Children's Rights in Action: Reforming Religious Observance in Scottish Schools

Published date01 May 2017
Date01 May 2017
AuthorFrankie McCarthy

The practice of religious observance in state-funded Scottish schools is currently under review. In addition to providing religious education, in which pupils learn about the history and tenets of various faiths, state-funded school communities in Scotland are under an obligation to practise religious observance as part of the curriculum, whether that school is denominational or non-denominational.1 Doubt about the compliance of this obligation with the human rights of children and parents has led to criticism by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and legal action by Humanist Society Scotland.2 As a result, the Scottish Government is currently consulting on how the guidance on religious observance can be revised to address these concerns.3 This note will outline the current law on religious observance, explain the issues which gave rise to the Government consultation and query whether the limited reforms likely to result go far enough to protect children's rights in this area.


The Education (Scotland) Act 1980 imposes various obligations on local authorities, acting in this context as “education authorities”, in relation to the provision of state-funded schools. Unlike elsewhere in the UK, the curriculum in Scottish schools is not regulated by statute. However, section 8 of the 1980 Act specifies that:

Whereas it has been the custom in the public schools of Scotland for religious observance to be practised…be it enacted that education authorities… shall be at liberty to continue the said custom;

It shall not be lawful for an education authority… to discontinue religious observance…unless and until a resolution in favour of such discontinuance…has been approved by a majority of electors [for the education area].

These provisions apply to both denominational and non-denominational schools. Current Scottish Government guidance4 on what is entailed by the practice of religious observance encourages schools to draw upon the “rich resources” of Scotland's Christian heritage,5 but also notes that

Many school communities contain pupils and staff from faiths other than Christianity or with no faith commitment, and this must be taken fully into account in supporting spiritual development. It is of central importance that all pupils and staff can participate with integrity in forms of religious observance without compromise to their personal faith.6

The guidance recognises that a term such as “Time for Reflection” might be a more appropriate description of the activities carried out in fulfilment of the requirement of

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