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
Yes, today is April 1st. No, this is not a joke.
The Reverend David Fraser sits, self-selected, as a full voting member on the Education Committee of Clackmannanshire County Council. So if you live in Clackmannanshire, he helps decide educational policy for your children, and if you teach in Clackmannanshire, he is, in a sense, your boss.
(Past tense; according to LinkedIn, he relinquished his place on the Committee in 2014. I do not know if my previous expose’ contributed to this. Edit: according to FoI response from Council, 2015, he is still in place, having nominated himself when asked to advise on who shoud represent the Baptist churches in the area)
Be afraid. Be very afraid. What you see next is straight from the Reverend’s Church’s web site. And there’s worse to come.
|THE COUNTER TO THE SIDE IS TICKING OFF THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE WHO HAVE DIED SINCE YOU OPENED THIS WEBPAGE. THE VAST MAJORITY OF THOSE PEOPLE ARE ENTERING HELL. CHRIST COMMANDED HIS FOLLOWERS TO SHARE THE GOSPEL WITH THOSE WHO ARE PERISHING… WHO HAVE YOU SHARED WITH TODAY?|
And as for Noah’s Ark, a search on “Alva Baptist Genesis” turned up this:
(What is shown here is an earlier model. There is now a full size version of the Ark, certified as seaworthy, but what many visitors may not realise is that these Arks are wooden skins over steel supports and resting on barges). The same web page links us to a video in which we are told that “Experts are 99.9% sure” that they have found fragments of Noah’s ark on – where else? – the slopes of Mount Ararat 2 1/2 miles above sea level. Straw in the wreckage is said to radicarbon date to “when Noah was afloat”, and “Skeptics are, as usual, skeptical, but for those who believe in the Bible literally, Noah’s Ark is a major find.”
The Reverend David Fraser is a Baptist, but this is an extremely broad description. For example, Steve Chalke, who was recently drummed out of the Evangelical Alliance for rejecting biblical literalism, is a Baptist minister. So to see what David Fraser believes, we have to dig a little deeper.
Fraser hails from Metro Calvary Church, Los Angeles, whose statement of belief includes biblical infallibility and inerrancy, obviously to be taken in a literal sense, a historical Adam and Eve, and that “man is totally depraved and of himself utterly unable to remedy his lost condition.” The Church also believes ” in the bodily resurrection of both the just and the unjust — the unjust to judgment and eternal conscious punishment in the lake of fire”.
You may be wondering why someone who believes that children are totally depraved and, unless they receive justification through God’s grace, are destined to eternal punishment in the Lake of Fire, is doing sitting on an Education Committee, rather than being locked away from them at a safe distance. Let me explain.
The educational systems of both England and Scotland emerged in something like their present forms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, by the coming together of secular and church schools (a process that the last two administrations have done much to reverse). This led to the representation, as prior stakeholders, of the Churches. But which Churches?
In England, the answer was obvious; Church of England, and Roman Catholic.
And so, to this day, every Local Education Authority in England has, by law, one full voting member appointed by the local Catholic diocese, and one appointed by Church of England.
In Scotland, as the diagram here shows, it’s more complicated. From the Great Disruption of 1843 onwards, the dominant Presbyterian church in Scotland was split between two major factions; the Church of Scotland, and the Free Church (after 1900, the United Free Church) of
Scotland. This schism was not healed until 1929, after the original Church of Scotland was disestablished. Meantime, various factions had split off in the process, to give a bewildering collection of splinter groups, mainly theologically conservative and even biblical literalist, as is the faction that, after a legal battle that went all the way to the United Kingdom’s highest court, won the right to call itself, at it still does, The Free Church of Scotland.
So during the formative years of the State school system, there were two major contenders for the role of leading Protestant Church in Scotland, and for this reason, to this day,
every local authority in Scotland (i.e., now, every Council) must have, on its Education Committee, three religious appointees, one Roman Catholic, one Church of Scotland, and one other.
The rules for pointing this “other” vary from authority to authority, but with major over-representation of the splinter groups referred to above, and their allies among theologically conservative Baptists such as David Fraser.
When, today, I checked on the website of David Fraser’s Alva Baptist Church, it had become much more difficult to navigate. It still tells us that ” We believe that God has big plans for this wee church and town of Alva”, but links to the Church’s specific beleifs, and to the Reverend’s “complete profile”, were dead. However, “Evangelical resources” took me to a page for Ray Comfort’s Living Waters, which in turn took me to the hard line Creationist Evolution Vs. God, endorsed by Answers in Genesis, the Institute for Creation Research, and Creation Today. All of whom believe, and consider it praiseworthy to believe, that all people and animals on Earth today are descended from a handful in the Ark who survived a world-wide flood covering the mountain tops, just at the very same time that the Egyptians, miraculously unperturbed, were in the middle of building the Pyramids.
And David Fraser, let me remind you, sits unelected on, and has full voting rights on, the Education Committee that decides policies and spending priorities for Clackmannanshire.
Nor is he unique. Among other examples, representatives on the Councils of Falkirk and North Ayrshire maintain that unbelief will be justly punished by a Hell that is physical, literal, and eternal. In South Lanarkshire, home to the Kirktonholme scandal, Nagy Iskander maintains that science and biblical creationism have the same degree of intellectual merit.
And the voice of these unelected representatives is no minor matter, since, as the Church of Scotland tells us, they hold the balance of power in 19 out of Scotland’s 32 Council Education Committees.
Is this what we really want?
The Finnie bill seeks to abolish the unelected Church representatives on school education committees. It seems that the Labour response, and perhaps others, will be influenced by public reaction; and YOU are the public. The attached letter from Drew Smith, Shadow Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, shows how important it is right now to respond to the consultation document, at http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/Bills/69470.aspx, and to write to your MSPs, Constituency and Regional, making your views known. My own response, which may give you a useful starting point, is here.
