Education

Summary: We have had some success in limiting the role of creationist teaching. Our campaign to change the system for Religious Observance from opt-out to opt-in did not succeed in this, but forced the Scottish Government and the Church of Scotland to reiterate the rights of parents and senior pupils, and to specify high-flown objectives for RO against which the reality can be measured. We are constructively engaging with Religious Education teachers, and have put together a powerful team to prepare background materials on such subjects as the Big Bang, evolution, and the environment, for their use.

 

We strongly welcome input from teachers seeking advice on scientific questions, and from parents and pupils seeking advice regarding their rights to withdraw from religious activities.

 

Overview: Education is one area where religious privilege is most deeply entrenched. We are active in the following areas:

  • Creationism in schools
  • Providing materials for teachers
  • Religious Observance and Religious Education; protecting the distinction between these, and supporting parents and pupils in asserting their legal right to opt out of one or both of these

 

Guidance on how creationism is presented in schools: our petition PE01530

Calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to issue official guidance to bar the presentation in Scottish publicly funded schools of separate creation and of Young Earth doctrines as viable alternatives to the established science of evolution, common descent, and deep time attracted widespread attention and support (over half a million hits in social media; petition signed by three Nobel Prize winners; dozens of newspaper and other prominent media articles both within Scotland and internationally; singled out twice for special criticism by Answers in Genesis) and succeeded in extracting the following guidance and commitment from the Scottish Government:

 

“Guidance provided by Education Scotland, set out in the “Principles and Practice” papers and the “Experiences and Outcomes” documentation for each of the 8 curriculum areas does not identify Creationism as a scientific principle. It should therefore not be taught as part of science lessons…

 

“I am aware of concerns you have previously expressed about Creationism being taught in 3 schools in Renfrewshire, South Lanarkshire and Midlothian…. Education Scotland will, however, continue to monitor this through the independent inspection process, and other on-going engagement with practitioners and schools, including with science teachers, and address any issues that arise.

 

“We would have preferred language that was not restricted to science lessons, but in the light of this guidance the teaching of Creationism as fact in other areas is clearly untenable.”

 

Materials for teachers: Many teachers find themselves teaching about scientific concepts directly relevant to the claims of religion to explain natural phenomena, without themselves having had much formal training in the relevant science. These include primary school teachers, and Religious Education (RMPS) teachers discussing origins questions, and evolution.

 

We have therefore put together a writing team consisting of a scientist who has worked in relevant areas, and two High School science teachers advised by a panel that includes a University lecturer in education, an Anglican priest/geologist, and an experienced RMPS teacher, to prepare such materials. Discussions within the profession have led us to pick out two areas of particular interest:

  • The Big Bang and Evolution (this is listed as a single bullet point in the new Higher syllabus)
  • Human activity and the environment, including such issues as population control, extinction of species, sustainability, and global warming

 

Our approach here would be to outline the current scientific consensus, explain how this has been arrived at and the levels of confidence that we have in different conclusions, and relate this to the way that religions have sought to explain nature, and to define humankind’s responsibilities towards it.

 

Religious Observance and Religious Education: These two should be completely distinct. Religious Observance (RO) is a participatory activity, while Religious Education (RMPS, Religious, Moral, and Philosophical Studies) is supposedly an educational activity treating different beliefs and non-beliefs evenhandedly. However, parents, and sufficiently senior pupils, have an absolute legal right to opt out from either or both of these. This right applies to all schools, not only non-denominational schools. Schools have a legal duty to provide an activity of educational value to pupils who are opted out. However, we suggest that parents offer to help here, for example by supplying extracurricular reading material.

 

We have campaigned unsuccessfully (Petition PE01487) to replace opt-out with opt-in for RO. We did, however, succeed in extracting from the Scottish Government a statement that:

 

“[T]he Education (School and Placing Information)(Scotland) Regulations 2012 make provision about what a school’s handbook should say about how the school plans and provides its curriculum, including Religious Observance. The School Handbook should be reviewed and revised by 8 December in each calendar year to ensure the information provided is up-to-date….

 

“Schools should be willing and able to let parents know how religious observance will be offered to pupils. …

 

“Children and their parents at denominational schools have the same rights as those at non-denominational schools….

 

[T]he submissions [in response to the petition] do point to the need for improvements in practice and communication, as outlined above at point 8 [this referred to the difference between stated policy and actual experience] in particular.”

 

It also elicited from the Church of Scotland the following statement:

 

“Religious Observance is not, and should never be confessional in nature (it is not worship nor can it be).”

 

Religious, Moral, and Philosophical Studies: Problems here seem likely to arise in three areas:

 

Primary schools, where Bible stories are presented uncritically as factual narratives

 

Denominational schools, where (incredibly) human sexuality is included under RMPS, and controlled by a committee of unmarried and notionally completely celibate male middle-aged middle management, known as the Conference of Bishops

 

Secondary schools, where consideration of Creationist views may give the impression that they are of comparable factual standing to established science. This last problem, ironically, his most like to arise in non-denominational schools, since the Catholic Church accepts the material fact of evolution. We think that the materials we are preparing (see above) may be of some help here.

 

Your participation would be of the highest possible value: If you are a teacher, or a parent or pupil concerned about the way these topics are handled in schools, we would very much like to hear from you. We would welcome in particular suggestions for specific topics, and ideas about how materials could be distributed to schools without being consigned to the spam pile.

 

Your participation is invited: The usual tactic of opponents of the kind of guidance we seek is to pretend that Creationist teaching is not happening. But we know that it is, most commonly and the primary level, where the Genesis narrative is presented as if it were historical fact We would welcome any information about specific examples, and will not under any circumstances divulge identifying details without specific permission.

 

We would also strongly encourage you to seek out other like-minded parents/pupils, so that you can make your views felt collectively.

 

Your participation is invited: The Scottish Secular Society regards the present situation, especially regarding RO, as unstable and self-contradictory. We are confident that in due course the system will be reformed as much by pressure from the bottom as by official action at the top, and believe that participation by concerned parents, and expression of concerns to School Management Teams and to Councillors, will help bring this about. For the moment, we would urge all parents and senior pupils:

  • To verify that the school Handbook gives information about the right to opt out
  • To exercise that right if they see fit, and resist pressure from the school to do otherwise
  • To demand that they be informed of any RO or RMPS activities
  • To critically inspect the credentials of outside bodies offering such activities. For example the Challenger Bus claims to offer RMPS lessons, but their sessions include hymn singing, and the programme is run by Creationist Pentecostals with links to Answers in Genesis, a leading science-denying organisation
  • To complain when school events such as prize-givings take place in a religious context
  • To inform us (in confidence if so wished) of abuses and to use their influence, together with that of like-minded parents and pupils, in seeking their removal. For example, there is recent precedent for a pupils’ petition that succeeded in persuading their school to open up RO to multiple varieties of belief and non-belief