The committee begins this morning by considering PE1623 by Spencer Fildes, on behalf of the Scottish Secular Society, on unelected church appointees on local authority education committees. Evidence from Spencer Fildes and Paul Braterman from the Scottish Secular Society.
The Strathspey Herald reports that:
‘A clergyman has used his position on a Highland Council education committee to criticize the alleged promotion of homosexuality in schools.
Alexander MacLean, a member of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, also suggested that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) young people are bullied because they are “overt” and attract attention.” … Mr MacLean is one of three religious representative on the committee who have full voting rights under UK legislation.’ [Emphasis added]
The Strathspey Herald has grasped the central point. The issue, as always, is not whether Mr Maclean’s comments are acceptable, but whether it is appropriate for him to have a legally assured privileged position on the Education Committee from which to advance them, over and above any support his views may have in the community and among the elected Councillors. He holds that position as the result of legislation imposed from Westminster before devolution, even though education is itself a devolved area. So the Scottish Parliament can change this anachronistic and undemocratic law, and we are asking them to do so.
The episode illustrates more clearly than any words of mine the need to remove the Church nominees from their unelected positions of power. Mr MacLean is entitled to his views, but he is not entitled to a privileged platform at the heart of local government from which to promote them.
The story so far: Spencer Fildes and I defended our petition to the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee on November 24. The Committee (transcript here; see “New Petitions) listened most attentively, questioned us closely but not unsympathetically, and agreed to write to a number of organisations for their views. You will find full details, including petition text and links to the submissions received, at the Petition website. Now read on:
There may still be time for individuals and organisations to submit their own views, but the window is rapidly closing. We would suggest that any submissions at this stage should be short and concentrate on the central issues, and that individual submissions mention any relevant personal details (e.g. parent, teacher, own schooling, professional qualifications and degrees). What follows is my own response, on behalf of Scottish Secular Society. If you find some of this material (especially the analysis of the arguments put forward by defenders of the system) repetitious and boring, I can only agree.
Response to submissions
We respond here to the specific arguments raised in submissions to the Committee. To avoid repetition, we present some relevant general points, before dealing with the individual submissions.
[A personal note: I am submitting this on behalf of the Scottish Secular Society, as their Science Adviser. I have spent my life as an educator, my own children were educated in publicly funded Scottish schools, and I am currently collaborating with Prof Roger Downie, Glasgow University, in a study of evolution education in Scotland.]
1] Several submissions refer to the presence on the Education Committees of other non-elected members, such as parent, teacher, and pupil representatives, and Council officials. We would have no objection to the presence of religious representatives on the same terms, i.e. by invitation of the elected members, and non-voting.
Religious representatives hold the only positions within the entire Scottish government structure that are not answerable to the electorate or their chosen representatives. They are chosen without reference to the general public, and then imposed on Councils regardless of the wishes of the elected members; none of the submissions opposing our petition address this central fact.
2] (This matter was raised in Committee): the minutes of Falkirk Education Committee for September this year show that the religious representatives there do vote on divisions, including divisions on topics not directly related to religion, and we have verified that this is also the case elsewhere.
3] It is claimed that the religious representatives are independent, non-political, and broaden representation by their presence. We disagree on all counts. They may be independent of party, but that is only because they are independent of the electorate, and we do not see that as a strength in a democracy. They are, instead, totally dependent on their nominating Churches, and pursue those Churches’ agenda in Committee. Fully one third of the representatives are clergy, and there is no reason to regard the others as more broadly representative than the elected Councillors.
4] Our opponents refer extensively to the importance of religion. Religion is indeed important, and so are many other things, such as science and physical health. We trust our schools and the Education Committees that supervise them to teach pupils about science and health, without imposing on them representatives of the Royal Society of Edinburgh or the local Health Boards. Why this strange need for supervision by special interests when it comes to religion?
5] The petition is criticised for singling out religious representatives, as if this were an attack on religion. This is a straw man argument. Religious representatives are not singled out by us, but by the uniqueness of their situation. They are insulated from the discipline of the ballot box, and are the only persons so privileged within the entire Scottish government structure. We would object on the same grounds if there were similar protected positions for the irreligious.
The Scottish Government response
The Scottish Government response represents a significant change from its earlier position when responding to PE01498, a closely related petition 3 years ago. Their more recent response makes interesting use of the past tense (“was viewed as providing support to the authority“) and while stating that there are no plans for change, now stops short of declaring support for the status quo. The new response also invites the Scottish Secular Society to take part in the current consultation on education. We will of course do so. However, we are concerned in case the two processes (petition and consultation) interfere with each other, since we regard the subject of the present petition as a free-standing issue.
Submissions from the Consortium of Scottish Local Authorities, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and the Scottish Parent Teacher Council
COSLA appears neutral, denying excessive influence by the religious representatives, but making no arguments in their favour, and referring, as if by contrast, to the broader question of community representation (see  above).
eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation; Advance equality of opportunity between different groups, and Foster good relations between different groups
and states that
“the Commission believes that, as concerns have now been raised, an appropriate course of action for Scottish Ministers may be to assess whether these provisions and the policies and practices which flow from them meet the requirement to give due regard to the three elements of the Equality Duty listed above.”
We agree, and note that none of these issues have been addressed by any of the opponents to our petition, nor by the Scottish Government in its responses to date.
The Scottish Parent Teacher Council completely supports us on the central issue that the Churches should not have the right to appoint voting members of the Committees, and is generally in favour of membership of these Committees being broadened. It makes a number of detailed recommendations to that end, but these lie outside the scope of our petition.
Other submissions in support
With one exception, individual submissions from a range of backgrounds and belief positions are strongly supportive; we let these speak for themselves. Note that Iain Campbell is founder of the Western Isles Secular Society, while Janet Briggs is Secretary of the Glasgow Unitarian Church.
Michael Zimmermann, of Clergy Letter Project, is rightly concerned about the disproportionate influence of science-denying fringe Churches. As emerged in Committee, what matters here is not merely that such views are educationally unhelpful, but that they are unrepresentative, so that their empowerment demonstrates fundamental flaws in how the system operates.
Edinburgh Secular Society draw attention to the lack of progress since they first raised the matter in 2013. They point out that the Churches have not owned the schools since 1872, now represent a minority of the population, and that their representatives are unelected, unaccountable, and use their influence to further their special interests. One example is the frustration of attempts to set up joint-campus schools. Those who wish to pursue such a divisive policy should do so by standing for election.