We have the chance to get rid of the unelected mixture of hellfire fundamentalists, bishops’ puppets, and well-meaning ecclesiastical placemen who now hold the balance of power on 19 of Scotland‘s 32 education Committees. As to why this matters, see here and here and here. This change will not happen without pressure, since no one, least of all those who think they know the way to Heaven, gives up power without a fight; see here for my take on the Churches’ counter-arguments.
Here is Drew Smith’s letter. Note his carefully chosen words: “Whilst I strongly support the principle of local government transparency and accountability, the Bill is currently out for consultation, and I think it would be unfair to prejudge the outcome of this process. I would therefore encourage you to respond to the consultation”. My interpretation; he is sympathetic but needs to convince his colleagues of the balance of electoral advantage. They, after all, unlike the Church representatives, serve only at the pleasure of the voters:-
Dear Professor Braterman,
Thank you for your recent e-mail regarding the proposed Local Government Accountability and Transparency (Scotland) Bill, put forward by John Finnie MSP. Please accept my sincere apologies for the delay in responding to you.
I understand that the Bill seeks to remove the obligation on local authorities to appoint religious representatives to Education Committees. Whilst I strongly support the principle of local government transparency and accountability, the Bill is currently out for consultation, and I think it would be unfair to prejudge the outcome of this process.
I would therefore encourage you to respond to the consultation, which closes on 27 January 2013, to make your views known. I have attached the consultation for your information, and further information regarding the proposed Bill and consultation process can be accessed on the Scottish Parliament website: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/Bills/69470.aspx.
Please be assured that I will look to the consultation and give careful consideration to all views expressed on this matter before reaching a decision on whether or not to support a bill, if it is brought forward by Mr Finnie.
Thank you for taking the time to contact me about this important issue, and I hope you will accept my apologies, once again, for the delay in responding to you.
Drew Smith MSP
Shadow Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution
Scottish Labour Party
Glasgow Region Parliamentary Office │ Scottish Trades Union Centre │ 333 Woodlands Road │ Glasgow G3 6NG
telephone: 0141 218 46 46 │ facebook: Drew Smith for Glasgow │ twitter: @DrewSm1th
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.
I have written here and here in favour of Edinburgh Secular Society’s petition to remove the requirement for Scottish councils to accept unelected church nominees church nominees on their Education Committees (you can see and sign the petition here; details of existing nominees are here). Why such a requirement exists at all is a question for legal historians, but I note that there is a parallel requirement in England, and that the relevant legislation for Scotland (here) is pre-devolution. I suspect all this is a hangover from the merging of church and public schooling in the 19th and early 20th century.
The Rev. Ian Galloway, Convener of the Church of Scotland Church and Society Council, claimed on BC Scotland Newsnight that the petition would deprive Education Committees of valuable input. Not true, your Reverence.
The arguments against the requirement are obvious. Most Scots (most English, for that matter) don’t even know about it (I didn’t myself until recently), and would be as dismayed about it as I am. It is not a trivial matter, since the religious representatives actually hold the balance of power in 19 of Scotland’s 32 Council Education Committees, a situation likely to continue in the current fluid state of Scottish politics. The religious representatives cannot but have a dual loyalty; to their duty as citizens, and to their duty as representatives of one particular worldview, and of an organisation with material and political interests of its own. It provides a kind of dual representation to those who happen to belong to one of the favoured religious groups, since they can present their case to their ecclesiastical representative, as well as to their elected councillor. Finally, and most seriously, it is an affront to democracy, and to the principle that Government should represent the interests of the people, rather than those of particular organisations or pressure groups.
But no one gives up power without a struggle, and we can already see the lines on which the religious establishment will oppose this change. The representatives of religion, we are already being told, have a special caring concern for the spiritual development of the young. They bring a special perspective to bear. They give generously of their time. They proffer the benefits of their wisdom and experience. Finally, it would be an infringement of religious freedom to debar them from contributing in this way, and yet another example of what they would have us believe to be an emerging anti-religious intolerance.
None of these arguments will stand up for inspection. Firstly, and most importantly, there is no suggestion that anyone be debarred from anything. Legislation gives councils broad powers to co-opt members to committees, if they so choose, and indeed it is customary to have teachers and parents represented on Education Committees. In exactly the same way, councils would remain free to invite church representatives to join them on these committees if they wished to do so. Indeed any such invitees would be in a stronger moral position than those mandated under present legislation. They would be there because councillors had chosen them, and those councillors themselves are answerable to their electorates, rather than to some external authority. Their religious positions cannot be assumed to automatically bestow on them any particular kind of wisdom or virtue, and it is all too easy to point to instances where the representatives of religion have shown neither. In this context, scandal aside, I would draw attention to the open conflict between the Bishops Council, which controls sex education in Catholic denominational schools, and bodies concerned about the quality of such education, including the educational arm of the National Health Service. I would also point out that several church nominees espouse Young Earth creationism, in direct contravention of Scottish Government policy, the curriculum, and indeed the whole of established science. Whether these representatives are donating their time, or whether they regard committee membership as part of their professional ecclesiastic duties, is a minor matter, although it does again raised the question of dual loyalties. If they bring a special perspective to bear, the same could be said of nurses, social workers, policemen, or drug dealers. There is nothing intolerant about questioning religious privilege, and indeed many sincere believers regard such privilege as corrupting to Church and State alike.
For the reasons given in my second paragraph here, I would argue that the existence of unelected church representation would be unacceptable, even in a nation of believers. In a Scotland where over one third of the population, and an actual majority of the young, reject all religious affiliation, it is inexcusable.
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