It is clear from the letters from MSPs to constituents urging a change to Opt-in to Religious Observance (RO) in schools that Ministers are being whipped to support the government line that it should remain an Opt-out.
The Scottish Secular Society submitted a plethora of evidence to the Parliamentary Committee, when it backed parent Mark Gordon’s petition that showed: Opt-out doesn’t work.
The evidence included children being left alone in school corridors; chastised for their parents’ choices; considered ‘difficult’ because they dared to question a head-teacher’s wisdom; forced to sit in on RO and made to perform menial tasks like sharpening pencils or cleaning the library. Parents were told there was no right to withdraw; forced to seek legal advice because a school couldn’t or wouldn’t supply acceptable alternative activities and told alternative activities such as reading Humanist material was not allowed. Evidence was submitted showing an absence of any mention of the parents’ right to withdraw in many school handbooks.
The Church of Scotland recently attempted to undermine the Scottish Secular Society’s campaign with misinformation and lies in a press release carried by certain sections of the media. The Kirk claimed “the National Secular Society lodged a petition at Holyrood calling for a change that would have rested in parents having to opt in.” No they didn’t. The National Secular Society has nothing to do with this petition; they are nothing to do with the Scottish Secular Society who did lodge the petition. The NSS in fact do not agree with our petition: they wish to see RO abolished. The Kirk further misrepresented us by calling our petition “a call for religious Observance to be scrapped”. It is not: It is a call to inform parents what RO is; what it involves, how often and who is conducting it. The Kirk even had the audacity to suggest our petition “was rejected by the Scottish Government.” It was not. In fact, the Parliamentary Committee has now asked for Ministers to properly examine the petition and its submissions.
The Church of Scotland gloats that it has “welcomed the decision of the Scottish Government to show its support for RO in schools, also known as Time for Reflection.” Why? Had they not welcomed it back in 2011 when so-called non-denominational schools were given Government blessing that manifested itself in the form of guidance to head-teachers and education directors to drop the ‘religious’ from religious observance and call it Time for Reflection? It was back then that Ewan Aitken, joint secretary of the committee and secretary of the Church of Scotland’s Church and Society Council, who had been using the term Time for Reflection since 2004, made it clear to the Times Educational Supplement Scotland that calling Religious Observance something else would better promote it within schools.
Reading the excerpts from some letters to constituents from MSPs you’d think Time for Reflection was an entirely new idea:-
“The Church of Scotland has called for Religious Observance to be renamed ‘Time for Reflection’, which it believes would lessen the polarised nature of the debate. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this change.” Richard Baker MSP
“I further note that the Church of Scotland has called for Religious Observance to be renamed ‘Time for Reflection’, which it believes would lessen the polarised nature of the debate.” Drew Smith MSP
“Moreover, we are very comfortable with the suggestion, made by several groups – including some of the churches – that school assemblies should include a time for reflection which is inclusive of all pupils whether or not they have a religious faith.” Ruth Davidson MSP
“The Church of Scotland has called for Religious Observance to be renamed ‘Time for Reflection’, which it believes would lessen the polarised nature of the debate.” Neil Bibby MSP
In practice, Time for Reflection has been Christian worship and any suggestion it embraces the ethos of the majority of non-believers or diversity of the remaining believers is delusory.
MSPs are under pressure to reassure parents that everything is OK in Scottish schools and that a string of evangelical, Baptist and Christian groups are not on any mission to proselytise.
That is not the case.
It wasn’t the case at Kirktonholme Primary school in East Kilbride when earlier this year they discovered the extreme Texas-based religious sect; Church of Christ had been working within the school for eight years. They were caught handing out controversial anti-science creationist material to children. Two head teachers were redeployed after a huge backlash from parents.
And neither was it the case when we released details of abstinence-only preacher, Pam Stenzel putting Paisley schoolchildren into shock, telling them condoms aren’t safe, miming holding a gun to her head as she warned them of the consequences of sex outside marriage.
Even now, pupils and teachers in some schools are being urged to link science with religion.
The Scottish Secular Society wrote an open letter to Mike Russell MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning for immediate guidance on the issue. It wasn’t easy. He eventually responded to my request on his Facebook page: “I am considering your ‘open letter’ at the moment and will respond in due course in an appropriate way” That moment never came. Instead, Alasdair Allan, MSP for the Western Isles and Minister for Learning, Science and Scotland’s Languages wrote to say: “I will stress that Creationism is not a scientific theory or a topic within the curriculum framework in Scotland”. Yet in the same letter he writes: “I can confirm that the Scottish Government has no plans to issue guidance to creationism in Scottish schools”, something even his Christian counterpart in England, Michael Gove managed to say even whilst rolling out more ‘faith’ schools south of the border.
The Scottish Secular Society is responding to parents concerns appropriately and urges the government to do likewise. Let’s not have to release yet another shocking example of proselytising in Scottish schools before the government are convinced.
Garry Otton 2013.