Glasgow Theosophical Society supports the petition on general grounds, and is specifically concerned “that the present arrangement does not support non-religious individuals and groups or promote the views of rational philosophy in shaping educational learning.”
Although our general points (above) anticipate many of the arguments against us, we prefer to discuss the hostile submissions in detail for completeness, and in case we appear to acquiesce. We apologise for the unavoidable length of this section, and make repeated references to General Points  through  in an attempt to minimise repetitiveness. The one hostile submission from an individual, Andrew Strachan, has already been discussed in Committee.
Church of Scotland accuses the petition of selective quotation from an outdated document. We had in fact intended to quote in full at greater length, to avoid such an accusation, but were advised by the Clerks to be selective for reasons of brevity. The petition gives the full citation to the source we used, and unfortunately the Church of Scotland does not provide a reference to the current version.
Turning to matters of substance, CofS denies, despite having itself introduced the term, that its position is one of privilege, but states no reason for this view, other than its own benignity. It denies that its representatives are “unelected”, since it considers its internal process (which it does not describe) to be a form of election. This completely misses the central point, that the representatives are not answerable to the general electorate. CofS refers to its 1.7 million adherents (less than a third of the population, and even this according to figures cited in the petition is an overestimate), but gives no details of how they are involved in the process, which we suspect of being restricted in practice to a handful of highly active members. It also asks how the petitioners know that the 37% (latest figures give 52%) of non-believers are unhappy with the Church of Scotland representatives. This is irrelevant to our arguments, but we could equally well ask what makes the Church imagine that nonbelievers would be happy with the situation if they knew about it, as most do not?
The CofS submission draws the usual misleading analogy between the religious representatives and co-opted Council members (see  above), and makes the unsupported claim (see  above) that its appointees broaden democracy and make it more participatory.
Finally, the submission denies our claim that present practice “violates equality by excluding non-believers, and many believers”, on the grounds that some small faith groups also have representatives in some districts, such as the Bahai in Shetland. We do not follow the reasoning here. How is an atheist, or for that matter a Bahai, in Glasgow, rendered any less excluded from the making of the decisions that affect them by the fact that there is a solitary Bahai religious representative taking part in decision-making, 300 miles away?
The Scottish Catholic Education Service claims that “[T]his current petition is discriminatory in nature against religious bodies as it refers solely to unelected Church representatives.” For refutation, see  above. It is worth repeating that our objection is not to their being Church representatives, but to their being unelected, imposed, and voting.
The Catholic Education Service refers to the “many unelected members” of Education Committees; for our response, again, see .
“Church representatives … operate on a non-political basis and therefore make a valuable and objective contribution to the local community.” For rebuttal, see .
Unaware of the self-contradiction, the Catholic Education Service in its very next paragraph describes its Church’s representatives as committed to the pursuit of a very specific agenda, saying that “their role in doing so is seen by the Church as vital to the welfare of Catholic schools.“ This passage shows a marked lack of confidence in the ability of Catholic voters to look after their own interests. The reality is that we will have Catholic schools as long as there is demand for them, but here the Catholic Education Service seems to be demanding protection over and above this.
The Catholic Church submission also refers to the legislation independently ensuring the continued existence of denominational schools, the legal requirement that the Catholic Church must, like other interested parties, be consulted over Council education policy, and the special entrenched role of the Catholic Education Service and the Council of Bishops in the management of Catholic schools. These are presented as reasons for the continued presence of the Catholic Church representatives on Education Committees, whereas on the contrary they are reasons for regarding those representatives as redundant. Nor do they excuse the fact that nominees from all churches have, and use, the right to vote on all matters of educational policy, whether their own denominations are particularly affected and indeed whether or not religion is specifically involved (see  above).
Interfaith Scotland reports that “diverse traditions support having a religious voice on Education Committees to ensure a balanced and nuanced approach to education in Scotland which includes an understanding of the potential religious needs of an increasingly religiously diverse Scotland,” and go on to speak of the role of faith groups in Scottish society. In response, we refer to , and also raise again the implied neglect of the educational needs of the nonreligious. To the extent that the religious do have special educational needs, these can surely be met, and generally are, from the religious community’s own resources.
Finally, Interfaith Scotland aspires to greater inclusiveness, as in the examples (also cited by CofS) of Bahai and Muslim representatives. This is mere tokenism, since religious views are so diverse that it would require an enormous commitment to accommodate them (how many different representatives would be needed merely to accommodate the diverse Presbyterian groups in Glasgow, for example?)
The Muslim Council of Scotland, MCS, claims that religious representatives do represent the majority of the population. This is no longer true, but is in any case irrelevant to the issues of discrimination and lack of democratic accountability. MCS deplores sectarianism, prejudice, and hate crimes, and argues for mutual understanding. Few would disagree. It further states “We believe that it is vital that the views of all faith and belief groups, are taken into account to inform committee decisions. Therefore, we would like to see wider representation where views of all faith groups are considered.” This is an interesting agenda, but it cannot possibly be achieved by representation of all groups. For instance, within Scottish Islam alone there are at least two major groups (three if one accepts the claim of Ahmedis to be regarded as Muslims), each with its own internal divisions. MCS suggests dealing with this problem by having one faith group speak for several others. We don’t see how this could possibly work.
MCS refers to “the very human values adopted by the Scottish people, over the years such as wisdom, compassion, integrity and justice,” and the role of religion in developing these. Yet the relationship between religion and morality is, as we point out in the petition itself, debatable, and the suggestion that religion is necessary for appreciation of these values is deeply offensive to non-believers. MCS recognise that many elected Councillors belong to religious communities, but notes (correctly) that that is not the sole determinant of how they vote. But why should it be? MCS claim that the religious representatives are not unelected, since they are elected by their own faith groups; for rebuttal see our response to this argument as advanced by the Church of Scotland.
MCS further states “This petition singles out religious representatives on Education Committees. Other Local Authority Committees, in fact the practice of the committee system as a whole, invariably include unelected voting members representing other bodies”. This is not true. In the cases that we have examined, the other nonelected members are always non-voting. Moreover, they invariably derive their mandate to serve from the elected Councillors; see . MCS states that the religious representatives’ contributions are “often greatly appreciated”. Maybe. Under our proposal, if Councils do indeed appreciate such contributions, they have but to ask for them. MCS then repeats the argument from the alleged diversity of religious representatives; here, again, see .
To summarise this section, our opponents use, repetitiously, a limited range of by now familiar arguments, none of them addressing the core issues in ways that will stand up to examination.
