HSS Education Debate: “What role should religious faith play in Scottish education”

This was a debate that I took place in on Friday 6th December 2013.

Firstly, apologies for the poor sound quality, there were one or two technical issue, but we managed to get there anyway.

I’ve written a short reflection on the debate afterwards.

Debate review…

I was delighted that John Mason, Patrick Harvie and Richard Lucas were able to give up a Friday night so close to Christmas to come and discuss the issues.

Tim Maguire gave the opening address before handing over to Paris Gourtsoyannis, education correspondent of Holyrood Magazine.  Paris acted as moderator for the debate.

Up first was John Mason, who started by reminding us about Scotland’s religious, particularly Christian, background (for those of you unaware).  John acknowledged in his opening speech that society is becoming increasingly less religious and more secular, which John said he was comfortable.

John made the point that for people with religious faith, this faith can and does impact on their professional and public life – of course I have no issue with that.  Many MSP’s, such as John, make no secret of their divine inspiration, and resign themselves to be judged by the electorate regardless.  John did, however, then make a leap of bad faith by suggesting that when teachers are carrying out their duties, you would expect ‘illustrations and examples from their personal lives’.  Perhaps, but what concerns me is that this statement is code for ‘it’s OK for teachers to spread homophobic attitudes in schools’.

John also said that universal free education played an important role in the establishment of the Scottish education system.  That is undoubtedly true, but it’s also the case that the majority of the schools established prior to the C17th were in place to educate boys (yes… boys) for a future career in the ministry.  It wasn’t until the humanist movement sparked a renewed understanding of the importance and purpose of education, in turn leading to the enlightenment.

Patrick Harvie was second to speak, he too took the opportunity to acknowledge the past service of religious organisations.  Patrick then went on to push the point that after 140 years of state-funded, government-run schools, they no longer belong to religion. He reminded us that the people of Scotland, through their taxes,

Patrick then went on to acknowledge that whilst current legislation requires ‘Religious Observance’ in schools, despite the Scottish Government guidance, the religious privilege is well ingrained.

The right of children to an education, said Patrick, was the most important guiding principle in the debate around the future of religion in education. Patrick asserted that neither parents, nor religious lobby groups have a right to determine what children learn.

The next speaker was Richard Lucas.  Richard started by making the assertion that humanism is not the one true world view, and that schools should therefore not be run on this worldview alone (I went on later in the debate, that no one is actually arguing for that).

Sadly, Richard then went onto highlight the example of teacher in Lasswade High School who was highlighted in the media for challenging science and promoting creationism in class.  Richard seemed to suggest that this was simply the teacher ‘sharing his views’.

Richard then made a quick pass at sex education, suggesting that it was presented in a conspiratorial nature, and that there is no such thing as ‘safe sex’.

Richard seemed to make the bizarre assumption that education must be about instilling one particular world-view, and that could either be religion of humanism.

I spoke last, and split my contribution into two parts.  I first of all gave a series of reasons to be slightly worried about the state of the education system.  These included, the apparent approval of gender segregation in UK Universities, the employment discrimination practices of denominational schools in the UK, the option nature of sexual health and relationships education in denominational schools, and also the large and intrusive nature of many chaplaincy teams.

I then gave a list of reasons why the adoption of secular policies would help lead to a better system.  These reasons included an opportunity t target extremism by educating children together, increased democracy and equality as well as the churches focusing more on their members.

There then followed a general debate around several issues raised in the opening statements, in which it was conceded by John Mason and Richard Lucas that non-elected religious representatives were ‘on their way out’.

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