Religious reforms proposed for Scottish schools

Non-denominational schools across Scotland could soon be issued with new guidance as part of a radical reform of the way religion is presented to pupils.

Students would discuss the values of historical figures such as Martin Luther King, instead of reciting prayers and listening to readings from the Bible.

The strategy is thought to be recommended in a long-awaited study, commissioned by the Scottish Executive, by the Review Group on Religious Observance. It is being examined by Jack McConnell, the first minister.

Experts believe it is now right to move to a more "person-centred" and "inclusive" approach to ensure that pupils are not switched off, following society’s general drift away from regular church -going.
However, the plan — which would reflect the style of BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day — has been criticised by evangelical Christian groups and some head teachers, who have claimed it is an attempt to “water down” Christian traditions.

McConnell, who commissioned the work in 2001 when he was education minister, made clear last year his sup- port for a more multicultural approach to religion in Scottish schools. He set up the group following a report by Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools into the standard of RE provision in state schools. By law, all non-denominational schools are obliged to ensure that pupils take part in religious observance at least once a month. Current guidelines to head teachers say it should be of a “broadly Christian nature”.

However, the inspectors found that two-thirds of head teachers were ignoring the statutory requirement and many children were not being taught “spiritual values”. The Church of Scotland is expected to give its backing to the guidance, arguing that non-denominational schools should promote an “open and invitational” approach to religious teaching.

While the guidelines will not affect denominational schools, there are concerns that Catholic parents who have no alternative but to send their children to local state schools might oppose the move.

Michael McGrath, director of the Catholic Education Commission reflected: "School is not all about knowledge, there is also the question of spirituality and the ‘big questions’ to consider. Schools need support and training in finding stimulating ways to do that."

Alex Easton, the president of the Head Teachers’ Association of Scotland, said many schools would resist attempts to dilute religious observance entirely. Easton, who is the head teacher at Falkirk high school, which holds weekly religious-based assemblies, said: “Any faith is better than none. And I would like some of these experts to come to schools and see how their nebulous ideas can be carried out.”

A spokesman for the Scottish Executive said: "We will not comment on this until the executive publishes its response to this report.