We rest our case on broad principles of democracy, equality, and fairness. In this we are supported (SPTC), or at least not opposed (COSLA), by those most directly affected, while EHRC agrees with us that the questions we raise require an answer; we are also supported by some religious groups and all but one individual commenters and respondents. As might be expected, we are opposed by those organisations whose undemocratic privileges we seek to remove, but their arguments will not stand examination. The system we have inherited is anti-democratic, unfair, and discriminatory. Changing demographics only underline its anachronistic nature. The time is ripe for change.
Prof Paul S Braterman, MA, DPhil, DSc, on behalf of Scottish Secular Society
Presentation to Parliament: Removing Church nominees from Council Education Committees (Petition PE01623)
Update: the transcript of the meeting is now available at http://www.parliament.scot/parliamentarybusiness/report.aspx?r=10656 then “New petitions” then “Local Authority Education Committees”
The petition progresses. Yesterday, Spencer Fildes and I (actually, mainly Spencer) gave evidence to Holyrood’s Public Petitions Committee. The petition itself is now closed for signature, but submissions from organisations, or from individuals, especially I would suggest parents and teachers, remain welcome at petitions@parliament.Scot. (Suggestions: specify PE01623, and keep it short.)
As I reported yesterday, the Committee heard us with close attention, questioned us for almost half an hour, and resolved to seek further testimony from interested bodies. We could not have wished for more at this stage. There will now be an interval while responses and other submissions are collected, for consideration by the Committee, probably early in the New Year. The Committee will then have to decide whether to close (i.e. kill) the petition, or to forward it to the Education Skills Committee for further consideration. It would be unwise to attempt to predict which of those options it will choose, but they clearly agree that we have raised an important and timely issue.
Thankyou, Convener, and my thanks to the Committee for inviting us.
At present, every Council Education Committee in Scotland is required by law to include three full voting members nominated by the Churches. Voters and their elected representatives have no choice in the matter. This legal requirement dates back to 1929, and in its present form to 1973. It is so broadly worded, that it could well apply to any future education system.
We believe this current system is out of place and does not reflect a constantly evolving, rapidly modernising Scottish democracy. We would not dream of allowing the Churches to impose members on this Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee. But that’s what we’re doing to Scottish councils.The Scottish Secular Society believes it is time for change. Currently, the future of Scottish education is under active discussion. Now would be the perfect time to review the status quo.
One major consideration is the fact that parents who hold no belief now represent the majority among primary school parents. This has now created a democratic deficit across Local Education Authorities.
To address this changing demographic, we respectfully suggest that the simplest change would be to relax the requirement. We would like to see the law allowing, not compelling, the elected members to appoint up to 3 such representatives, and to decide whether or not to give them voting powers, much as they do right now for parent and teacher representatives.
To gauge the views of Scotland’s MSP’s on this matter, we wrote to every one of them to find we have considerable cross-party support. Two MSPs actually thought that the system already was the way we would like it to be, and approved of that. Other MSP comments, in brief:
“there may well be merit in looking afresh at this again”, and “there should be a greater amount of autonomy in choosing the best people whether they be religious leaders or not”, “I am broadly supportive of the concept of members of Education Committees being elected”, “it is up to each local authority to decide who should be on the education committee.”, “the current arrangement must change” and “the status quo is an anachronism”.
Our supporters include
- Professor Dame Anne Glover, who was scientific adviser to the Scottish Government and then to the EU
- Clergy Letter Project, which represents 15,000 ordained clergy worldwide
- The Secretary of Glasgow Unitarian Church.
- Glasgow Theosophical Society,
As our petition statement shows, the present situation is undemocratic, unjust, encroaches on human rights, and is highly problematic in enforcement. In addition, it is unnecessary, infringes local autonomy, and is the opposite of participatory democracy.
It is unnecessary, since denominational schools have their own separate mechanisms of governance. Many Churches are already involved in individual schools, including non-denominational schools. Believers, like everyone else, can and should vote, take part in public debate, and stand for office, however, unlike what we are challenging today – religion in this case should be afforded no privilege over those who may hold no belief.
It infringes on local autonomy because laws handed down by central government (in this case, the 1973 and 1994 Westminster governments) are imposed on local Councils regardless of their wishes.
It is certainly not participatory democracy. The broader community is not involved, and the appointees are answerable only to their own Churches.
Finally, many councils have difficulty filling some positions, and there are some, in our view, with questionable appointments. If the system was meeting a legitimate need, such recruitment problems would unlikely arise.
The Church of Scotland itself admits that the system requires an element of reform, and the simplest, is the one that we suggest.
Scotland’s regions are highly diverse. We believe Local Councils themselves are the best judges of local needs, have a local mandate from their voters, and should be free to use it.
In conclusion, we would respectfully ask you to seek opinions from organisations representing non-believers as well as believers, and from organisations concerned with schooling and with human rights, such as Time for Inclusive Education and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, with a view to forwarding our petition to the Education and Skills Committee.
This morning, Thursday November 24, the Public Petitions Committee listened to our evidence most attentively, and agreed to what we had asked for at this stage, namely for them to write to interested parties for their views. A pleasant occasion, which you can watch in full here.
The petition is no longer open for signature, but organisations and interested individuals may submit by email to email@example.com , with “PE01632, Unelected Church Appointees” as the subject line.
Here is the BBC News Live report:*
The Public Petitions Committee takes evidence on on unelected church appointees on local authority education committees. MSPs consider PE01623 from Spencer Fildes
PE1623 calls on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish government to remove the constitutional anomaly that imposes unelected Church appointees on Local Authority Education Committees.
10:05 Spence Fildes makes an opening statement on his petition PE1623, on behalf of the Scottish Secular Society, on unelected church appointees on local authority education committees.
Mr Fildes says the current system is out of place. Mr Fildes says religion should hold no privilege over those who hold no belief. He says the current system of unelected church members is certainly not participatory democracy.
Labour MSP Johann Lamont says there is currently a governance review of Scottish education and asks if this may be a way to address the issue. Mr Fildes says the Scottish Secular Society is participating in the consultation and has “chucked its oar in”.
SNP MSP Angus Macdonald says church appointees do not always have voting rights. [No he didn’t; he knows better. He was actually suggesting having church appointees without voting rights, as sometines happens for other non-elected committee members]
Mr Fildes says the argument is not against church appointees but the way they are appointed. He says to give the position just because someone is religious is wrong, they must be there due to the will of the local authority. Mr Fildes says the Scottish Secular Society run a facebook page where they canvas people’s opinions. He says the anecdotal responses regularly bring up this issue of unelected church representatives on education boards.
