Scotland is home to one of the world’s most famously stubborn national identities; pride can be our strength and our undoing. Religion is inextricably tied to national identity and given our history this is understandable. But is the law regarding religious observation in non-denominational schools truly a positive for our children’s education in a globalising world?
Despite an increasingly secular society, under current Scottish law, the majority of public schools are non-denominational, which means they have no specific religious affiliation but need to include some form of religious observation (the de facto being involvement from the local kirk). According to the Scottish government, around 84% of Scottish schools are non-denominational, with 14% Roman Catholic, several inter-denominational, Episcopalian and one Jewish school. For many parents, ‘non-denominational’ implies that their child attends a secular school with no religious affiliation. Ultimately this is not the case. Non-denominational does not mean non-religious, it simply does not define what form of religion is taught. Christianity from the local kirk is the standard, local form of worship that fits in line culturally and historically.
By law, a non-denominational school must provide regular religious observance throughout the school year that is reflective of the Christian heritage of Scotland. But this is not reflective of the demographics of Scotland today. The 2019 Scottish Household Survey found that the majority (56%) of Scots do not belong to any religion. There has been a steep decline in association with Christianity and a slight increase of other faiths like Islam and Hinduism. Often the focus of religion in schools is on faith schools and with sectarian divides this naturally is a contentious debate. The benefit of a baptism certificate aiding a child’s likelihood of attending a good Catholic school is questionable as an educational practice, but not a great talking point in politics.
Being taught how to think and not what to think
Having spent 20 years in Scotland, I raised my children in and around Edinburgh and do feel that little bit of national identity that aligns with my ancestry. But I am not Scottish and grew up in Singapore, after leaving England on my seventh birthday, my home for the next 14 years was Asia. Attending Dover Court preparatory school and the United World College of South East Asia was a culture shock, but in a good way; there was no racism, bigotry, or religious sectarianism. It couldn’t be stranger going from a Church of England school to an international primary school in Singapore, with children from the same number of nationalities as children in the class. I remember the teacher trying to remember and pronounce the names of children with some effort and good humour. Our classrooms were surrounded with palm trees, humid air, and strange accents but more importantly an overarching sense of equality.
I instantly took to ‘taking in’ the new kids who arrived as fast as they left. It was a transient 1980’s culture with children being moved at short notice, and of course with no social media to keep in touch. Goodbye meant goodbye, I’ll miss you, and I wish you well. This meant that it was essential for school to be a solid base of learning that allowed children from all cultural and religious backgrounds to thrive together on equal terms. I was reminded of this when my son attended a local school for army families in Edinburgh as when a child had to leave with their parent being called to duty, the whole school would stamp their feet, cheer, and clap for a full minute at the end of assembly. They were genuinely recognising the challenge for the child to have to move from their community. Celebrating the child was the priority.
I attended the United World College of South East Asia for seven years and genuinely feel that it is an excellent model for education. The UWC has 18 schools on four continents and is ‘a global movement that makes education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future’. There was no religious observation, but we learned theory of knowledge, were taught how to think and not what to think. We celebrated UN night each year and the school grounds would light up with stalls serving national cuisines from all around the world, a high school street food delight. In a way we did tend to homogenise, developing the same quirky accent which local Singaporeans could recognise. Like my brother I still get asked if I’m Australian, South African, or American.
A fear of migration and cultural divides
When I moved to Scotland, aged 20, I experienced a much more difficult culture shock than as a child moving away from the UK. Referred to as ‘third culture’, you do not identify with your place of birth but are also not from the place from where you have moved. I had a lot of Singaporean friends; many were Muslim or Hindu. Religion was not something to really talk about socially, but we were often invited to celebrations like Chinese New Year, Deepavali, and Hari Raya which was always about food (Singapore’s main theme) and family. Scotland seemed, by contrast, to have open racism and a lack of cultural tolerance. This saddened me immensely and I could not understand the fear of migration and cultural divides.
