Consultation on religious observance in Scotland

12th Febuary 2003



The Scottish Executive is to be congratulated upon opening up the question of religious observance in schools to public debate. The following Response is made on behalf of the National Secular Society, which seeks to ensure a level playing field between those who are religious and those who are not. In particular the Society acts to draw attention to, and where possible remedy, instances of unjustified privilege being granted to religious bodies or religion in general.


I. That Section 8 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 (in effect, making religious observance all-but compulsory) be repealed.

II. That revised legislation and a replacement for Circular 6/91 be introduced to require school assemblies to reflect, explore and challenge the shared values and aspirations of the school community, and to value the worth of each pupil by encouraging him or her to develop as a whole person*. Not only is there is no need for this to be carried out in a religious context, but conducting assemblies in a religious manner is likely to be alienate pupils who have a right not to be subjected to indoctrination at school. Stimuli should be drawn from music, art, drama, poetry, films and television. The topic or focus may be provided by a range of sources: incidents which occur in the life of the school or in the local, national or international communities. * The wording of asterisked sentences borrows heavily from the Review Group"s exemplar, but excludes the religious references.

III. [Directed at schools and education authorities until repeal of Section 8, the statutory near-compulsion on religious observance]:

a) That a parallel non-religious assembly/ceremony be scheduled at the same time as the statutory religious observance, or

b) That religious observance be scheduled before the start or after the end of the normal school day.

(The Act already gives: "liberty to parents, without forfeiting any of the other advantages of the schools, to elect that their children should not take part in such observance or receive such instruction.)


1. Enforced Worship. It is now more than a century since publicpublicly-funded schools were established. Since then there has been an increasing recognition of the rights of the individual vis à vis the state, and this spirit now needs to be infused into the current debate about religious observance in schools. The neutral term "observance" belies what is meant; it is religious worship that the statute requires, which is a preposterous proposition at the start of the twenty-first century. The Review Group's position that religious observance only becomes worship if that is the wish of the observer, is not sustainable given the devotional wording of hymns and prayers. The obvious, and indeed only, just course is for the requirement for such observance to be repealed.

2. Churches in chronic decline. Support for the churches has been in continuous decline for around fifty years, with attendance of the two largest churches, the Roman Catholic and the Kirk now dropping at the rate of a third in twenty-five years (see footnote 1). The cycle of decline will continue for the foreseeable future as the extent by which the average age of worshippers exceeds those of the population as a whole continues to grow. According to Professor Bruce, Scotland "is a formerly Christian society with a large minority of active Christians and very small representations of other faiths". He continues, "Put bluntly, most Scots now have no connection with the churches (see footnote 2)." The same study speculates that the flow [of respondents' identities over time] from "Christian" to "No Religion" offers interesting evidence of the declining social power of Christianity.

3. Around half the pupils (and the proportion is rising) do not want it. The vast majority of school age children are simply not interested in institutional religion, with the number interested declining year by year. An indication of the steepness of this decline over most of the last century is that Sunday school attendance at the Church of Scotland was 66,000 in 2000 compared with 476,000 in 1910. This statistic reinforces the above point about age imbalance; with so few younger worshippers, the long-term prospect for church attendance is bleak indeed. Despite such a graphic illustration of the lack of interest shown by such a high (and increasing) proportion of young people in institutionalised worship, the Review Group have failed to recommend repeal of the law enforcing religious observance/worship in schools. (The source of the foregoing statistics in this paragraph are shown in the footnotes (see footnote 3))

According to a survey by Francis and Kay involving some 29,000 children in England and Wales in 1995, 46.5% indicated that they had no religious affiliation (see footnote 4). That the above figures for England and Wales are broadly similar in Scotland is confirmed in Professor Bruce"s Scottish study (see footnote 5) in which 40% of those aged 18-54 had no religious affiliation compared with 20% of those older. No figures are given for the under 18s but the historic and age trends suggest it to be greater than 40%, i.e. similar to the 46.5% for England and Wales. Further evidence is provided by his contention that "The most popular ages for stopping [church attendance] were between 12 and 16. Well over half had stopped by the age of 20."

Curiously, Professor Bruce expressed surprise that it was as much as 37 per cent of all age groups (including the older ones) choosing the "No Religion" option, given this "even outstripped belonging to the national church".

