End, not amend, prayers in Scottish state schools


Comments on the evidence submitted for petition PEO1487 which aims to amend the practice of religious observance in Scottish schools. 

(to be considered by the Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee on 12 November 2013).

  • Inherited UK Westminster Parliament laws need amendment
  • Lack of consideration by the Scottish Parliament
  • Existing practices out of date
  • Support from Jews, parents and secularists for change of law
  • The Scottish Parliament’s Time for Reflection an inadequate model for schools – many MSPs opt out
  • Schools given an impossible task to undertake unified religious observance in an increasingly secular and diverse society
The petition to the Scottish Parliament to change religious observance practices in Scottish schools from a possible ‘opt-out’ to an ‘opt-in’ basis gives the Scottish Parliament an opportunity to do what it has conspicuously failed to do so far in any in-depth way in its recent 14 year old history – to examine systematically the practice and suitability of religious observance in Scottish state funded schools. For too long policy guidance on religion in Scottish schools has been dominated by a small set of religious and educational professionals without any detailed democratic scrutiny by the elected legislature. The main churches and the political leaders of the major political parties have been happy to operate within a legal framework inherited from the UK Westminster Parliament – a legislature that they so vigorously argued they wanted to be liberated from in order to establish the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

It is now the time for the Scottish Parliament to use its powers to subject the existing arrangements for religious practice in Scottish schools to the most fundamental reassessment and democratic re-evaluation and to consider the revocation of the existing Westminster UK Parliament laws that govern it. 

The hearing of the petition to end schools’ religious observance in 2007
The only other time that Holyrood considered the matter in some detail, in the Public Petitions Committee in 2007, it gave the status quo inadequate consideration and endorsed Christian religious practices in the schools. In its evidence at that time the Educational Institute of Scotland noted that religious observance in many schools took the form of Christian worship or ‘something very close to it’ and, when the Committee rejected the petition, Committee member MSP John Scott said ‘Religious observation (sic) is important in young and old alike. I am not concerned that taxpayers’ money is being used to promote Christian values; in fact, I am glad about that, because they are vital at this time (20 March 2007 Col 3126). To say the least these comments were clearly in conflict with the multi-faith practice of the Scottish Parliament itself in its ‘Time for Reflection’ and did not reflect the guidance that the Scottish Government actually gave schools on the matter.

Evidence statements in 2013
The evidence presented in relation to the current petition is most revealing and should lead to a fundamental rethink of the practice of religious observance in Scottish state funded schools.

The evidence of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (SCJC) strikes a chord with the views of atheist, humanist and other parents who have approached Scottish humanist and secular societies and the National Secular Society about their concerns relating to the nature of collective religious practice in Scottish schools – that despite the ‘nod’ in the official guidelines on religious observance in Scottish schools, and by some major churches, towards an inclusive cross-faith religious pluralism in school religious events, many supposedly ‘non-denominational’ schools actually function as Protestant Christian schools and are not genuinely inclusive of all faiths and of those parents and children with no religion. The SCJC rightly points out that the current guidelines were issued by the Scottish Government in 2004 in such a way as to circumvent the need for new legislation and resultant democratic scrutiny by the Scottish Parliament.

The difficulties in operating the current guidelines have been amply demonstrated in work by the Edinburgh Secular Society and other organisations and are reflected in the current evidence before the Public Petitions Committee, where the Scottish Parent Teacher Council also recommends the ending of current practices.

There clearly is the need for a reconsideration of the laws inherited from the UK Westminster Parliament, and not just the non-statutory guidelines, that govern religious practices in Scottish schools. The law, for instance, requires ‘religious observance’ whereas the guidance from the Scottish Government, which does not have the force of law, invents new language and practices which refer to alternative conceptions of religious observance such as ‘Time for Reflection’ and school ‘community acts’.

The Church of Scotland’s plea for ‘religious observance’ to be ‘Time for Reflection’ also requires a change in the existing laws which use the former and not the latter term.

Existing practices out of date
Society and religion have changed so much in Scotland in recent decades that the current laws and guidelines have become increasingly out of date. Scotland is not now a Christian society. The Scottish Parliament recognised this in 1999 when it rejected by 99 votes to 9 a motion that there should be exclusively Christian prayers in the new Parliament and arranged instead that there should be a weekly Time for Reflection which would take on a multi-faith character where denominations appeared in proportion to the size of their following in the country[i]. The 2011 census emphasised the falling percentage of the population that was Christian. The 54 per cent Christian in 2011 is likely to fall to 50 per cent sometime during 2014 if the same rate of decline that operated in the decade preceding 2011 is projected to continue forward. Census results however, probably overestimate the proportion of Christians in the population since those results include attributions of religious affiliation to children by parents. 

Surveys of adults suggest that Christians are now less than half the population. Firm atheists, who have no belief in any god or higher spiritual power constitute 19 per cent of the population – a higher figure than those who identify as Roman Catholics. Those without religion in the 2011 census in Scotland constituted 37 per cent of the population – higher than the 32 per cent reporting themselves as Church of Scotland adherents. And, of course, in some localities in Scotland the proportion of the population that has no religious affiliation will be even higher – approaching, for instance, half of the population in Edinburgh.