The Scottish Secular Society representative says church members are imposed on the boards. SNP MSP Rona Mackay asks about other non-elected representatives on the board.
Mr Fildes says where there is a need by the local authority for expertise that is ok. He says if a local authority decided to have a church representative that would be fine. Mr Fildes says we need to get to a point that it is a win win for anyone. He says the Scottish Secular Society stands for “Freedom from religion and freedom of religion.” Mr Fildes he backs freedom of speech, however he is against imposed church appointees.
10:35 Committee convener Johann Lamont asks her fellow MSPs to consider the action the committee will now take. Tory MSP Brian Whittle agrees with Ms Lamont’s suggestion to find out if the Scottish government has changed its view on the issue. Ms Lamont says the committee should write to COSLA to find out local authority views.The committee agrees to contact a number of organisations with interests in the petition:
- the Scottish Parent Teacher Council
- the Association of Directors of Education Scotland
- the Church of Scotland Education Committee
- the Scottish Catholic Education Service
- the Educational Institute of Scotland
- Interfaith Scotland
- the Muslim Council of Scotland
- the Equality and Human Rights Commission Scotland and the Humanist Society Scotland
* http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/live/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-38050473 24 Nov 2016, lightly edited to remove redundancies
Reminder: there is still time to show support for our petition to abolish Church appointees on Local Authority Education Committees; just click here and fill in your details
Summary: Religious values, unless they are also shared human values, will be important to those who want to follow that particular religion, but have no special significance for the rest of us.
The Churches refer to “Christian values”, in order to justify their uninvited presence on Council Education Committees. Like other reasons offered (see earlier post), this one repays closer examination.
The Church of Scotland enjoins its appointees to assert their presence “by exercising your statutory right and endeavouring to influence council education policies in areas of interest to the national church, including the development of the curriculum, Christian values, religious and moral education and religious observance in schools”. I have already discussed the implications for the curriculum and for religious and moral education and religious observance. Here I would like to concentrate on the concept of Christian values, and, indeed, religious values in general.
Most believers take it for granted that the morality derived from their own religion is superior to others, and indeed a very common argument in favour of religious belief is that, without it, there is no basis for moral conduct. (Note, by the way, that this is not an argument in favour of the truth of religion, but only of its usefulness.) But can morality be derived from religion? More specifically, if, by some means, we know what God does or does not want, is that enough to tell us the difference between right and wrong?
Consider, as many people have, the story of how Abraham was willing to follow God’s command and sacrifice his son, Isaac. As a teenager, I took this story very seriously, and asked myself whether Abraham was really doing the right thing. I gradually came to realise that this is a very interesting question, however you answer it, because it shows up a fundamental problem with the idea that morality comes from God.
What I did not know was that this problem had been pointed out over 2000 years ago, by Plato’s Socrates, in what is known as Euthyphro’s Dilemma. In today’s language, are good actions good because they correspond to what God wants, or does God want them because they are good? The first alternative makes morality dependent on the whim of the Deity, which few of us will find satisfying. Some religions, after all, have believed in a God who wants human sacrifices. The second implies that goodness can be defined independent of God, in which case religion is not the ultimate basis for morality anyway.
Then there is the small problem of deciding what God actually wants. Does God want us to kill homosexuals? The authors of Leviticus certainly thought so, and Daesh ( the “Islamic State”) thinks so today. Does He want us to kill blasphemers and heretics? The legal codes of many countries say that He does, and there was a period in the sixteenth century when Catholics and Protestants agreed that this is indeed what He wants, even though they could not agree on who was, or was not, heretical.
Some say the Ten Commandments encapsulate what God wants. So here’s my own brief summary; full text in the Appendix to this post:
God brought you out of Egypt (only applies to Jews, and anyway completely unhistorical). Don’t make idols, take God’s name in vain, or worship other gods, because God is jealous and will be very cross and punish you for generations. Not much morality there. Honour your parents; generally a good idea, though I have seen exceptions. And take a day off each week; good advice. But the reason offered is strange; that God made heaven and earth in six days (yes, that’s what it says), and rested on the seventh (what does it mean, I wonder, for God to rest).
Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness. Very good advice, but do we need a Deity to tell us this? And, finally, it’s wrong to covet your neighbour’s slaves, but slavery itself is okay. Indeed, following on from the Ten Commandments in Exodus we have the rules about slavery. A Hebrew slave can leave if he wants after seven years, but his wife and kids have to stay behind because they are the master’s property.
At this point, some people will accuse me of poking fun at the Ten Commandments. On the contrary, I am taking them seriously, looking at what they actually say, and evaluating them as guides to action. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?
I had two reasons for analysing them in such detail here. Firstly, to challenge the claim of the great moral worthiness of these Commandments as a basis for morality. And secondly, and more importantly here, to illustrate the difference between general values and religious values.
As a matter of shared human values, I think we would all agree that murder, theft, slander, and cheating on our partners is not desirable behaviour. But I don’t notice unbelievers going around being any more homicidal, personally and sexually dishonest, or prone to malicious tale-bearing than the rest of us. Covetousness is an interesting case; at what point does the natural desire to improve one’s lot, and cut a respectable figure in society, become socially disruptive? As for this stuff about slaves, perhaps the kindest thing that we can say is that the authors of Exodus were people of their own time, and accepted (as most of us do today) their time’s view of economic necessity.
That leaves all the stuff about Egypt, graven images, and not making God jealous. I don’t think we need to pay attention to any of this if we don’t want to. Religious values, unless they are also shared human values, will be important to those who want to follow that particular religion, but have no special significance for the rest of us.
But you might say that it’s unfair to judge Christianity by quoting the Old Testament. OK, let’s fast forward a bit. I won’t linger over St Paul’s views on the duties of slaves and women, or the Albigensian Crusade, or the Spanish Inquisition (after all, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition), or the cosy relationship between at least some Churches and Hitler, Mussolini, and the bloodstained dictators of Latin America. These are more enlightened times.
Nor will I belabour the sex abuse scandals of recent years, the havoc wrought by the doctrinal absurdity of priestly celibacy, and the numerous administrative cover-ups, since not even the various Churches involved pretend to moral justification.
As for the involvement of the Catholic Church, the Church of England, and the Salvation Army in forced adoptions, they’ve apologised and won’t do it again, so let’s move on.
