Paul Braterman: Why are education committees skewed to religious minority?

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IT’S a question of representation, argues Paul Braterman

I will be asking my parliamentary candidates how, in their view, Council Education Committees ought to be selected. A strange question, unless you happen to be aware of the following strange facts: By pre-devolution law, all such committees must include three individuals nominated by Churches. One nominee is from the Catholic Church, and one from the Church of Scotland. The third is from a religious body selected by the Council, having regard to local demographics. The elected councillors themselves have no further say in the matter, nor do those they represent.

Non-believers, and members of any other than the three privileged denominations, need not apply. Nor need experts in curriculum development, child health, social planning, or any other form of worldly expertise.

Education Committees control a larger part of Council budgets than any other committee. They decide on the opening and closing of schools, and whether a school should be denominational or nondenominational, and formulate local policies in such matters as education about sex in human relationships, religious observance and the study of religion. They are also the ultimate employers of school principals and teachers, as well as being represented on senior teacher selection panels.

The requirement for representatives of religion on these Committees dates back through Acts in 1994 and 1973 to the 1929 reorganisation of local government in Scotland, and the earlier provisions on which it was based. To a time when the formation of the public education system was fresh in the memory, and when the population of Scotland was overwhelmingly religious.

Almost a century later, none of this is true. According to the 2011 census figures, the largest single religious category is “None”, while just 54 per cent of the population describe themselves as Christian. These numbers vary greatly from region to region; the legal requirement does not. The 2014 Scottish Government Social Attitudes Survey shows 68 per cent of 18-24 -year-olds and 56 per cent of 25-39 -year-olds describing themselves as “no religion”.

So the Nones are an actual majority in the age group now beginning to send their children to school. And surely no one would claim that the pre-1918 system gives the Churches an inherited right over education. We are talking about children, not property.

The role of the Church nominees is real, not ceremonial. They hold the balance of power in 19 of Scotland’s 32 Education Committees, so that in an actual majority of councils, the wishes of the controlling party or coalition can be overridden if these nominees side with the opposition. Given, moreover, the admirably conversational tone of much Scottish politics, their influence will not be limited to such formal occasions. And from time to time they represent the council on teacher selection panels.

Space does not permit full elaboration of the case for abolition of these privileged positions, so the following incomplete summary must suffice:

• The arrangement violates human rights. It excludes non-believers, and followers of any belief system other than the three represented, from equal participation in the process of government.

• It is anti-democratic. It places part of the machinery of government under the influence of individuals in whose appointment the electorate has no say.

• It assumes a consensus in favour of religion that no longer exists. Nonbelievers are now the single largest group in Scotland, and an actual majority among the young.

• It restricts the ability of elected councillors to co-opt individuals of their own choosing, since both law and common sense require that the Committees have a majority of elected members.

• It risks placing teachers and school management teams in an impossible position. We know of cases where a six-day creationist is simultaneously a member of school chaplaincy teams, and of the Education Committee overseeing these same schools. Consider the dilemma of a science teacher who may wish to confront him.

• It gives double representation to specific privileged viewpoints. If a concern arises related to the special interests of one particular religious group, constituents belonging to that group can appeal, both to their own council members, and to the relevant Church nominee.

• Finally, it gives the councils an unwanted and unwarranted voice in the internal affairs of religion itself. They are forced to nominate one from the numerous religious organisations in their area, at the expense of all the others. And in the event of schism within a Church, for which there is precedent, they would be required to choose between rival claimants.

For these and many other reasons, the Church nominees on Education Committees are an anachronism, incompatible with the realities and aspirations of a modern democratic Scotland. It is time for them to go.

• Paul Braterman is a former chemistry professor with special interest in problems related to evolution and the origins of life. He serves as science adviser to the Scottish Secular Society, and blogs as Primate’s Progress at paulbraterman.wordpress.com; www.facebook.com/ScottishSecular Society