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17 May 2018

Protecting religious belief and observance in Scottish schools

Protecting religious belief and observance in Scottish schools

Nicole Dempster is a research assistant the Evangelical Alliance in Scotland.

Last week the SNP MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch Kate Forbes asked the Scottish Government, “what its position is on protecting young people’s right to religious observance, education and freedom of religious belief in schools?” This question was asked after constituents raised concerns with Ms Forbes around a lack of tolerance for religious beliefs in schools. One child as young as five described mockery when they said a quick grace before lunch from both pupils and staff, while another described being bullied and called names such as ‘Bible-basher’. 

 In his response to Ms Forbes’ question, Deputy First Minister John Swinney said: 

“Freedom of religious belief is an important feature of Scottish life that must also apply in schools. The Education (Scotland) Act 1980 provides a statutory basis for local authorities to provide religious observance and religious and moral education (RME) in Scottish schools, with RME also embedded in the Curriculum for Excellence. The legislation also gives parents a right to withdraw their child from these activities, with Scottish Government guidance stressing the importance of including children and young people in any decision to opt out.”  

Despite these reports, the law in Britain is designed to not only protect and promote religious freedom, but also to recognise it as a human right. The European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act 1998 secure freedom of expression and freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This means that whether you are a five-year-old saying grace, or a head teacher leading a school, you have a right to hold a belief or opinion and exercise this freely. Find out more about Christian legal freedoms here

Within school communities in Scotland, churches and faith organisations play a valuable role in serving pupils, parents and teachers, both pastorally and practically. Recently the Scottish Government consulted on changes being made to work more widely with school communities. In our response we emphasised the good work being done across Scotland, from after-school clubs, to counselling services, to lunch-time groups, to mentoring programmes. The opportunity to work in partnership with local schools is one we welcome and encourage. In this Year of the Young Person it is estimated that churches will provide 200,000 hours of youth and children’s work in schools and communities across the country. We hope these partnerships and relationships will grow and flourish. 

Meanwhile, it is essential for religious tolerance and religious literacy to remain a priority. This will ensure that children and young people learn about, and are exposed to, beliefs other than their own. Bullying, for any reason, is unacceptable and so we hope that promoting faith more in Scottish schools will lead to greater tolerance. This is not an attempt to promote special privileges for Christians, but the desire for a mature society which cultivates empathy for those of different backgrounds. 

 Ms Forbes commented in an interview with Premier Radio that she “wanted to note that pupils should be allowed to explore, develop and understand the diversity of religious faith in Scotland because if they can understand it in school you will hope that as they go through the rest of their life they will be tolerant of people who believe things that are different from them”. Tolerance and accommodation of different faiths in schools benefits everyone because it models the sort of society we want for the future. And so the example schools set in dealing with religious diversity can be as important as what they teach.

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