Time for Reflection: What is all the fuss about?

N.B. This article focuses on religious observance/time for reflection in non-denominational Scottish schools, and does not take into consideration the different circumstances in denominational schools.

The history of education in Scotland has its roots firmly embedded in the development of the churches. The first recognisable school in Scotland was the High School of Glasgow, which was established in 1124 and which still exists today, as a choir school of the Roman Catholic Church.

(This was an article I wrote on behalf of HSS for Ekklesia)

The history of the development of today’s universal education system is long and complicated, but something of which many people today are unaware is that it was not until 1872, when Scottish schools were taken over by the state, that education became a universal entitlement for children aged 5-13. Before this education was provided by a range of churches, with the reforming influence of John Knox at the heart of the Church of Scotland’s aim to establish a school in every parish.

These were primarily for the education of wealthy young men, and the nature and purpose of school education prior to 1872 was understandably weighted towards scripture and theology, as it was at the ancient universities, but the influence of the enlightenment thinkers and their focus on the sciences and humanities led to a shift in Western Europe away from doctrinal based studies to those based on a humanistic philosophy of the integral value of knowledge for its own sake.

The 1872 Act massively reformed education in Scotland, bringing the administration and funding of schools into the control of the state (with the exception of denominational schools, which although state funded since 1918, retain their ‘religious character’).

Perhaps as a result of political negotiations, or as a way to ensure the religious nature of education, two facets of religion were engrained in the 1872 Education Act. Religious Instruction, and Religious Observance, and of course in 1872 Religious Observance meant specifically Christian acts of worship.

Religious observance was unchanged until the late 1980’s when the practice first came under review. Subsequent governments sought to bring the practice into line with modern sensibilities, and there was a move away from a confessional approach to collective worship and emphasis was placed on ‘spiritual development’.

In an internal Church of Scotland report entitled ‘A Research Report on the Reception of the 2005 Religious Observance Guidelines in Scotland’ concerns were raised about what constitutes ‘spiritual development’ and how (if it all) it can be measured. This is one of the major assumptions which has brought about the current confusion in religious observance.

Spiritual development is a broad phrase, used by some religious and non-religious people alike, and definitions vary from ‘knowledge of Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Saviour’ to ‘the sense of awe you feel on ascent of a mountain’. While I accept that these might be genuinely held or profound feelings to the person experiencing them, my concern is for the poor head teacher in Scotland who has to interpret such a vague word and reproduce not only a small slice in class, but a whole developmental programme!

Scottish education has been ill served by the lack of leadership shown by our elected representatives on this issue, leaving it to individuals to interpret as best they can. It’s understandable that politicians prefer to keep themselves out of the debate about the role of religion in public life, and try to sweep all arguments under the carpet for fear of causing offence. In doing however, they have left us the worst of all possible worlds. While Evangelical Christians bemoan the reduction of true biblical witness to mealy-mouthed platitudes, and conservative missionary groups see RO as an open door to proselytize their obscure anti-science views, non-religious Scots find it hard to believe that religion remains one of the only compulsory parts of the Scottish education system.

The Church of Scotland has been one of the most progressive groups calling for change in Scotland. In 2005, their General Assembly adopted the Scottish Government guidelines as policy, and moved away from a traditional approach to worship. It wasn’t until last year, however, that the Edinburgh Secular Society brought the debate into public view when they called for a local poll in Edinburgh to abolish RO. This was quickly followed by the Scottish Secular Society’s petition to make RO an ‘opt-in’ activity for pupils.

These petitions have raised serious questions about the current practices of RO within Scottish schools, but while both organisations should be congratulated for bringing it to the attention of both politicians and the public, the issue remains. The current Scottish Government have made it clear they have no intention either to remove religious observance, or change it to ‘opt-in’.

So, although I remain concerned about the use of the almost meaningless term ‘spiritual development’, my main aim, as the Education Policy Officer of the Humanist Society Scotland, is to ensure that children are protected from harm. As such, I am delighted to have had the opportunity, with The Church of Scotland, to draft a joint statement to the Scottish Parliament on our proposal to change religious observance to Time for Reflection, echoing the practice of the Scottish Parliament itself.

Not only does the joint proposal seek to remove religious exclusivity from the current education system, but by requiring all external visitors to schools to agree with the local authority’s equality and diversity policy, it will ensure that schools cannot used by extremist groups as platforms to air their views.

There is some misunderstanding about the law surrounding RO, so let me take a moment to spell out the current situation before I explain why I believe that the joint proposal is the most appropriate way forward.

No minister or religious visitor is required for RO, and it can be led by teachers or indeed by the pupils themselves. Abolishing the requirement for RO from the 1980 Education Act would not stop the practice of RO, it would simply remove the compulsion. The removal of RO would require prohibitive legislation, which would in turn require two amendments to the 2010 Equality Act, which has specific exemptions for ‘collective worship’ in schools. Combined with the Scottish Government’s position on RO, it is clear that neither ‘opt-out’ nor abolition are realistic possibilities in the short-term.

The HSS believes that the change to Time for Reflection would alter the current practice, both by ensuring that any visitors to schools are appropriate, and by changing its implicitly Christian religious character to one that reflects the more diverse society in which we live.

This proposal represents a real possibility to contribute to the education of young people in Scotland. It represents a real opportunity to bring clarity and direction to the current muddled system, and we urge likeminded parties to get on board and work with us for the common good, but to do this, we need your help.

We need everyone who supports this progressive move to come out of their corners and speak out, it doesn’t matter whether you are religious or not, get in touch with your MSP and tell them that you support this campaign for positive change.

For those of you who are interested, the Humanist Society Scotland is looking for ideas about what an non-religious ethical Time for Reflection might look like, please do pass on your suggestions to education@humanism-scotland.org.uk.

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