AN Inverclyde dad is at the forefront of a campaign to make religious observance in Scottish schools an ‘opt-in’ activity rather than an ‘opt-out’ one.
Secular Scotland is co-authoring a petition along with local parent, Mark Gordon, to the Scottish Government to amend the Education (Scotland) Act 1980. The Petition is also backed by the Humanist Society of Scotland.
The change would turn the current situation around so that the default position was that children were 'opted-out' of attending religious observance. Parents would then be asked by schools whether they wanted their child to attend a particular event, such as an assembly, where a minister was visiting to conduct a service or where material promoting faith would arise.
The petition states that the change would remove the “divisive and unreasonable presumption of religious affiliation in non-denominational schools which no longer reflects the diversity of belief and non-belief in Scotland.”
Mr Gordon said: “The law says that ‘in no circumstances should a child be disadvantaged as a result of withdrawing from religious observance’ and should be given a ‘suitable worthwhile alternative activity.’ In my experience, and that of many other parents, this is most certainly not the case. My daughter is made to sit in the school office with paper and pencils to draw with and is ‘looked after’ by the school secretary since there are usually no teaching staff available.
"Before Easter, because the head teacher and my child's class teacher were not present, the stand-in took her to an evangelical church service expressly against my written instructions. After complaining, I received a profuse apology from the head teacher for the ‘assumption’ that this teacher had made.”
Mr Gordon added: “The current situation provides little basis for parental understanding of the detailed content of Religious Observance (RO) and provides little or no checks and balances upon such content. It would be better to have a system that ensured the integrity of participation in RO. This would be an improvement for children and religion alike.”
Caroline Lynch, chairwoman of Secular Scotland, explained: “It is important to stress the difference between RO and Religious and Moral Education (RME), which we support. The present ‘opt-out’ arrangement for RO is not fulfilling its purpose. RO is intended to ‘celebrate the shared values of the school community’. However, as acknowledged in the Religious Observance Review Group report of 2004, ‘in most non-denominational schools, there is a diversity of beliefs and practices’. Thus the current opt-out arrangement, which presumes a substantial uniformity of belief and practice, is no longer appropriate. Moreover, only one parent in five is even made aware during the school registration process of the current opt-out option.”
Mr Gordon said he was not prepared to lobby the local authority to conduct a ballot of all eligible electors as recommended by the Secretary of State, explaining: “It would be prohibitively expensive. Many are unaware of the issues with RO, others are apathetic, and with the well-funded and organised religious lobby fighting even the idea of discussion, let alone change, local measures to address RO are impractical and ineffective. The opt-out system also breaches the right to privacy. Opting out from whatever is the traditional belief at a particular school exposes one's lack of belief, which is a private family matter. For many parents this would be unacceptable and is probably one of the reasons why many parents do not currently opt out. I urge all parents to sign the petition to increase the chance of changing this situation.”
The petition can be viewed on the Scottish Parliament website