Churches have exerted “undue influence” on crucial decisions about local education, MSPs have been told.
The prospect of “joint campuses” housing religious and non-denominational schools have been blocked by church representatives on local authority education committees who want to avoid change, a senior Nationalist MSP said yesterday.
Campaigners appeared before MSPs yesterday demanding an end to the system which sees councils compelled by law to appoint three religious representatives to their education committees. But church leaders insist they perform a “service”.
A petition by the Edinburgh Secular Society (ESS) to end their legal right to make decisions on education was considered by Holyrood’s public petitions committee yesterday.
Colin Emerson, vice-chair of the ESS, told MSPs that the system “privileges” Christianity, and particularly the Roman Catholic Church and Church of Scotland, whose representatives are usually on committees.
“This discriminates against those of minority faiths and those of no faith,” he said. “This surely is an untenable position, particularly with the democratic changes occurring in Scotland.”
Mr Emerson pointed to a recent case in Fort William in which religious representatives’ votes “overturned the elected coalition’s decision” on the location of a new £4 million school.
The Church of Scotland has also claimed that religious representatives hold the “balance of power” on 19 out of Scotland’s 32 education committees.
SNP back-bencher John Wilson said: “In some local authorities, the churches have exerted undue influence over the decisions that have been made by the local authority, particularly where there has been a decision for joint campus education provision, where church representatives have vetoed any moves in that direction.”
Deputy convenor Chic Brodie said he sympathised with the petition. He said it was a “nonsense” the issue was only being faced up to 85 years after the original legislation was drafted.
The committee will write to churches and faith organisations across the country seeking further information, as well as teaching union the Educational Institute of Scotland and the Scottish Inter Faith Council.
Independent MSP John Finnie has also lodged a Member’s Bill to end church representation on education committees. The petition has been rejected by the Catholic Church, the Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland.
Rev David Robertson, Free Church minister and director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity, said: “If the Edinburgh Secular Society is serious about equality and diversity in our pluralist society, then they should be encouraging Christian schools rather than campaigning to remove the last vestiges of our once proud Scottish Christian education system.”
A Church of Scotland spokesman said: “The role [the Kirk’s] representatives play is one of service and support that reflects its contribution to education since its vision of a school in every parish helped in establishing Scotland’s universal education system, one of the first anywhere in the world.”
A spokesman for the Catholic Church said: “Church representatives offer an invaluable service to their local communities by contributing to discussions among elected representatives on councils.”