by Pat Boyd
from Signs of the Times No. 17 - Apr 2005

Consensus has been reached within Scottish Education about the nature of religious education but much confusion remains over the nature and purpose of religious observance.

The statutory position relating to religious observance in Scottish schools is summarised in Religious and Moral Education, 5-14 National Guidelines, the Scottish equivalent of a national curriculum, as follows.

Religious observance is a statutory requirement in schools under the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, which repeats the legislation of previous Acts in giving education authorities 'liberty to continue the said custom' and prohibiting them from discontinuing it without a poll of local electors. Parents have the legal right to withdraw their children if they wish.

In a report, Standards and Quality in Secondary Schools: Religious and Moral Education 1995-2000, H.M. Inspectors included a special note on religious observance. They were concerned that many non-denominational secondary schools were failing to provide time for religious observance. They did not believe that schools were being deliberately negligent but that they were finding difficulty in taking account of the guidance contained in Provision of Religious Education and Religious Observance in Primary and Secondary Schools , a circular which had been issued to all schools and local authorities by the Scottish Education Department in 1991, and which expressed the intentions of legislation going back to 1872. Schools had difficulty in interpreting this in ways meaningful to the social, cultural and educational context of today.

The foreword to the H.M.I.'s report even raised the question of the continuing appropriateness of current advice on religious observance. The advice, set out in the 1991 circular, expressed the view that religious observance was a valid educational experience which 'made an important contribution to pupils' spiritual development'. It recognised that it could also 'have a subsidiary role in promoting the ethos of a school by bringing pupils together and creating a feeling of corporate identity'. It stated that in non-denominational schools religious observance should be of a 'broadly Christian character'. It was this phrase that made head teachers, particularly those of secondary schools, reluctant to adhere to the instruction 'that all secondary schools should take part in religious observance at least once a month and preferably with greater frequency'.

Following publication of the H.M.I.'s report, the then Minister for Education, now First Minister of the Scottish Executive, Jack McConnell, established a group to review the provision of religious observance in all schools, to consider the current guidance on arrangements for religious observance, and to make recommendations for the future. The Review Group was made up of representatives from education, religious organisations and parent groups and was chaired by Anne Wilson, Director of Education at Dundee City Council. It was asked 'to make recommendations to Ministers on any changes which are required to ensure that revised guidance to schools is relevant and appropriate for pupils, that it fulfils the requirements of the 1980 Act and also provides practical advice on religious observance'.

In her foreword to the final report, Anne Wilson wrote:
Ours was not an easy task as religion is a topic that always provokes a variety of often very emotive responses and views. These range across a wide spectrum of opinion from those who wish no religious observance in schools to those who wish to see much more.

This tension was very real. The fact that the Review Group began its work in August 2001 and that the new circular replacing that of 1991 was not published until February 2005 underlines this.

It is important to stress that from the outset, the Review Group's remit was to provide guidance to schools in order to help them meet their statutory requirements in respect of the provision of opportunities for religious observance in schools. Neither the legislation, nor the continuing use of the term 'religious observance', was under discussion.

The Review Group's work can be divided into three phases:
  1. The preparation of a consultation paper entitled Review of Religious Observance in Scottish Schools.
  2. A series of six consultation meetings held at various locations throughout Scotland. Members of the Group facilitated meetings and were assisted by members of a research team from the Scottish Council for Research in Education at the University of Glasgow. The participants included pupils, teachers, parents, representatives from the faith communities, chaplains from local Presbyteries of the Church of Scotland, and chaplains from the Roman Catholic Church and the other denominations and religious organisations. Secular interests were represented by the Humanist Society of Scotland. The Group was keen to involve young people. Overall they achieved some success as approximately thirty children's forums contributed their views, as did the National Youth Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
  3. The development of a brief questionnaire prepared by the research team. This was publicised at the six consultation meetings and through the Review Group's website. A total of 1473 submissions were received.
Three general conclusions can be reached from the submissions elicited by the consultations and the questionnaire:
  • There were strong views from those individuals and organisations who considered that the consultation represented a threat to the range of religious practices that they espoused.
  • The relatively small number of responses from denominational schools indicated that religious observance is a less contentious issue for them.
  • The responses from local authorities indicated that the consultation ignited a far wider debate on the role and status of religious observance in a multi-cultural society.
In the Religious Observance Circular published in February 2005, Ministers make the following points in the light of the Review Group's report:
  • Definition: They accept the report's definition of religious observance: 'community acts which aim to promote the spiritual development of all members of the school community and express and celebrate the shared values of the school community'.
  • Approach: Religious observance should provide opportunities for the school community to reflect on and develop a deeper understanding of the dignity and worth of each individual. In recognition of Scotland's Christian heritage, schools are encouraged to use the rich resources of this tradition. However, where there are significant numbers of the school community of other faiths or none, this should be taken into account in the devising of forms of religious observance. Material and training events will be provided to support schools and authorities.
  • Frequency: Every school should provide opportunities for religious observance at least six times in a school year. It was recognised that many primary schools value weekly religious observance and will wish to continue it.
  • Worship in schools: The Review Group's conclusion, in the following terms, was endorsed;
'Where the school, whether denominational or non-denominational, is continuous with a faith community, that community's faith in the "focus of worship", may be assumed and worship may be considered to be appropriate as part of the formal activity of the school. Where, as in most non-denominational schools, there is a diversity of beliefs and practices, the review group believed that the appropriate context for an organised act of worship is within the informal curriculum as part of the range of activities offered for example by religions, groups, chaplains and other religious leaders.'

There is an enormous challenge here for those of us involved in religious observance in Scottish schools, for there is a feeling that if we do not get it right this time, it will disappear. If it does disappear from the life of the school community, a significant opportunity for the spiritual development of young people will be lost.


Pat Boyd is former head of Religious Education, George Watson's College, Edinburgh,  and is presently working for the Scottish Qualifications Authority.