The true figure will be even higher, for, as he generously acknowledged, the figures collected from polls for religious affiliation and attendance tend to be significantly higher than the membership figures which religious organizations derive from their records. This exaggeration of religious affiliation and attendance by poll respondents has been noted to by Dr Brierley of Christian Research in 1999, 2000 and 2001.

The growth of non-religious affiliation is rapid and shows no sign of abating. As Professor Bruce notes: "The popularity of "No Religion" is relatively new. Such a response was rare in surveys before the 1960s. By 1974, it was the choice of 24 per cent. Its present level thus represents a growth of 50 per cent in twenty-five years."

4. Divisiveness in a multi cultural society. As the proportion of the non-religious and non-Christians grows, enforcing an act of Christian worship/observance becomes more divisive and offensive to a larger proportion of children and parents. It would be far better for such acts to be undertaken outside the school.

5. This is tantamount to indoctrination. Many pupils feel self-conscious about being labelled as "different", and will therefore consider having to attend religious observance/worship as a lesser evil, even if withdrawal is what their parents would prefer. Given that the opt out is not therefore a free option for the child, either for the above reasons or because the parent refuses to respect the pupil"s wishes to withdraw, the compulsory act of worship/observance must frequently constitute indoctrination of the unwilling. Non-religious parents tend not to exercise their right of withdrawal, perhaps worried about causing "offence" or that they might invite intimidation, either by pupils or even staff. But if the large number of non-religious parents were to opt for withdrawal on a large scale, it would reduce compulsory religious observance to a clique activity rather than a communal one.

We note with some surprise the language used in relation to children in an academic treatise on religion in Scotland: "" religion declines primarily because a combination of increased individualism and ever-greater diversity undermines confidence in the certainty of any one religion. Believers gradually become more and more liberal. Commitment declines. Parents fail to indoctrinate their children. Indeed, indoctrination itself becomes unpopular and parents come to prefer the procedural -- allowing their children to "think for themselves" -- over the substantive principle of desiring that they come to a particular conclusion with that thinking (see footnote 6)."

6. Most parents don't want daily prayers. While it would be expected that religious parents would make vociferous complaints about any proposed cessation of worship/observance or prayers, non-religious parents are much less likely to make strong representations. This would be expected because religion is not important to them and, unlike religious parents, they are not about to lose something they value. There is compelling evidence that the majority of parents do not want religious observance from the results of a survey of the reactions of 18-34 year olds (into which many school parents would fit) to an analogous statement: "There should be daily prayers in state schools". Only 24% agreed with the statement while 62% disagreed with it. The older respondents were the more they agreed with the proposition, but the 18-34 group are much more likely to represent the generation of parents to come, and it is for the future that this consultation is being conducted. (We do, however, accept that a minority of non-religious parents will nevertheless want or be content with prayers, and a minority of religious parents who consider that school is not the place for religious devotions.)

7. Children have rights too. An important consideration should be children's rights, which the law as it stands clearly abuses. No doubt religious parents will call vociferously for their children and others to be indoctrinated (normally using some euphemism), considering that the children have no rights to make up their own minds while still at school. Such a cavalier attitude sits uncomfortably with "children" being legally permitted from the ages of 16 or 17 to have sexual intercourse, to marry with parental consent or even to die for their country, but they cannot withdraw themselves from the legal requirement to take part in religious observance/worship. Furthermore, those of much younger ages (say 8-13) routinely undertake ceremonies of confirmation, the younger age applying especially in the RC church. Such ceremonies have no meaning unless they presuppose a capacity of children of that age to understand the concepts and make an informed decision. Religious parents or the churches simply cannot logically justify denying children choice to withdraw while maintaining confirmation is a ceremony with meaning.

We would still not consider it to be satisfactory, but at least the level of enforced indoctrination would be reduced were the option of withdrawal to rest with the child from the age of 13 or 14.

