Picture the scene: It’s early April, just before the Easter break from school. Lurking on the other side of the holidays are examinations, which are up there with the most important milestones in a young person’s life. The results of those will in many cases have a significant bearing on their future. Every class is crucial, and teachers will try to squeeze as much content and reinforcement of learning in as they can with the time they have. Strangely though, many classes today are cancelled, and the time is spent marching the pupils to the church down the road for some mandatory religious observation instead. No permission slips arrive in advance for parents. No choice is given to the pupils; it’s a one-size-fits all sermon during school time.
What kind of theocratic hellhole is this? Well, this is a non-denominational school in Scotland in the 21st Century. How do I know this? Because it was my older daughter that got pulled in front of the pulpit when she really should have been studying.
The good news is that you can opt-out. By ‘you’ I mean the parents. The young people themselves don’t have that luxury. Not even for older pupils in their final years. Cerebral autonomy has to wait until school is over.
I’ve never been a believer myself, and it’s been a LONG time since I was at school, but I can still belt out the Lord’s prayer without hesitation, and could probably lip-sync along to a decent number of hymns more convincingly than many Christians. This is brain-space which I could put to much better use, but those verses appear to be permanently branded on my primate hard-drive.
The type of religious observance that goes on in our schools varies greatly these days, most probably because cultural diversity is on the rise, and religiosity is on the decline. Plus, the Scottish Government’s Curriculum for Excellence document on religious observance is somewhat vague – possibly deliberately so. This means that for non-denominational schools, you’re spinning a roulette wheel where the outcome is very much dependent on how religious the senior teaching staff happen to be (or at least how religious they would like their religious observance to be).
There also appears to be great confusion (or deliberate obfuscation) between the concept of religious observance, and education about religion, and wider social, moral, and ethical issues. The Briefing Guide paints a bold and idealistic picture about the potential benefits of effective religious observance, but fails to deliver evidence to support their stance. It also ominously takes time to carve out some caveats for faith schools. If you’re unfortunate enough to be a young person whose parents or guardians are religious (or are willing to pretend they are to get you into a denominational school that’s conveniently near your house, or has a good reputation, or both), then the religious observance you’re likely to be subjected to will be considerably more frequent, and much narrower in scope.
With the conversation expanding to the wider concept of faith schools, it’s worth mentioning that their proponents will frequently point to Article 2 the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s first protocol, which, amongst other things states
Parents also have a right to ensure that their religious and philosophical beliefs are respected during their children’s education.
Those proponents frequently fail to mention that the article itself goes on to illustrate some of the limitations to such a policy. It does however fail to lay out the plain truth that such a policy only works in general terms, and it’s logistically impossible to provide schooling options for every faith out there (and even if it did, that would be harmfully divisive). In the real world, when it comes to denominational schools in Scotland, the vast majority are Roman Catholic, so you’re generally out of luck if you’re a different flavour of Christian, or Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu, Pastafarian or something else.
The Scottish Government is happy to give carte blanche to Roman Catholic schools when it comes to religious observance too:
The Scottish Government welcomes the tradition that, in Roman Catholic denominational schools, Catholic Liturgy will largely shape the nature and frequency of Religious Observance activities in the classroom and in the wider school community.
It also shouldn’t be forgotten that those Catholic schools are able to discriminate against what pupils they admit, and what teachers they hire. It’s not entirely unheard of for job-hunting teachers to pretend to be Catholic just to get the job. I know a few of them actually (don’t worry my friends, your secret’s safe with me!).
All of this sounds ominous to say the least, but it’s only appropriate to consider what harm this may actually cause. Invasion of valuable study time is one, and brain-space in general is obviously a second, but what else might be lurking?
Sectarianism unfortunately continues to be rife Scotland. Of course, it’s impossible to pin this on one thing, but it’s safe to say that segregating our children by religion during their formative years certainly doesn’t help the situation. A recent study of sectarian attitudes in Catholic adolescents showed some deeply concerning results, including 6% who said they would not like to live next door to Protestants, and 37% who do not feel that they have any Protestant friends. The latter statistic would almost certainly be reduced if schools weren’t segregated.
Social attitudes are undeniably shaped by religious influences too. For example, you don’t have to be religious to be a homophobe, but increased religiosity certainly increases your chances. For an explanation, you need look no further than the stances of the two most prominent religions in Scotland: The Church of Scotland (32.4% of the population), and the Catholic Church (15.9%). At the time of writing, both organisations do not permit same sex marriage. This may change later in 2022 for the Church of Scotland, albeit with the potential for opt-out for individual Church staff.
This is entirely at odds with the Scottish Governments claims that effective religious observation “can allow learners to address issues of equality”. Even more explicit is the Scottish Catholic Education Service’s guidance on relationships, sexual health & parenthood education in schools, which states:
They also learn about why the Catholic Church teaches that marriage is the ideal context for sexual intimacy and self‐giving between a man and a woman.
Considering the above, it’s no surprise that issues around bodily autonomy also appear to be a problem, as do objections to evidence-based sex education. Thankfully we don’t see too much in the way of promotion of creationism in our schools, although it’s not entirely unheard of. Check out the infiltration by religious extremists into the non-denominational Kirktonholme Primary School in my home town of East Kilbride for years in the early 2010’s for one particularly nasty example of that.
Let’s be very clear though: while religious observance appears to do more harm than good, education about religion could and should be much better as well. For evidence of that, hop across the North Sea to the godforsaken land of heathens that is Sweden. A wide and varied curriculum about different religions, their philosophies and traditions is mandatory throughout their school life, and is carried out in a rational, analytical manner. In general, a Swedish child will know more about Christianity than a Scottish child whose parents aren’t Christians, and they will know more about Islam than a Scottish child whose parents aren’t Muslims, and so on. This broad coverage breeds understanding, empathy, and interesting discussions about beliefs and values, carried out in a respectful manner.
Things certainly aren’t broken here in Scotland, but they could be much better. I don’t have all the answers of course, but perhaps I might’ve figured something out if my head wasn’t so full of hymns.