As a young mother at 23, I naively assumed that my children were not at a faith school but a secular public school. When they told me about the prayers and visits from the local pastor I was surprised and a little bemused by their response. My daughter at nine said she wasn’t going to put the printout on the fridge as suggested, because she did not feel a slave to any god. I think my son thought Christianity was all a story like Father Christmas and just told to make people feel good. The local kirk held Scripture Union classes at lunchtime (giving out Haribo sweets seemed to increase the attendance) and it seemed offered a quiet space alternative to a noisy playground. Despite being atheist, I did not object as it is not for me to dictate to my children what to believe. I always would prefer to discuss and explore.
School should represent a neutral space of understanding
So, what is the harm in a little prayer? If I had said that my children should trust and believe anything Christian as absolute fact and reality, they may not be such critical thinkers. Faith has several definitions but in terms of religion, relates to a sense of inner knowing regardless of objective reality or evidence. This is the antithesis to the scientific process that we are trying to teach children; that a curious mind is essential for true discovery, that we don’t know everything and can be wrong. While the act of prayer may have some therapeutic effects so does meditation, tapping and yoga. It may seem natural that schools involve the local kirk for the spiritual wellbeing of students, but it is questionable if Christianity is truly a positive force.
Telling children that they are born sinners and that they should accept the supernatural without question is seen increasingly for many not a sound basis for morality. The Bible as a text promotes slavery, belittles women, can be easily interpreted as homophobic and when read cover to cover, describes a vindictive god that I would not wish to spend eternity with. I do not subscribe to any notion that being religious makes you a good person; fear of hell is a traumatic experience for many trying to escape religion and not a healthy way to encourage children to do service for others. It is quite possible to be charitable and compassionate in a secular environment; this is not a quality that is in any way exclusive to Christianity. During my time at the UWC I was involved in numerous charitable projects, including the sponsorship of a school in Ladakh, India, which I had the pleasure of visiting. There was no missionary undertone and no motive except to help. There is of course a cultural aspect to religion which represents coming together as family and community, but school should represent a neutral space of understanding. We can come together without religion.
“You are needed” never fails to capture the young
Often the focus of the debate surrounding religion in schools is on the parental right to choose the education for their child. But what about the rights of the child? The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) has now been passed into Scottish law. Article 14 states that ‘Every child has the right to think and believe what they choose and also to practise their religion, as long as they are not stopping other people from enjoying their rights. Governments must respect the rights and responsibilities of parents to guide their child as they grow up.’ It is easy to see how difficult this is to navigate in the context of religious practices in school, but a key point is that a parent cannot force a child to either adopt or leave a religion. The Humanist Society Scotland is campaigning to change to an ’opt-in’ system and repeal the current system of obligatory religious attendance.
How can a child objectively make up their mind about religion and spirituality if they have been indoctrinated against their will from an early age? The current system does include religious and moral education classes (RME or RE) which offer learning about the different religious practises globally and giving the opportunity to understand different cultures. This is a widely popular approach as it forms a kind of mitigation against racial intolerance and bigotry. Leaving it to headteachers to decide how to designate religious observance in the spiritual interest of pupils is an unrealistic approach in practice. Not only are staff not trained in spirituality specifically, but they also naturally vary considerably in their own beliefs.
In non-denominational schools, parents can ‘opt-out’ their child from religious observance, but this is not practically a positive option. Being marched out of assembly to sit alone would feel stigmatising for a child of any background. It would not be realistic for a non-Christian to avoid the weeks of preparation for the nativity play and children from the majority non-religious families simply need to play along with a tradition that they consider nonsensical. The demographics of Scotland may be still mainly white and Scottish but is this relevant in today’s world? Our young people are in contact on a global scale more than ever, not just through social media but an increased access to news and a wider view of humanity.
The founder of the UWC, Kurt Hahn aptly said in 1958 that “There are three ways of trying to capture the young; one is to preach at them – I’m afraid that is a hook without a worm; the second is to coerce them… and to tell them ‘You must volunteer’… the third is an appeal which never fails, ‘You are needed’.” With a commitment to global peace, religion is kept out of school at all UWC campuses and left as a cultural choice for the family to practise separately.
The current law is not reflective of the demographics of Scotland and appears to hold on to a historically Christian national identity. Whether this is assessed within the confines of an independence debate is ultimately up to the people to decide, but not a conversation we should shy away from.
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