Alan Graham considers the need for a secular education system. In 2004, the SSP membership voted for a motion titled Secular Scotland. This motion included the points:

  • The SSP is a secular party and stands for a secular Scotland.
  • That religion is a private, not a state matter.

It ended with, The fruits of this [proposed] debate will be used to develop a more detailed policy proposal to the 2005 Party conference.

Given that the proposed debate never took place, it is no surprise that there are 3 motions at the 2005 conference that will again bring up the subject of secularism. The debate to accompany each motion will hopefully clarify the SSP position even more but unfortunately may throw up misunderstanding, ignorance or fear of what the secular position entails.

The primary and secondary education system in Scotland is currently split with state-provided faith schools and non-denominational schools. Some assume ‘non-denominational’ is equivalent to secular but it is not. The split could more correctly be described as non-Protestant faith schools and non-specific Protestant denominational schools. The non-Protestant schools are most commonly Roman Catholic. There are, however, proposals to extend this provision, particularly to allow Muslim faith schools.

Religious observation

Both systems are required by law to provide specifically religious observation. As an example, a non-denominational secondary school may have time one morning a week set aside for religious observance. Sometimes this will involve a visit by some local representative of the religion deemed appropriate. At other times, staff or pupils with religious convictions may be asked to contribute. In the case of faith schools the religious observation will more often be presided over by the priest (or, if faith schools are further promoted by the government – by mullahs, rabbis or ministers from specific Protestant denominations)

In addition, both systems provide Religious and Moral Education (RME) as part of the curriculum. An RME class (in secondary) or lesson (in primary) will inform students about all religions (with a possible nod towards humanism in secondaries). The emphasis is on the dominant religion. This appears to be even more prevalent in primary schools. In faith schools RME classes will have a large chunk about that school’s specific faith with the remaining time exploring other religious, moral or spiritual systems.

Schools environments, however, are characterised as places to teach pupils about what is ‘correct’. The Mathematics teacher will show pupils how to calculate volumes and the pupils will see it gives the correct result. The Physics teacher will show how to follow an electric circuit and the pupil will see that this works. The English teacher will show how to spell a certain word and, using the dictionary, the pupil will see this is correct. In this environment, where the teacher teaches what is ‘true’ and children are often discouraged from questioning the perceived norms, then having a heavy emphasis on one religion will come across as endorsing that religion as being correct.


Not every pupil at a school of a certain faith will be of that faith. However, the heavy bias towards one faith, in an environment where what the teacher says is ‘correct’, will seriously influence the thinking of the pupils. In other words a pupil who is interested in Physics will be more likely to accept the teachings of the Physics teacher as truth; but one who does not care about Physics may well discount it. Similarly a pupil who is interested in exploring their own spirituality, or who has already been told they belong to a particular ‘faith’, may be more likely to accept what teachers of that faith say. When the pupil is only presented with one faith at first hand it is that one which is most likely to take root. For a majority of the time, when religion is being taught, a dominant one lies at the core. A child or young person is effectively being indoctrinated.

To return to the second point of the 2004 motion: That religion is a private, not a state matter. If a pupil is interested in exploring their spirituality and is therefore more likely to be open to ideas but is only presented with one in depth, far more detailed than any others, then the state has indeed interfered in the pupil’s own private spirituality.

This would leave two secular options:

  1. Teach no religious, spiritual or moral beliefs in schools.
  2. Teach a wide range of religious, humanist, spiritual or moral beliefs in schools.

If one of the socialist goals of education is to encourage people to respect other’s beliefs and tolerate and accept differences then the second of these is the most obvious choice. In this regard even the Holyrood recommended model is better than much of our current school system. The Time for Reflection initiative is more secular. Statistics for 2002 (Scottish Parliament website) show that out of 34 Time for Reflections representatives there were 10 Church of Scotland, 5 Roman Catholic, 1 Muslim and 1 Sikh representative. In 2004 there have been, amongst others, representatives from Deaf Action, the Dalai Lama and a school-pupil speaking of the school’s Fair Trade Drive.

Promoting open education

There is no reason why a similar model can not be adopted for schools. Whether this diversity reflects Scottish or the local community conditions, is a further debate, Furthermore, time could be set aside for other beliefs not found in Scotland or the local community. It is the underlying principle of promoting an open and more representative education concerning beliefs that is important.

How then would such a position address the concerns of those in already existing ‘faith’ schools, or areas where there was a perceived demand for one. A school which has had a history of being a Catholic school, with a large majority of Catholic pupils, will not lose its identity or history. It would simply teach more about other beliefs. If, in another school, 70% of the pupils were Muslim then a greater percentage of RME time would be devoted to Islam. The secular approach to beliefs in education is not therefore about attacking or removing religion, it is about being open to the fact that there are many differing beliefs and about exposing pupils to a wide range of these. Then the pupil can make their own private decision up about which spiritual path they wish to take.

A recipe for bigotry and intolerance

It also gives a voice to the many families who hold no religious beliefs. Crucially, it is a position that would not allow a faith to determine other parts of the curriculum. We may not have too many Young Earth Creationists demanding that the Theory of Evolution is not taught in our schools. Yet we still have the position where sizeable numbers of young people are not taught about contraception due to the inordinate influence of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.

A secular position opposes both faith and ‘non-denominational’ schools, as they currently exist. A secularist, who is also a socialist, would also oppose the current schooling system on the grounds that it acts as a tool to divide the working class. Two people may be the same age and live in the same street. Yet, solely because of their religion, or more particularly the religion of their parents, they may be sent to different schools yards apart from the age of 4 or 5. They could then grow up with differing groups of friends formed along religious lines. When people are organised by the state in separate groups, purely on religious or racial basis, this is a recipe for bigotry, racism and intolerance. If we wish the working class to unite then it is vital to not put up artificial barriers which hinder integration. By the age of 4 or 5 no one has been presented with enough information to make up their own mind about their choice of beliefs. The imposition of choice is a breeding ground for problems if the environment around them supports this on a mass scale.

An understanding of beliefs and cultures is a necessary and desirable part of the education of young people. Children can best learn to understand each other when they are taught side-by-side in an environment of mutual respect and understanding. There is no place in a Scotland striving for socialism for structures that divide us along religious grounds.


Scottish Parliament Statistics 2002