Scientifically, this means rejecting the whole of earth science, astronomy and cosmology, and large areas of physics, chemistry, and even ancient history. Philosophically, it means elevating one particular highly questionable interpretation of one particular, also highly questionable, text above all other kinds of evidence.

So what does the membership of the education committees tell us? On this score, at least, the Catholic Church representatives should give little cause for concern, since the Vatican accepts the historic fact of evolution. Concerning the Church of Scotland representatives, there would until recently have been little to worry about, but this may be changing. The Church of Scotland now sends seminarists to the interdenominational Highland Theological College, which has a biblical infalibilist requirement for teaching staff and two six-day biblical literalist theologians on its Board of Governors. To an outsider, this looks like an unsavoury political deal, where the liberal wing of the deeply divided Church has agreed to this creationist infiltration, in the (probably vain) hope of being allowed, in return, to pursue more gay-tolerant policies.

Of the third (and occasionally fourth) representatives of religion, two are Church of Scotland, two Moslem, one Jewish, one Salvation Army, four Baptist, and five (from four local authorities) represent smaller evangelical Protestant groups who embrace biblical literalism. So, if you are a parent in 8 out of Scotland’s 32 council districts you might have worries about who is deciding what your children will hear at school.

As I shall show in my next posting, these worries will be more than justified.

Suddenly, I’m an intolerant atheist

Lately, we have all heard a lot about “intolerant atheists”. I was wondering who these people were. Now I know. It’s me.

As many of my readers know, Secular Scotland is backing a parliamentary petition to change the rules regarding Religious Observance in schools from opt-out (parents must take the initiative, and are often not even notified of their right to do so), to opt-in (children are only taking part if their parents want them to). Here is what RCScotland, the Catholic Parliamentary Office, had to say in reply, in Fr Paul’s posting of June 11:

 The intolerant mindset of the petitioners is perfectly illustrated by the following two comments they have made: that for our country to be considered Christian “flies in the face of Scotland’s position as a leading proponent of equality and diversity”; and asking [sic] “do you think it is right, if you are a non-Christian believer, that your child is forced to endure Christian religious observance?” [Emphasis in original].

Well yes: I do think it arrogant presumption to call this country Christian when most of its population don’t even go to church to get married. Worse, I think it morally wrong to manoeuvre children into praying to a God they don’t believe in. And so, I must confess, I am guilty as charged. And proud of it.

You have until Thursday to sign the petition here.

One week left – petition to change opt-out to opt-in for Religious Observance in Scottish schools



[Update: the petition was duly submitted with 1516 signatures, and Mark Gordon (for himslef) and Caroline Lynch )for Secular Scotland)  have been invited to give evidence to the Petitions Committee in September]

Only one week remains to sign the Secular Scotland Petition to the Scottish Parliament (you can sign here), to change the procedure regarding registration for children to take part in Religious Observance in schools from opt-out to opt-in. This petition has already attracted widespread attention in broadcasts, local and national newspapers, and discussion forums both secular and religious.

I and others have already rehearsed the arguments. Parents (and children) are not being informed of their rights, and in one extreme case (the Edinburgh School Handbook template, no less), the existence of RO is not even mentioned. RO receives input from committees with their own dynamic, including in at least one case from a prominent advocate of six-day creationism. Children are left thinking that the school requires them to take part in religious ceremonies that they don’t believe in, and those parents who are aware of their rights and wish to assert them are presented with bureaucratic hurdles, up to and including the need for a personal conference with the head teacher.

My own view is clear. Children should only be taking part in religious observance if they want to be, and I do not understand why anyone, whatever their own personal beliefs, would wish it otherwise. The view from the Catholic Church, and from the Free Church of Scotland, who find themselves in agreement over this (as over so many things these days), is that the change would cause disastrous disruption to the fabric of society, and be a prelude to the complete removal of religion from the public educational system. Such anxieties speak volumes.

For what it’s worth (and I know that facts are not worth very much in some discussions), both the petitioner, Mark Gordon, and the supporting organization, Secular Scotland, are very much in favour of the retention of Religious Education in schools, given the important role of religion in cultures worldwide, both historically and in the present. Moreover, neither is demanding the removal of Religious Observance from schools (there is indeed a separate petition to that effect, in which, however, Secular Scotland plays no formal role). My own view is that the public discussion that would result from the change to opt-in would help rejuvenate RO, because its advocates, with inertia no longer on their side, would be forced to find a role for it suitable for today’s Scotland, in which the traditional beliefs can no longer be taken for granted.

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.


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