Consider instead an area where the moral consensus in the West has shifted dramatically within my own lifetime, and how the Churches have responded to this change. I am referring to sexual morality, and the closely related subject of the treatment of women.
Not too long ago, in Scotland, lower pay for women, and restricted employment and promotion, were regarded as part of the natural order of things. Sex between men was illegal, and, the “promotion” (i.e. discussion) of homosexuality in school health education classes specifically forbidden. Sex outside marriage was, however hypocritically, considered wrong, and the availability of contraception to young adults was restricted, for fear of condoning such activity. Abortion was illegal, unless it could be shown to endanger the mother’s health, and the barrier for this was set so high that illegal abortions were commonplace. Now, by contrast, job discrimination against women is illegal, except for certain jobs (such as the priesthood!) where gender is regarded as important to performance. We have same-sex marriage, and a highly successful grassroots campaign (TIE; Time for Inclusive Education) is leading to the incorporation of nonjudgemental discussion of homosexuality in school education programmes. Sexual morality is seen as based on human values of respect and concern, and teenage pregnancy is at an all-time low. There is still a legal requirement for doctors’ agreement to the necessity of an abortion, but it would be extraordinary for such an agreement to be withheld.
All of these changes will to most of us seem to be changes for the better. And all of them have taken place in the face of opposition, in some areas still effective and active, from the clergy. Thus in the areas of morality of the greatest concern to schoolchildren, the Churches have not been leaders, but laggards. The very last people, one might argue, to be granted a position of privilege on the committees that decide education policy.
Adapted with additional material from a post that first appeared in 3 Quarks Daily, under the title Democracy or theocracy; the bid to reform Scotland’s educational system. It also appears on the Scottish Secular Society website, at http://www.secularsociety.scot/church-education-denying-democracy/
Appendix: The Ten Commandments, KJV, Exodus 20:1-17 (there are minor differences in the version in Deuteronomy)
And God spake all these words, saying,
I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
Thou shalt not kill [a more exact translation would be, thou shalt not murder]. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.
How the Church of Scotland justifies its unelected Education Committee appointees; assumption, presumption, and privilege
As regular readers will know, moves are afoot to remove the three Church nominees who sit, with no regard to the electoral process, on every Local Authority Education Committee in Scotland (you can help by simply signing our Parliamentary Petition here).
In England, the legal requirement is for two such representatives, one from the Church of England and one from the Catholic Church. Something ought to be done something about this, although the English educational system, disrupted and fragmented, is now largely out of the hands of the local authorities anyway. There is much be said about the situation developing in England, little of it complimentary, but that is not my present concern.
The requirement for three church appointees reflects the fractious history of Scottish Protestantism, and the presence of these representatives is a relic of the Churches’ historical input. The representatives exert power on local authorities’ most important committees, their Education Committees, over and above the power they would exert as citizens, and the Churches to which they are answerable thereby exert power over and above the power that they certainly exert, and in a democratic society must be free to exert, as associations of individuals. This is not about religion; it is about power. It is not about rights; it is about privilege.
Consider the Church of Scotland’s own code of practice for its religious representatives, which states:
Since the state assumed responsibility for the provision of school education in 1872 the Church of Scotland has been granted a statutory role as part of the education authority of the day. This privileged position reflects the historical link between schooling and the church. For that reason, if for no other, it is important for church representation on local authority committees with a responsibility for education, to ensure a respected presence across Scotland. This may be achieved by establishing good relationships; by exercising your statutory right and endeavouring to influence council education policies in areas of interest to the national church, including the development of the curriculum, Christian values, religious and moral education and religious observance in schools.
Where to start? Let’s start with the description of the Church of Scotland as a national church. How seriously should we be taking this claim, when in today’s Scotland only a fifth of the population say that they belong to it, while twice as many say they have no religion. It’s not even as if people turned to the Church on special occasions; Humanist weddings in Scotland now outnumber those of any religious denomination. Then there is the disingenuous reference to the historic link between schooling and the church. The reality is that in 1872 what had been the Church of Scotland was split into two (soon to be three) major fragments, not to be reunited to form the present-day Church of Scotland until 1929, and that in any case the 1872 Act combined church-run and local authority schools in what was intended to be a single non-denominational system. But all this is a minor detail compared with the major presumption, that such history could possibly justify a special place for the Church. The Church could perhaps claim some kind of inherited property rights over pieces of land or buildings, but the idea of an inherited right to influence children’s education is morally repugnant. Thirdly, there is the assertion of a statutory right to seek to influence council education policies in areas of interest to the national church. What, one wonders, could this interest possibly be, over and above the interests of the pupils themselves, and the broader community to which they belong? Then there is the reference to Christian values. I will have much more to say about these in a later post (hint: Euthyphro’s Dilemma; Justification through Faith; the Churches and sexual morality; the 10 Commandments).
Finally, there are the stated objectives of endeavouring to influence … the development of the curriculum, religious and moral education and religious observance in schools.
Such endeavours by the Church, as by any other body, are a welcome ingredient of public discussion in our pluralist democracy. What is completely unacceptable is the pursuit of these objectives by means of an inherited privilege that lacks all democratic legitimacy.
Unless one believes (and one is forced to conclude that the Church leaders really do believe) that the ecclesiastical authorities have access to a kind of wisdom not granted to lesser mortals, what possible reason is there for the Church to have special reserved powers to influence the curriculum that affects all pupils (Church-connected or otherwise? For religious and moral education, the policy of Scotland’s Education Department is that the teaching of this subject (and it is actually a curriculum subject!) should educate but not indoctrinate, so that special Church influence in this area is completely out of place. And to conclude, the policy on religious observance states that it should represent the shared values of the community to which the school belongs, transcending denominational boundaries.
Thus, by its own accounting, the Church of Scotland plans to use its unelected appointees in ways that subvert the very educational system that they are there to influence. The policies of the other Churches making such appointments are presumably similar, and the argument used to justify the existence of these appointees turns out on inspection to highlight the need for their abolition.
*Exception: Orkney, which as of summer 2015 had no religious appointees. The Church of Scotland did, however, have two appointees, contrary to the law, in Midlothian and West Lothian.