The changing patterns of religious belief and affiliation are one reason why there are increasing numbers of disputes between schools and parents as to the religious practices to which pupils are subjected to in schools and another indication of the need for change. Younger people and parents of pupils are also much more likely than the population in general to be atheist and non-religious.

The assumption that religion should have a role in school and that it can provide unifying experiences for all members of the school community – the argument of the existing Scottish Government guidelines on religious practice in Scottish state schools – cannot be sustained by this evidence on the pattern of belief, religious affiliation and practice in Scotland.

Time for Reflection: a poor model for collective religious ceremonial
The Scottish Government has aligned itself with the major churches in Scotland in mandating that state schools should practice unifying collective religious ceremonies and in suggesting that the term ‘Time for Reflection’ should be used for these events even when the legislation specifies that what should occur is ‘religious observance’. Scottish Government ministers have specified that ‘Time for Reflection’ (TFR) in the Scottish Parliament is a good model for unifying school religious events. But TFR is hardly an example of a unifying experience. Attendance by MSPs is often low –with many usually opting out – and the most common form that TFR takes is a prayer, talk or reading by an individual member of one of Scotland’s six major faith traditions or 14 Christian denominations. There is an occasional inter-faith representative but there have only been two humanists in the 14 years of the Parliament and one or two atheists – greatly under-representing these two latter groups[ii]. TFR has no opportunity for involvement by the ‘body of the Kirk’ –the MSP’s themselves. It is thus a very poor model for the development of unifying community acts in schools.

The limitations of the inter-faith movement
It is interesting, too, that despite the considerable Scottish Government funding that has gone into the Scottish inter-faith movement to improve understanding, good will and common action between the numerous religious denominations, that the submissions to the Public Petitions Committee from religious organisations, like TFR itself, derive from contributions by the individual churches and denominations and not collectively from the inter-faith movement. There is a submission by Inter-faith Scotland but it collects representations from some of the smaller Scottish denominations rather than embracing the collective view of all faiths and religious organisations just as TFR in the Parliament is mainly delivered by separate denominational representatives and only occasionally by an inter-faith figures.

Inter-faith Scotland states in its evidence that;
There is great potential for well thought out, inclusive, religious observance to create opportunities for pupils to reflect upon the rich diversity of values, beliefs and ideas that make up a pluralist society. Religious observance, again if it is done with sensitivity and thought can help to create a sense of inclusion that enriches a school community’.
This statement (which mentions ‘potential’ and implies that ambitions are not realised in practice) does not take account of the fact that a large section of parents and school pupils have no religion and thus cannot be included in school community acts of a religious nature.

The difficulty of all denominations acting together in making common collective representations to the Public Petitions Committee on the petition is indicative more generally of the difficulties that denominations have in acting in a common and collective way. Each denomination insists that it has its special access to ‘truth’ and its own identity and self-government. If denominations cannot act together in a collective religious way how can schools be expected to produce genuine religious events that are unifying of all religious denominations and the non-religious population?

The impossibility of achieving religious unity in a diverse Scotland
The current Scottish Government guidance asks schools to perform unifying religious rituals involving all denominations in schools when there is scant evidence of such events being regularly performed in a unifying way in any other situation in Scottish life. Denominational separateness is the norm for religious life outside of school.

Even state schools cannot unite in one system because of separate systems of religious belief and practice and are divided between separate Roman Catholic and purportedly ‘non-denominational’, but usually Protestant Christian, schools. If the school system itself cannot be unified what hope is there of religious unity in schools in practices which aim to reflect the extremely diverse system of religious and related belief in contemporary Scotland?
 The writer strains to identify any frequent collective situation where, in contemporary Scotland and outside of school, religious ceremonies unify congregations with diverse religious beliefs and none. Perhaps the nearest equivalents are services at funerals and following disasters but even then many of the participants probably do not share the religious sentiments articulated by the presiding person(s).

Current Scottish Government guidance asks schools to do things that the wider society itself cannot do. Attempts to devise and perform collective unifying religious practices in schools in a diverse and plural society involve the imposition of a limited range of religious beliefs on a diverse group of pupils and cannot do justice to the dignity and development needs of each individual pupil and the requirements of her or his parents.
The revocation existing laws in order to remove the requirement of religious observance in Scottish schools is the only honest and defensible response to the inadequacies of the current laws and guidelines and the Edinburgh Secular Society calls on the Scottish Parliament to enact the necessary legislative changes.

Pupils will still learn about their own and other religions, humanism and atheism in other subjects but they will not, then, be required to be involved in religious ceremonies of a sectarian or contrived and biased character.

Norman Bonney, Honorary President, Edinburgh Secular Society

[i]Bonney N 2013 Proportional Prayers: Time for Reflection in the Scottish Parliament’Parliamentary Affairs, 66, 4, 816-833, October
online at 2012; doi: 10.1093/pa/gss006  
[ii] Ibid 
A link to this work is available at www.normanbonney.blogspot.com
The evidence on the petition presented by various groups and individuals can be inspected at http://

About Norman Bonney

Researcher and writer on religion and the state http://www.normanbonney.blogspot.com

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