Sandy Fraser: Not just ‘three Rs’ - there’s religion too

School should give our children grounding in both faith and tolerance. Picture: Neil Hanna
School should give our children grounding in both faith and tolerance. Picture: Neil Hanna
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To those who care deeply for our education system, let me take this opportunity to say to everyone: thank you.

I have been disappointed by some of the arguments deployed against the role of faith in education in recent days. It is bizarre to suggest that religion and reason are incompatible. It is false to claim that the majority of citizens deny the existence of God. The no doubt tongue-in-cheek comment from Scotsman columnist, Hugh Reilly, last week that Christians believe that God is a “cloud-dwelling Big Brother” is of course preposterous but makes meaningful dialogue on these important issues with those of us who disagree, so much more challenging.

It would be far preferable to have a proper debate about the issues involved and come to an understanding of each other’s positions.

As school pupils, parents and teachers are enjoying the summer break (and no doubt eagerly anticipating the new school term), it is maybe a good time to think about how much we appreciate all those involved in the education of our children and young people.

Faith in education has two main aspects – representatives on education committees and religious observance in schools.

I know that the Church of Scotland representatives on local authority education committees are hard-working and dedicated people. They put in long hours and bring a breadth of experience and knowledge of community and educational life.

This breadth of ideas helps local authorities come to decisions after full consideration and discernment. In many cases they have a lifetime of experience in education in different areas. Our representatives have no agenda, no cause to undermine or ambition to manipulate the democratic process. They are motivated by love to care for the well-being of their community and to seek the common good. The participation of our representatives on local authority education committees is a way that we can help serve the whole of the community.

The representatives on education authorities use their position carefully to support the development of education in all its aspects. We believe it is of value to have a few individuals on the committee who have deep knowledge of the community but are not politicians. Their role complements the democratic process and their commitment is greatly valued by both council staff and elected councillors.

In many local authorities the representatives are so highly valued that Directors of Education give of their valuable time to discuss upcoming issues with the representatives before the meeting.

We expect the Church of Scotland representatives to work to the same code of conduct as elected councillors, and that they act and work to the very highest standards of integrity. I do not see it as a matter of privilege, but as an opportunity to serve the community.

The Church has formed part of the bedrock of Scottish community life for centuries, and the role on education committees recognises both the traditional role the churches had in establishing Scotland’s universal education system, one of the first anywhere in the world and the continuing role it plays in communities today.

It should also be noted that not all representatives are from the Christian faith. For many years one local authority had a Sikh as a representative and prior to that in the same local authority a Muslim was the representative.

Regular training is offered to the faith representatives to ensure that they carry out their duties to the highest possible standard.

The same is true for religious observance in schools which in the 21st century is not about religious indoctrination as many of us may have experienced in our own childhoods.

Things have changed dramatically in recent years, since the days of formalised school assemblies and hymn singing and prayers for all. We now encourage pupils to respect each other and their views and beliefs.

Working in partnership with Glasgow University, the Church of Scotland Standing Committee on Education has subsidised teachers and chaplains to undertake a master’s module in religious observance in order to ensure religious observance is delivered in a meaningful way for the whole school community to participate in.

These should be community acts that the whole school can participate in, and they needn’t be exclusive to one faith or tradition but should be a way for everyone to begin to explore deeper meaning in our world.

Everyone is invited to participate in religious observance and the aim is to ensure every pupil feels comfortable and able to express their views and opinions while respecting the views of others.

There will also be young people across Scotland who choose to study religion of their own volition. The grounding given in schools of all faiths can be the spark that directs them towards a qualification, a degree or even a career.

For children about to start their first days at school, this should be an exciting prospect. School is not just about the ‘three Rs’ but about learning about values and relationships.

Instead of the tired stramash between religious and anti-religious, today we have an opportunity to ask much bigger and much more important questions about what sort of Scotland we want in the future in the context of the independence referendum.

I hope that we can see a plural society where everyone’s views are respected, and that people’s contributions to public life are measured by the positive difference they make rather than by hostile accusations about why people get involved.

Secular atheists are alarmed about what they see as privilege and prestigious status which is bestowed on the Church. Far from having no significance in Scotland in the 21st century, the Church remains the largest organisation in the nation. We have a presence in every community, and we exist not for our own benefit but to serve one another and to share the story of the love of God.

It is in this understanding that I do see the role of religious representatives not as a privileged right, but rather a solemn duty, bestowed by the state in recognition of the place of the Church in the life of our nation today.

• The Rev Sandy Fraser is convener of the Church of Scotland’s Education Committee