This post uses material that first appeared in 3 Quarks Daily, under the title Democracy or theocracy; the bid to reform Scotland’s educational system
This post is also available at http://www.secularsociety.scot/church-scotland-justifies-unelected/
Church Appointees on Scotland’s Education Committees (as of Summer 2015)
We give here the names, Church affiliations, and appointments procedure, of the Church Appointees on all of Scotland’s Council Education Committees, as determined by Freedom of Information requests during Summer 2015. Church of Scotland and Catholic appointees are appointed by their Church hierarchies and Councils have no chioce in the matter. Procedures vary by Council for selecting the Church allowed to nominate the third appointee.
Notes on appointment procedures:
(a) Church was sole applicant in response to advertisement (8 Councils)
(b) Position vacant, pending reply from nominating Church (2 Councils)
(c) No replies to advertisement. Sitting member agreed to continue in place (1 Council)
(d) Church invited to nominate after initially selected Church (Episcopalian) failed to do so (1 Council)
(e) No third religious representative (in case of Orkney, no religious representative at all); no reason given. (2 Councils)
(f) Two Church of Scotland representatives, in violation of the law (2 Councils)
(g) Self-nominated; Church not stated (1 Council)
(h) Appointed in 2003; religious representatives remain in place until they resign (1 Council)
(i) Representative, asked to nominate an individual from among several Churches of his denomination, nominated himself (1 Council)
(j) Representative, having lost his position as councillor in election, cited Boys Brigade experience and nominated himself (1 Council)
(k) Only religious body considered eligible by Council (1 Council)
(l) Applications invited by newspaper advertisement or similar (15 Councils)
(m) Applications invited by direct contact between Council and Churches; as far as we know, no other advertising (1 Council)
(n) Church chosen by Council to nominate on the e basis of demographics (4 Councils)
(o) Church Chosen by Council on the basis of rotation among local Churches (1 Council)
(p) Representative (or nominating Church) chosen from among applicants by a panel or group representing local religious organisations (6 Councils)
(q) Church chosen by lot from among applicants (1 Council)
(r) Church chosen directly by Council members or officials from among more than one applicant (4 Councils)
(s) 3rd representative says he can understand criticisms of system; http://www.scotsman.com/news/education/calls-for-religious-reps-to-leave-education-panels-1-3006092 (1 Council)
(t) The three religious representatives sit with 5 elected councillors to form the Council’s Cabinet (1 Council)
(u) Representative rejects evolution (7 Councils)
(v) Representative believe the Earth is less than 10,000 years old (7 Councils)
Representative’s Church proclaims its belief in the eternal conscious punishment of non-believers (5 Councils)
(x) Believes in healing by laying on of hands (1 Council)
(y) Statement of specific beliefs has now been removed from Church website (1 Council)
|Local Authority||Church of Scotland appointment
||Catholic Church appointment
||Other||Notes (see above)|
|Aberdeen||Reverend Edward McKenna
November 2012 –
|Mrs Irene Wischik
November 2011 –
|Ms Anne Tree
August 2012 –
|Aberdeenshire||Dr Eleanor Anderson
May 2012 – May 2017
|Mrs Mary Nelson
April 2015 – May 2017
|Dr Ian Findlay
Aberdeenshire Interfaith Group
May 2012 – May 2017
|Angus||David Adams||Bill Simpson||Georgina Maille
June 2013 –
|Argyll and Bute||Mr William Crossan||Father David Connor||[Episcopalian; nomination awaited]||b, n|
|Clackmannanshire||Reverend Sang Y Cha
|Father Michael Freyne
St Bernadette’s RC Church
|Pastor David Fraser
Alva Baptist Church
The Green (off Brook Street)
|n, I, u, v, w|
|Dumfries and Galloway||Mr Robert McQuistan
June 2012 –
|Reverend William McFadden
June 2012 –
|Canon Robin Paisley
June 2012 –
|Dundee||Miss Kathleen Mands
May 2012 – 2017
|Monsignor Kenneth McCaffrey
May 2012 – 2017
|Mr Bashir Chohan
Dundee Central Mosque
May 2012 – 2017
|East Ayrshire||Ian Rennie
May 2012 – May 2017
May 2012 – May 2017
May 2012 – May 2017
|East Dunbartonshire||Reverend Barbara Jarvie
May 2012 – May 2017
|Reverend Paul Milarvie
May 2012 – May 2017
|Mr John Jackson
September 2012 – May 2017
|East Lothian||Mrs Marjorie Goldsmith
January 2006 –
|Mr Michael McHugh
February 2011 –
|Mr Stephen Bunyan
May 2003 –
|East Renfrewshire||Ms Mary McIntyre
2012 – May 2017
|Father Thomas Boyle
2012 – May 2017
|Dr Frank Angell
2012 – May 2017
|Edinburgh||A. Craig Duncan||Ted Brack||The Robin Chapel Episcopalian; Rev Thos Coupar||l, p, s|
|Comhairle nan Eilean Siar||Reverend Hugh Stewart
October 2014 – May 2017
|Father Michael Macdonald
October 2014 – May 2017
|Mr Murdo Macleod
Free Church of Scotland
May 2012 – May 2017Reverend Allan MacCroll
Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland
June 2013 – May 2017
September 2003 –
August 2012 –
|Reverend Michael Rollo
Evangelical / Pentecostal Alliance
February 2004 –
|d, u, v, w|
|Fife||Reverend Hugh D. Steele
April 2015 – May 2017
|Mr George Haggarty
May 2012 – May 2017
|Mr Alistair Crockett
Cupar Baptist Church
May 2012 – May 2017
|Glasgow||Reverend Graham Cartlidge
May 2012 – May 2017
|Right Reverend Canon Robert Hill
January 2013 – May 2017
|Highland||Mr Gordon Smith
May 2012 – May 2017
|Mrs Margaret McCulloch
May 2012 – May 2017
|Dr Alan Fraser
Free Church of Scotland
June 2014 – May 2016
|o, u, v, w|
|Inverclyde||Mr Tom Macdougall
September 2014 –
|Father Michael McMahon
March 2006 –
|Reverend Fraser Donaldson
Greenock Elim Church
September 2012 –
|a, l, u, v, w|
|Midlothian||Mr Victor H. Bourne
55 Newbattle Abbey Crescent
|(pending)||Mrs Margaret Harkness
Church of Scotland
2 Fowler Crescent
|Moray||Reverend Shuna Dicks
May 2012 – May 2017
May 2012 – May 2017
|Reverend Christopher Ketley
|North Ayrshire||Elizabeth Higton
September 2012 – April 2017
|Very Reverend Matthew Canon McManus
June 2012 – April 2017
September 2012 – April 2017
|a, l, u, v, x, y|
|North Lanarkshire||Mr John Maddock||Mr James Duffin||Mr John Love||g, j, l|
|Perth and Kinross||Mr Pat Giles
August 2011 – May 2017
|Mrs Margaret McFarlane
January 2013 – May 2017
|Mrs Hilary Bridge
Scottish Episcopal Church
August 2011 – May 2017
May 2012 – May 2017
|Reverend Father Thomas H. Boyle
May 2012 – May 2017
|Reverend Graeme Clark
Paisley Action of Churches Together
May 2012 – May 2017
|Scottish Borders||Mr Graeme Donald
May 2012 – May 2017
|Mr Joe Walsh
May 2012 – May 2017
|[Episcopalian; nomination awaited]||a, b, l|
|Shetland||Reverend Tom McIntyre
September 2011 – May 2017
|None (historic reasons?)||Mr Martin Tregonning
Shetland Churches Council Trust
Ms Radina Mckay
Shetland Inter Faith Group
July 2012 – May 2017
|South Ayrshire||Reverend David Gemmell
April 2009 –
May 2007 –
|Pastor Ian Gall
February 2014 –
|South Lanarkshire||Reverend Sarah Ross
June 2012 –
June 2015 –
|Dr Nagy Iskander
Westwoodhill Evangelical Church
September 2012 –
|a, l, u, v|
|Stirling||Reverend Jennifer Millar
|Mrs Rose Hart
|Mrs Jane Morris
|West Dunbartonshire||Miss Sheila Rennie
February 1998 –
|Miss Ellen McBride
November 2000 –
|Mrs Barbara Barnes
St Augustine’s Episcopal Church, Dumbarton
December 2004 –
|West Lothian||Myra MacPherson
June 2007 –
Church of Scotland
May 2012 –
This is not about religion. It is about power.
