Campaigners are raising concerns about how religious education is delivered
Religious and Moral Education (RME) and Religious Observance (RO) are both statutory requirements in Scottish schools, as set out in the 1980 Education (Scotland) Act, however, a conscience clause provides for the right of parents to ‘opt-out’ of both RME and RO. In those cases, schools must provide “a worthwhile alternative activity”.
“In no circumstances should a pupil be disadvantaged as a result of withdrawing,” the guidelines read. Furthermore, RME classes should include elements from “the world’s major religions and views, including those which are independent of religious belief.” According to the Humanist Society of Scotland (HSS), in some cases those guidelines aren’t being followed. Clare Marsh, educational officer for HSS, claims that, particularly in some non-denominational state primary schools, what she terms a ‘confessional’ brand of RME – one which teaches Christianity as the ‘truth’ and downgrades or ignores other points of view – continues to be taught.
Marsh claims too that the situation is particularly acute in northern Scotland, where religious affiliation is stronger, and the influence of several parish clergies can be brought to bear on a single school with a wide catchment area.
Marsh adds that in at least one case where a parent complained about the way RME was being taught, sermons were delivered locally, drumming up opposition to moves to drop prayers from assemblies.
At a conference hosted by the HSS in Glasgow last month, parents and educators aired their concerns. Angela McLaren’s daughter came home from nursery one day and told her that Jesus was the son of God; her daughter’s school is non-denominational, and McLaren and her family are non-believers. When she approached the headteacher, McLaren says she received a sympathetic hearing, but was told that the only option was to opt out – something she is reluctant to do because of the social impact she fears it will have on her daughter. “Basically, we’re told that if you decide to pull your child out, that’s something that you’re doing to your child, and you’re going to be segregating your child from the rest of the school. I don’t want to opt my child out – but I don’t feel like I should need to.”
In addition, McLaren says she was told that no resources existed to provide an alternative for her daughter. A separate course of work has been suggested as a possibility, but this would be unsupervised. “[The head] is trying to produce something for us, which is commendable, but at the same time that’s not what we’re promised by the Scottish Government if we choose to opt out,” she says.
North Lanarkshire Council has responded by reiterating its commitment to the guidelines for RME teaching, and restating McLaren’s right to opt out. “It doesn’t really address any of the issues that were raised. It just sweeps them under the carpet, I would say.” She says her next step is to speak to her local MSP, and try and get a fuller response from North Lanarkshire education officials.
A spokesman for the Scottish Government told Holyrood: “Curriculum for Excellence guidance papers on RME make clear that delivery should include teaching and learning about viewpoints independent of religious belief.
Local authorities and schools are also expected to include references to the conscience clause from the 1980 Act which includes an entitlement to opt out of RME, within their school handbooks, which are shared with parents.
“Evidence from inspections suggests that most pupils are positive about their learning experience in RME, enjoying many opportunities to discuss and debate issues of religion and philosophy. However, any parent who is dissatisfied with their school’s approach is entitled to take action via the school or their local authority.” As well as anecdotes from around the country, those seeking a change in RME and RO can point to national polling data suggesting that Scottish Government guidelines on opting out aren’t being followed. A survey of 1000 Scottish parents of children aged five to 16, commissioned by the HSS and carried out by internet pollsters YouGov, found that 80 per cent of respondents either didn’t know they could opt out of RME and RO, or had found out from a source other than their child’s school. Thirty-nine per cent of respondents were completely unaware of their right to opt their children out. Yet despite the fact that nearly one in five respondents disagreed with RME and RO being part of the school curriculum at all, only five per cent said their child never took part – confirming McLaren and Marsh’s claim that even where parents are unhappy, they are often reluctant to separate their child from classmates.
Those concerned about the way RME and RO are administered in Scottish schools aren’t just arguing a point of principle; they believe they have social demographics on their side. A separate YouGov survey, commissioned by the HSS in March 2011, found that 42 per cent of respondents responded ‘None’ to the question ‘What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?’ – the same wording as in the official Scottish census carried out that year. A different question, ‘Are you religious?’ resulted in 35 per cent answering ‘Yes’, with 56 per cent responding ‘No’. The findings for Scotland indicated marginally greater religious sentiment north of the border than in the UK as a whole, but humanists and their supporters nonetheless claim the figures show they are a large and growing constituency whose concerns politicians can’t ignore.
One of the proposals being advanced by HSS and others is that RME should be complemented by some form of non-religious ethical or moral education. Dr Claire Cassidy, senior lecturer in education at Strathclyde University, spoke at the conference in May about a course she has developed, called Community Philosophical Inquiry. The programme is teachable across all age ranges, and challenges pupils to explore their own beliefs and those of others; supporters believe that such a programme could meet the perceived deficit in non-faith perspectives within current RME teaching.
“Children of any age will ask the same questions that adults ask – they just use different vocabulary,” says Cassidy. “The whole point about the CoPI structure that I use is that it’s facilitated by somebody who’s trained, who’s got a bit of background in philosophy, but they’re not orchestrating it in the sense that they’re not adding content. The dialogue all comes from the children; the children are inquiring into their own questions, and using their own reasoning to understand issues. It’s not about teaching them what to think.” Philosophy teaching in schools is not new; Cassidy says that the first programmes were introduced in 1991, based on models borrowed from the United States. “There’s loads of people doing philosophy for children in all sorts of contexts – nursery, primary and secondary. I think it’s growing in popularity, and I think teachers are seeing it as a pedagogical tool.” However, she detects a growing interest amongst teachers to develop those ideas, thanks to the interdisciplinary space opened up by Curriculum for Excellence – albeit in areas outside RME. “It’s inherently collaborative if you’re sitting in a group trying to work through a problem together,” she says.
“It’s a way to teach children how to think and how to reason using a structure that’s a respectful environment where they listen to others and take account of other people’s views, where they can try out ideas that don’t necessarily need to be their own, and coming to an understanding about what they actually think. Where they can challenge in a respectful way, and where they can disagree with ideas, and be disagreed with themselves, to further their own thinking.” McLaren says she has no difficulty with RME itself, and would be happy with her children learning about different faiths, provided the content was balanced and gave equal consideration to non-faith ideas. That’s what the curriculum is supposed to offer, but not what McLaren feels her child’s school is providing. “You wonder how many parents have raised the issue and accepted what’s been said and gone away,” she says. “If your kid doesn’t tell you, you don’t really know what they’re being taught.” Cassidy, too, say she doesn’t have strong views on RME itself – but says the way all forms of values education is carried out is important.
“People have values, and one way or another, we betray what our values are in what we think and what we do and we say. Education shouldn’t be about telling children what their values should be; it should be about helping them to explore their values and the values of others so they can come to some understanding about how they think they should live their lives. I don’t think they should be telling them what their values are.”