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PROGRESS IN DEFINING RELIGIOUS OBSERVANCE

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Bodies interested in religious education and religious observance in Scottish schools are moving towards a consensu...
Bodies interested in religious education and religious observance in Scottish schools are moving towards a consensus based on a definition of observance which does not include religious worship as part of the formal school curriculum.

Speaking to a meeting of the Glasgow group of the Humanist Society of Scotland on Sunday (18 January), Fred Forrester, joint secretary of the Scottish Joint Committee on Religious and Moral Education, said that the new approach was based on listing the aims of religious observance in terms which might be acceptable to all faith communities, to groups such as humanists and to the many citizens (probably now the majority) who did not subscribe to any set of religious beliefs.

'It is common ground, for example, that all pupils should have knowledge and understanding of the forms of worship of the major world religions,' he said. 'Thus programmes of religious and moral education should include 'observing (in the sense of seeing) the various religious rites. Ideally this should be through visits to places of worship, but there is also a place for dramatic presentations in the school hall or the classroom of the ritual events surrounding festivals such as Easter, Eid, Passover, Diwali.

'Most denominations welcome educational visits to their places of worship and do not object to the presence of non-believers, in a appropriate part of the building, during religious rites. Many schools already arrange visits of this kind. Educational visits to Christian churches of various denominations should also be arranged. To omit them is to make an assumption, unjustified in educational terms, that pupils are already knowledgeable about Christian worship.'

Mr Forrester said there had been a controversy in Scotland for over thirty years because 'educational observing' had been confused with actual worship. Since the non-denominational school was not a faith community, forms of 'observance' involving actual worship were not acceptable as part of the formal curriculum. To justify them on the grounds that pupils and teachers could opt-out with unsatisfactory. In an inclusive educational system, there should be no need for no possibility of opting-out of the formal curriculum. If groups felt the need to opt out of part of the curriculum, then the part of the curriculum was educationally suspect.

'The present unsatisfactory arrangements have produced forms of alleged observance which are offensive to believers and non-believers alike,' he said. 'Some Christian ministers are actually embarrassed when a headteacher, anxious to show that the letter of the law is being observed in that school, asks for a service to be arranged at Christian or Easter. What results is often a poorly-attended travesty with which no one, staff, pupils or minister, can be comfortable.

'Once a reasonable consensus is reached among the stockholders, we should ask the government to amend the present arrangement,' said Mr Forrester. 'To allow these arrangements to continue will simply result in further marginalised or an already marginalised part of the curriculum.'

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