If you think it is right that three unelected Church nominees should sit, by law, on every Council Education Committee in Scotland, please ignore this post.
If you think it is wrong, and want to do something about it, please sign and share this petition:
You will find more about these unelected Church nominees, and how they are shielded from democratic accountability, here.
The petition is organised by my good friends at Humanist Society Scotland, who tell me that they will be engaging with all the MSPs and candidates in the run-up to the election, and that the petition is aimed at MSPs and candidates. It runs as follows:
I believe that all members of local education committees should be accountable to their communities through the ballot box.
Local councillors are elected to represent the views of their communities. It is inconsistent with the principles of local democracy to have unelected religious leaders.
The current requirement for religious representatives stems from a reorganisation by the Westminster Government of 1973. It is time for the Scottish Parliament to consider these aspects of local democracy.
It is undemocratic to appoint members of particular religious communities to education committees without a mandate from local voters.
Previous efforts to change this law have failed because of opposition by a small band of well-organised constituents. The response must be to show our lawmakers that we are a constituency too.
I repeat; please sign and share
Denominational schools in Scotland are run according to a century-old Concordat between the British government and the Catholic Church. During that century, the influence of the other Churches within non-denominational schools has grown, even as their worshippers deserted them. The result is a mosaic of mutually contradictory objectives and provisions. Our children deserve better.
Glasgow University has just published its long-awaited report, sponsored by Humanist Society Scotland, into the role of religion in Scots law. The full report runs to 355 pages, and the summary to 11. It is limited to discussion of the law, but my commentary here also includes in some places what is known about actual practice. I will concentrate on the three areas covered are greatest length; the legal status of the Church of Scotland, religion and marriage, and, above all, education. The report covers several other areas where the law gives special recognition to religion. There are, for example, some tax advantages for ministers in accommodation provided by their Church, but these are minor matters in comparison.
Firstly, what about the Church of Scotland? Is it, for instance, an established church? And what beliefs does it subscribe to? There is no consensus on this. The 1921 Declaratory Act, which was supposed to resolve this issue, contains an attachment in which the Church describes itself as “a national Church representative of the Christian faith of the Scottish people”, but since almost all its privileges are shared with other denominations, it is not clear what, if anything, this means. Church of Scotland ministers are automatically entitled to solemnise marriages, but since celebrants may just as easily come from other denominations, and even from groups such as the Humanists, this distinction is purely ceremonial. The Sovereign is represented at the Church’s General Assembly, and while she worships as an Anglican at Windsor, she attends Church of Scotland services when at Balmoral. However, she does not choose the Moderator, whereas she does, notionally and on the advice of the Prime Minister, choose the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The Church of Scotland subscribes to the Westminster Confession (apart from its anti-Catholic clauses, which it removed in 1986). Thus it is nominally committed to the belief that I, and most of my readers, will be physically tormented in hell for eternity and serve us right. It has, however, declared itself free to interpret (i.e. ignore) its own doctrine. A saving grace, if I may so put it.
The area where the legal connections between church and state has the greatest practical importance is education, and this is the one area where is the entrenched power of religion has actually grown over time. The Scottish publicly funded school system arose in two steps, the 1872 nationalisation of schools that had hitherto been the responsibility of Presbyteries, and the 1918 nationalisation of the Catholic school system. The first of these led to the establishment of notionally non-denominational schools, in whose running the churches did not have a formal role, while the latter led to the establishment of denominational schools, within which the power of the denominational hierarchy was formidable. I was surprised at how well entrenched religious privilege has since become, in non-denominational as well as in denominational schools, how recent much of this privilege is, and how much it conflicts with the principles of a democratic state.
The 1929 Local Government (Scotland) Act, Para. 12:4, required Local Authority Education Committees to include two representatives of religion, chosen by discussion among local churches. The current requirement, for three such representatives – one Church of Scotland, one Catholic, and one other – was only formalised in 1973 (here, Sec. 124, repeated here in 1994, Sec. 31. Notice the increase in the number of representatives, and the clearer formal role of the two favoured specific denominations. Notice also that all this is pre-devolution.
The Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church each have one nominee on the General Teaching Council, the professional body responsible for maintaining standards of training and conduct among schoolteachers (here, Schedule 2).
For denominational schools, Parent Councils are required by 2006 legislation (here) to include at least one nominee of (note the choice of words) “the church or denominational body in whose interest the school is conducted” [emphasis added]. This “in whose interest” language first appears in the 1918 legislation, but continues to be used in legislation and official guidance documents regarding denominational schools. As I have remarked elsewhere, this is very strange language indeed, suggesting that the church has an “interest” in the school, over and above its duties to pupils and the wider community.
