Religious Education and Humanism

in Scotland’s Schools 2008


The 5 million people who live in Scotland group into various religious affiliations. The West has a preponderance of Irish descendent Catholics who live alongside Protestants and from time to time ugly clashes can arise. In the East, religious attitudes are more muted; in the North, the Highlands and Islands are typically Presbyterian Christian, while the South is predominantly secular (especially Dumfries and Galloway).

Altogether there are 2183 schools administered by 33 local councils acting as education authorities. Most schools are non-denominational (read Protestant), with 391 denominational (read Catholic) that were established to accommodate the Irish immigrants; there’s one Jewish school and three Episcopalian. It also looks as though there will be one Islamic school soon because the First Minister (Alex Salmond) is a very religious man (Catholic) and is more than sympathetic to the idea. In general, local clergy visit every school, sometimes regularly.


The national curriculum is not compulsory, instead, for many years Scotland has had a set of national guidelines (age 5-14) and recently most parts of these have been overhauled. It now has guidelines for ages 3-18 that align with the new Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) pedagogy which all schools must implement.


Religious and Moral Education (RME)

The guidelines state that the teaching of RME in non-denominational secondary schools is compulsory only at ‘core’ level. This means the pupils get an overview of the six major religions and their practices. Later, if desired, they can study higher level courses in a variety of religious subjects, but this is optional. A national review took place in 2008 to decide how RME in general should be taught in schools. In this review the secular position was fairly well represented, so the results were quite encouraging and there is room for optimism. But it’s crucial to state that English practices do not apply in Scotland - a fact that so many people often overlook. In most private and state schools, RME teachers are usually fair and decent people trying to do their job well, stick to the guidelines and keep their own perspectives private. And this can be difficult to achieve if the school is located in a bipartite religious community. Obviously, some teachers have entrenched opinions too, but nowadays they’re usually in the minority. It’s not easy to change habits of decades and sometimes compromises have to be made, and from observations in schools, committees, and education authorities, it seems that the Christian ethos is still dominant, so there’s still a way to go, but the trend is for attitudes and RME curriculum content to be moving in the right direction.


Religious Observance

Unlike England, Scotland has no ‘collective worship’ requirement, but we do still retain Religious Observance practices. In the past 10 years or so most secondary non-denominational schools were increasingly ignoring RO (kids weren’t interested), but a few years back some religious authorities complained about the dereliction of RO practices and the government established a Religious Observance Panel to re-design the whole procedure, to up-date the guidelines and make RO more ‘inclusive’ then monitor its implementation in schools. The Humanist Academy had a representative on this panel (though outnumbered 19-1) so what resulted was a much watered down version of what was first proposed. Sadly, the consensus was to retain the anachronous ‘Religious Observance’ label, but the content is not always as insidious as the phrase implies. The guidelines as they stand state that each Secondary school must have at least six instances of RO a year. Secondary schools are pretty secular in their approach to RO, many opting simply for a story with a moral theme, sometimes adding a short period for reflection where pupils may pray silently - if they wish. But of course there are some teachers (especially up north) who squeeze in as many Christian rituals as they can get away with. The RO panel supervised the RO scheme for two years, but last year, it ran out of funding and was disbanded. Now everyone expects schools to revert to the RO negligent attitudes they held before they were monitored.


Primary Schools

In primaries, the RME/RO provision is combined making it a more difficult nut to crack because kids only have one teacher for all subjects. So, the amount of time given to promoting religion really depends on that teacher’s (or Head’s) worldview – and, most importantly, how (s)he interprets the guidelines. So, according to the beliefs of the teacher then, religion can either be taught on a ‘some people believe’ model, or the Christian model taken for granted with rituals and stories permeating each and every subject. Even innocuous comments like ‘God made the rain’ or ‘granny’s in heaven’ or encouragement to take part in plays like Noah’s Ark or the Nativity can pass on subliminal messages that such beliefs are normal and respected. In many primaries caring teachers deliver excellent inclusive assemblies with only a nod in the direction of religion. But there are still some who want to teach ‘traditional Christian ethics’ at every turn. And religious leaders are keen that the RME/RO element in primaries is emphasised, even in the ‘early years’ from 3 onwards.

Of course parents have an opt-out statutory right to remove their child, but when religious references turn up in almost every lesson, then parents are unlikely (and couldn’t possibly) withdraw their kids from everything. So the present structure of RME/RO in primary schools can often work against secularists and in favour of religion.


After an involvement of over three years with the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), negotiating with them to provide for secular ethics in curriculum material, in 2007 they finally agreed that they would support the production of a Free-Standing Unit in Humanism. But, the conditions were that whoever wrote it had to train with SQA as a curriculum writer; then write up the course along with a batch of accompanying assessment documentation and a Teacher-Student Guide – all without the usual fee. This remit was carried out within a year under the umbrella of the Humanist Academy. The new Unit can be found on the National Qualifications Catalogue No: F33F at Intermediate levels 1 and 2. This means after a basic outline of all the main religions, secondary pupils can continue to study an aspect of religion if they want, or they can opt for the secular choice and study Humanism. SQA believe this will be a popular course and maybe even be taken up in Sociology or Citizenship classes and they’re monitoring its uptake. Already, the Academy is getting requests to come to schools to discuss aspects of the Unit’s content. If this Unit is popular, next year HA will ask SQA’s permission to add another Unit at ‘Higher’ level (equivalent of A level). We don’t expect the 55 Catholic secondary schools to touch this subject but we can live with that.



At a recent seminar of RME teachers, many made forthright suggestions to both government representatives and educational authorities that the secular position should be recognised more. So, the trend is that teachers are beginning to demand secular beliefs be acknowledged and their classroom practices reflect these attitudes.

The Academy believes Humanists should take advantage of this emerging recognition and is building up its educational resources to offer RME teachers. If teachers can access ready-made lessons, they tend to choose that option - and the more time pupils spend discussing Humanism, the less time they talk about religion. Visiting classes and talking to teachers and pupils is also a valuable exercise, but it’s an exceedingly sensitive one as well, that’s why the Academy recommends training, a professional approach and competent knowledge of the curriculum subjects – teenage pupils can ask incisive questions!

On the back of its recent success, the Academy is now working again with SQA developing a further course, this time for adults (part-academic and part-vocational) which will qualify students as Humanist Practitioners and allow them to continue HA’s work in education and community services. For this venture we are forming a partnership with another educational organisation and applying to several sources for funding in order to bring the project to fruition.

There is much to understand about the RME/RO provision within Scotland’s schools and parents are not always aware of current Guidelines and practices and where to turn if they need advice on any action. In these circumstances, the Academy will be more than happy to help anyone getting in touch with us.

General Office Tel: 0141 589 0179