8. An imposition on teachers. The requirement for acts of worship/observance is objectionable to many teachers who feel that it should neither be their role to organise them nor participate in them. While there is a legal right of withdrawal by parents for pupils, we are not aware of any equivalent right for teachers. If teachers cannot similarly opt to withdraw, they should also be afforded the right by statute to do so without victimisation. There will also be Human Rights implications if such a right is not open to them. A further concern arises over whether unwillingness to lead or even to attend religious observance/worship could be a bar (whether overt or covert) to a teacher being employed or promoted. We would consider this to amount to religious discrimination and could lead to action against the employer under the anti-discrimination Employment Regulations to be introduced later this year.

9. A blurring of fact and opinion/belief. Having such a compulsory act of worship/observance blurs the clear distinction there should be between the teaching of objective facts, the discussion of unsubstantiated opinions and the recognition of fiction as make-belief.

10. School time is too valuable to be spent in this way. School time is at a premium. Time spent in worship could be more profitably spent in other academic activities, leaving parents if they wish to arrange worship for their children outside school hours.

11. Wide disregard of the law means that there must be a radical rethink. The astonishingly low compliance with the law in this respect shows clearly that both pupils and teachers do not have the interest in complying with the law, so the law should be repealed to reflect a more secular society. Instead the Review Group has completely failed to address the real issues.

12. Unenforceable law is bad law. A law that is so widely disregarded by otherwise law-respecting citizens and is so clearly unenforceable is bad law and its continuance on the statute book brings the law itself into disrepute.


The weight of the foregoing arguments moves the onus for justifying the imposition onto those seeking to retain the imposition. We have tried to anticipate what these justifications might be:

a. "Children need such worship". If, as we advocate, compulsory observance/worship ceases to be mandatory, this does not preclude parents from arranging it for themselves elsewhere for their own children to their own specific wishes. Or could it be that parents do not wish to take the trouble to organise worship for their children? The evidence given in this Response suggests that many parents will realise or are subconsciously aware that their child would be unwilling to attend, and that they may not be able to enforce at home what they are expecting the school to do, and it is currently required to do by dint of Section 8.

b. The most likely justification is that "this is the current practice". Given however, that the level of compliance with the existing law is so poor and the very fact that this consultation has been launched points to a complete reconsideration without any presumption in favour of the existing discredited practice.

c. (from religious organisations) that they "want all children to learn to pray and become Christians". This is an understandable, if self-interested, call from organisations with an agenda to promote. Such organisations must be becoming increasingly anxious as they see their support waning at a rate that brings even the Church of Scotland to question its own medium term-survival. Far from this justifying the state acceding to their self-serving demands, it strengthens the argument for its not doing so.

d. "The Human Rights Convention calls for freedom of parents to have their children educated in accordance with their own religion". This is correct, but this does not impose on the state an obligation to provide such education, nor to in effect force religious observance (see footnote seven).

e. "The parental right of withdrawal overcomes all the above objections". We do not accept this, for the reasons articulated in 5 above.


1) The Minister's comments

We were initially encouraged to read Education Minister Ms Cathy Jamieson's comments on this issue as quoted in the Scottish Executive press release on 6 Nov 2002:

"The Religious Observance Review was set up to help provide greater clarity in this area, and to ensure that revised guidance would be relevant and appropriate to pupils. The Group is keen to ensure that the provision of Religious Observance is an inclusive experience for all pupils, reflecting the variety of religious beliefs and faiths as well as the increasingly secular make-up of today"s Scotland."

The reality has turned out to be rather different. This was somewhat predictable given the overwhelmingly religiously orientated composition of the Review Group. The religious composition of the Group is much higher proportion than in the Scottish population a whole. The Group purports to speak for the whole community, as when it idealises religious observance in the opening statement of its Paper as the "enrichment of all members of the school community, staff as well as pupils". This exercise should have been designed to reflect the concerns of the population as a whole, rather than toprovide a vehicle for those with a vested interest to expound their sectional views with extra authority.

2) The Review Group's work

The Paper is seriously lacking objectivity, forthrightness and rigour. Its failing even to consider the possibility of recommending the repeal of Section 8 is simply weak-willed for a Group of this seniority. The Group's signally failing to address the above seventeen points (1-12 and a-e) is evidence of its almost complete lack of vigour. With the exception of a section relegated to the exemplar and which we have reproduced in part in our recommendation II, the remainder is grossly unrealistic and self-serving, and regards religious observance uncritically as an altogether positive activity for everyone. The Group's recommendations need to be rejected en bloc and another review group appointed which is much more representative of the nation. Their remit should specifically include a review of Section 8.