Regarding religious instruction and observance, two opposed trends have been at work. Throughout the twentieth century, the role of religious observance, in non-denominational as well as denominational schools, has been strengthened. However, the idea of religious instruction (teaching, as true, the beliefs of one particular religion) has largely been replaced by that of religious education (learning about religion in our philosophical and cultural context). Recently, in response to public concerns, guidelines on the nature of religious observance have shifted in favour of reflection on shared values, rather than formal worship. All this, however, remains very much at the discretion of the headteacher in non-denominational schools. In denominational schools, religious observance and religious education remain firmly under the control of the religious body in whose interest the school is conducted.
Many non-denominational schools have chaplains, or even chaplaincy teams, but there is no obligation to do so. The Church of Scotland receives no special legal preference, and I almost wish that it did, since extreme evangelical groups make it their business to get involved in school chaplaincies, as in the notorious Kirktonholme fiasco, when all pupils were given “textbooks”, describing evolution as a wicked lie, by a chaplain from an extremist sect who had been advising about the school’s curriculum for eight years.
Collecting information about chaplaincy teams is difficult, except when the school chooses to display it in its Handbook. Freedom of Information requests to schools, like all such requests, are forwarded to the Council, but the Council may not have all the relevant information, and some Councils even regard this information as personal and confidential. In denominational schools, chaplains are effectively church nominees.
The 1872 Act allowed schools to continue “instruction in religion”, but did not require it. It also recognised the rights of parents “without forfeiting any of the other advantages of the schools, to elect that their children should not receive such instruction”, and more recent legislation applies this right to both Religious Observance and Religious Education. Current guidance goes further, in requiring the school to provide an educational activity of value to pupils during the time that they are withdrawn from religious activities, although it would be prudent for the parent to make this easy for the school, for example by supplying reading materials.
Note that the right to withdraw rests with the parents, although in practice many schools allow senior pupils, at least, to withdraw themselves.
The obligation to have religious observance in non-denominational schools only dates from the 1946 Act. Under this Act, a local authority can only remove this requirement when authorised to do so by a ballot of all constituents, not merely those directly involved with the school system. No authority has ever seriously considered such a ballot, despite a petition to that effect a few years ago from the Edinburgh Secular Society.
Details of religious observance and religious instruction are a matter of policy, not legislation. In 1991, the Scottish Government issued a circular saying that there should be religious observance in primary schools at least once a week, and in secondary schools at least once a month, and that this should have “a broadly Christian character”.
A major 2004 consultation, the Report of the Religious Observance Review Group (Edinburgh: The Scottish Executive, 2004), made major changes in official policy. Religious observance is now said to consist of ”community acts which aim to promote the spiritual development of all members of the school community and express and celebrate the shared values of the school community”. This could be an act of worship, if the school community corresponds to the faith community. The Report also make clear the distinction between Religious Observance and Religious Education. The form of RO is very much up to the individual school and “Head teachers are encouraged to engage in full discussion with chaplains and other faith group leaders in the planning and implementation of religious observance” (here, para. 13)
The Scottish Government is committed to ensuring that parents are made aware of their right to opt out. How much this commitment is worth, is another matter. At one time guidance clearly stated that the school Handbook should tell parents of their right to opt out, but many of them do not, and there is considerable anecdotal evidence of schools discouraging opting out, by requiring a formal letter or an interview with the head teacher, or even by telling parents that their children’s education will suffer.
The content of Religious and Moral Education (or, for Catholic schools, religious education) is again a matter of policy, not legislation. Current policy (The 2011 “religious instruction” circular, Curriculum for Excellence – Provision of religious and moral education in non-denominational schools and religious education in Roman Catholic schools) lays out ambitious goals, including “well planned experiences and outcomes across Christianity, world religions and developing beliefs and values”. The details are left to the curriculum setting and examining bodies, and to the textbook writers. This could have unfortunate consequences; one topic properly discussed in RME is religiously motivated creationism, but this may be the only encounter that pupils (and RME teachers) have with evolution, and it would be going against the admirable spirit of RME to tell pupils which one they should prefer.
That European Convention on Human Rights specifies a universal right to education, and that “the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.” However, the United Kingdom signed the treaty with the reservation that this clause only applies in so far as “it is compatible with the provision of efficient instruction and training, and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure”. This is as well, since otherwise it might be open to a parent to demand that their children not be taught about evolution. Even so, the ECHR would no doubt be quoted in support of the continued existence of denominational schools, should this ever be called into question.
The Scottish Government’s 2011 circular on religious instruction states that “In Roman Catholic schools the experiences and outcomes should be delivered in line with the guidance provided by the Scottish Catholic 168 Education Service.” Parents still have a right to withdraw pupils, but “in choosing a denominational school for their child’s education, they choose to opt in to the school’s ethos and practice which is imbued with religious faith and it is therefore more difficult to extricate a pupil from all experiences which are influenced by the school’s faith character.” My own view, unfashionable in some circles that I move in, is that if you don’t want your child to have a Catholic education, you shouldn’t send them to a Catholic school. The situation here in Scotland is different from that which has recently been engineered in England, where nondenominational alternatives may simply be unavailable.
The 1918 Act specified that teachers in denominational schools must be “approved as regards their religious belief and character by representatives of the church or denominational body in whose interest the school has been conducted”. The 1980 Act inherited this requirement, although the reasons for objecting to an applicant must be stated in writing. According to the Scottish Catholic Education Service, a person’s faith and character could be vouched for by their priest, if they are Catholics, or by some other suitable person if they are not. I find this interesting, since it implies that being a Catholic is not a necessary condition of employment as a teacher in a Catholic school, yet (anecdotal evidence) this criterion seems to apply in practice. It also continues the right of the denomination to appoint a supervisor of religious instruction. This seemingly innocuous provision has serious effects, since in Catholic schools teaching about human sexual behaviour is included as part of the “Made for Love” module of Religious Instruction. Thus education on this topic is under the direction of the Council of Bishops, a committee of middle-aged middle management males pledged to lifelong celibacy.
I rest my case.
Reference: Callum G Brown, Thomas Green and Jane Mair, Religion in Scots Law: The Report of an Audit at the University of Glasgow: Sponsored by Humanist Society Scotland (Edinburgh, HSS, 2016), https://www.humanism.scot/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Religion-in-Scots-Law-Final-Report-22-Feb-16.pdf
Selected media reports:
National Secular Society newsletter: http://www.secularism.org.uk/news/2016/03/religion-based-scottish-education-system-needs-to-adapt-to-social-change-say-academics
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:
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:
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 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.
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.
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