In over a year at school, I told friends south of the border, my daughter – unlike their offspring – had not been forced to sit through a single Lord’s Prayer, nor visit from a minister from a church of any kind. There had been no church services, or prescribed hymns, while even last year’s Christmas play had been a light romp about toys in Santa’s workshop.
This was another example, I boasted, of how Scotland’s education system was superior. Let everyone practice any religion they want or don’t want – just don’t push them into one faith or another at school.
Then, one day, my daughter came home from school with the religious fervour of a miniature John Knox.
As she attends a non-denominational state-run primary, this was the last thing we expected, but as with maths, reading and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the solar system, anything the teacher says or gives youngsters to do is – if you’ll pardon the pun – Gospel.
Not that I think the teacher herself had been on a quest to convert her pupils. No, this new-found religious enthusiasm was brought on by the script of the school play, a seemingly heavily message-focused modern riff on the Nativity. A bit of quick googling allowed me to discover that this particular play script was created by an evangelical education resources company whose aim is to “convey truth and teach about Christian values and faith”.
Now, in our household, we’re a bit of a mixed bag, religiously speaking. One of us is a vehement atheist and feels as strongly about it as anyone with faith, while the other is Christian.
However, despite our diverse beliefs, we have always brought our daughter up to understand that different people believe different things – in the hope that she can spend the next few years learning about all religions and lack thereof and make up her own mind when she’s older.
So I was somewhat taken aback when she suddenly announced that she believes in God as a result of the songs she had been learning at school.
When I fired off a hot-headed email to the school conveying my surprise at the choice of production, I received a standard form reply (the speed of the response suggesting that I wasn’t the first to raise
the issue) telling me that it was part of the “Religious and Moral Education curriculum” about festivals and celebrations of different religions.
Personally, I think it was probably chosen because it had catchy tunes – and not too much thought was put into the implication of the words, which include encouragement to “spread the Word all around” and to
“come and worship here today (Oh yeah yeah yeah)”.
Of course, learning about different religions is to be welcomed and is an important part of the school curriculum. Yet taking part in worship of a particular religion by singing evangelical songs is not the same. There are children in my daughter’s class who are practising members of other faiths. There are some who will never have given religion a second thought. There may be others who are Christian, to whom this play appeals.
Now, if it was a straightforward Nativity play with a few scrappy angels dressed in pillowcases and a crayon-scribbled toy doll as the baby, I wouldn’t have quite as much of a problem with it – though if I
was the head, I would probably opt for something nice and safe with elves in it instead.
An old-fashioned Nativity is usually a representation of a story which the children can be told that some people – but not all – believe actually happened. It would not usually hammer home evangelical messages encouraging the children to believe the Word of God.
At other times of the year, the children could, similarly, celebrate, for example, Diwali with a light display, but that does not mean they should all be Hindu.
To me, this chosen play, with its lyrics encouraging the children to “Let our hands encircle the Earth/Join Together/Celebrate Jesus’s birth” crosses the line.
Under Scottish Government regulations, parents are supposed to be given the right to opt out of any acts of religious worship – but as the school believes this is part of the religious education curriculum, and not an act of “religious observance”, we were not given the opportunity to do so.
Indeed, the Government guidelines state that schools need to have acts of religious observance “several times in a school year”. However, in non-faith schools, it is encouraged that the use of the term “Time for
Reflection” might be more appropriate for actions carried out by pupils than “religious observance”.
“Scotland,” it says, “is a society with a longstanding Christian tradition. However, Scotland has for many generations also been home to other faith and belief traditions, never more so than at present. Religious observance in schools needs to be developed in a way which reflects and understands this diversity. It should be sensitive to our traditions and origins and should seek to reflect these but it must equally be sensitive to individual spiritual needs and beliefs, whether these come from a faith/belief or non-faith perspective.”
So in short, unless you’re a specifically religious school, you should probably tone it down to being a bit non-specific – and keep it educational, rather than evangelical.
It is always said that you shouldn’t push or discuss personal beliefs about politics, money or religion with friends. The same should apply to schools too.