3) The Review Group's Consultation Paper:

Review of Religious Observance in Scottish Schools We offer the following brief critique:

As noted in our Recommendation II we note an attempt by some members of the Review Group to recognise a more secular approach to this issue. Unfortunately, it is almost in the form of a postscript and has not been followed through to its logical conclusion. We reject the dangerously muddled starting point of the review Group revealed by its characterisation of "religious observance as an educational activity within the context of Scottish schools".

We find the distinctions drawn between organised worship and religious observance to be irrelevant and meaningless. In stating that "worship may on occasions be the natural response of some members of the school community to an act of religious observance" the Group comes close to confirming that religious observance and worship are near synonyms as we have suggested above in C.1. Worship is largely an uncritical acceptance of faith; uncritical acceptance is the very antithesis of education.

The Group has sought to justify the unjustifiable by regarding religious observance as being a spiritual activity and that the shared values of the whole community are necessarily spiritual or religious. This is simply not so for a very significant proportion of the population. The Group ignores that the following statements or aspirations can be sustained without recourse to religion and spirituality, which is divisive in that many pupils (perhaps the majority of them) do not see life in these terms:

* schools can "celebrate the shared values of the school community"

* "each individual within a school community has an entitlement to develop himself/herself " as a whole person"

* "understanding of the value and worth of each individual"

* "provide opportunities for the community to reflect, with help, upon values, beliefs, commitments and hopes which are implicit in being human". (This implies, perhaps unintentionally, that a religious mechanism is the only way to achieve such reflection, which is plainly not the case for many.)

As noted above, we do accept that there is merit in the exemplar, which advocates: "Stimuli should also be drawn from music, art, drama, poetry, films and television. The topic or focus may be provided by a range of sources: incidents which occur in the life of the school or in the local, national or international communities, a programme of values which the school wishes its pupils and staff to reflect upon ".." This is an ill-disguised attempt to stretch the definition of religious observance (which the law still generally regards as being mainly Christian) to include non-religious philosophical positions in a desperate attempt to retain mandatory observance/worship.

4) The questionnaire for this consultation

This has clearly been written from the perspective of those presupposing a positive reaction to religious observance, as exemplified with question 7. We do however acknowledge that the option of "never" was offered in questions 4a and 4b, but this does not overcome the overall impression being as we have described above.

5) Circular 6/91

We note with regret the failure of Circular 6/91 to address any of the above points, but instead to offer largely uncritical direction to impose religious observance/worship. We hope that the Circular will be revised as we have recommended.


This paper was prepared in consultation with our Scottish members by Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director, National Secular Society.

1 UK Christian Handbook, Religious Trends edited by Dr Peter Brierley and published by Christian Research. (Various editions published 1997-2001)
2 Commentary by Professor Steve Bruce and Tony Glendinning of Aberdeen University on Scottish Social Attitudes survey 2001, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and conducted by the National Centre for Research, Edinburgh
3 UK Christian Handbook, Religious Trends edited by Dr Peter Brierley and published by Christian Research. (Various editions published 1997-2001)
4 The Fourth R for the Third Millennium (page 51) published in 2001 by Lindisfarne Books, Dublin on behalf of The International Seminar on Religious Education and Values.)
5 Commentary by Professor Steve Bruce and Tony Glendinning of Aberdeen University on Scottish Social Attitudes survey 2001, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and conducted by the National Centre for Research, Edinburgh
6 Ibid
7 Article 13, Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the UN, 1989: THE CHILD shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds…

Amnesty International UK interpretation, Amnesty, September - October 2000:
Article guarantees people the right of access to existing educational institutions; it does not require the government to establish or fund a particular type of education. The requirement to respect parents' convictions is intended to prevent indoctrination by the state. However, schools can teach about religion and philosophy if they do so in an objective, critical, and pluralistic manner. [In our opinion, these comments apply equally to the relevant reference in the HRA]:
Human Rights Act 1998, Part 2, First Protocol, Article 2:
NO PERSON shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions that it assumes in relation to education and teaching, the state shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.