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Parity of esteem was the theme of a recent Humanist Society-sponsored conference on Religious Observance and Religious Education.
Clare Marsh, Education Officer of the Humanist Society Scotland, outlined the findings of a recent YouGov survey of a 1000 Scottish parents.
• Parents are not fully aware of their right to withdraw. Eighty per cent were either ignorant of their rights or originally found out through a source other than school. Thirty-nine per cent were totally unaware.
• Parents want to see a wide range of viewpoints about religions and non-belief systems covered in schools. Almost one in five parents think RO and RME should be removed from schools.
• Parents want children to hear a variety of religious and non-religious viewpoints.
As well as the results of the survey, four major themes emerged.
While the SQA’s stated purpose for Religious, Moral and Philosophical Education is to support children to explore ‘the world’s major religions and approaches to living which are independent of religious belief’, students at Int 2 and Higher must study one of six major world religions with no option to choose Atheism/Humanism, a bias requiring reform. There was, however, an overwhelming consensus that the quality of Religious and Moral Education, especially in non-denominational secondary schools, had improved immeasurably.
Brian Boyd argued that education is about the whole child and that the great challenge for 21st-century schools was learning to live together. Ewan Aitken, former Edinburgh Council leader and Church of Scotland representative on the review of religious observance, echoed many of Boyd’s points. He supported inclusive acts of observance which were “a freeing of the mind and a cradling of the soul” but were not specific to any particular religion or belief tradition. Former headteacher Rory Mackenzie saw school assemblies as opportunities to reflect on and celebrate the dignity, worth and successes of every member of the school community, an approach, however, often seen by school inspectors as contrary to the religious observance purpose.
Claire Cassidy of Strathclyde University illustrated the developments in the teaching of philosophy, from the earliest years to the top end of secondary. Centred on collaborative dialogue, philosophy supported the search for meaning and knowledge and stressed the supreme importance of accuracy in the use of language. It is unrivalled as a tool to develop ethical understanding. While the SQA examines Philosophy at Int 2, Higher and Advanced Higher, it tends, in primaries and in the lower secondary years, to be taught only where there are enthusiasts among the teaching staff. Patrick Harvie MSP promised to pursue this matter in Parliament.
The big issue which emerged, however, in a significant minority of primary schools, was the default assumption that, unless families stated to the contrary, all children were Christian and should participate in Christian worship. Parents recounted experiences of children instructed at assemblies to bow their heads in prayer. Parents also told of the enormous pressure not to exercise their right to withdraw their children from religious observance and religious education. Heads and deputes suggest that the child will be ‘isolated’ when it is their responsibility precisely to ensure that the utilisation of a legal parental right should not lead to any deficit for the child. As Patrick Harvie stated: “We have moved from a society where religious subscription and practice are the norm.” Despite that, many primaries enforce Christian prayers, hymn-singing and sermons on all children and perceive this as ‘education’. The same teachers and headteachers would have been rightly appalled at the indoctrination of children in the schools in the former Communist bloc but, seemingly, cannot recognise their own role in a parallel process.
It’s time for a change.

The above article was first published in Holyrood Magazine on 28 May 2012:

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