Democracy or theocracy? The bid to reform Scotland’s educational committee system

by Paul Braterman

ClergyLetterdnaA 1929 law* imposes three unelected clergy on each of Scotland's local Education Committees. This was based on practice dating back to the 1870s, with the formation of the Scottish educational system from a merger of church and non-church elements, and to the 1918 incorporation of Catholic schools into the system. The Catholic state schools are clearly denominational, the others officially non-denominational, but all alike fall under the control of the relevant Committees. There are currently moves to free Scotland's Local Authorities from this undemocratic imposition, using Scotland's admirable Public Petition process, and you can help with this (see end of post for more).

Few topics are less exciting than the mechanics of local government. Nor would I expect the world to pay much attention to the details of these mechanics in a small, only partly independent, country of no particular economic or strategic importance. Nonetheless, the case exhibits some interesting general features regarding the legacy of religion in an incompletely secularised Europe, and the realities of effecting change in a diverse and pluralist society.

The petition has attracted international attention, most notably from Michael Zimmerman, as director of the Clergy Letter Project, who in a Huffington Post article has eloquently described the current structure as “bad for science education as well as for religion”. The Clergy Letter Project itself is an impressive assemblage of over 15,000 ordained clergy, from various denominations and creeds, who argue that the correct response of religion to scientific discovery is acceptance and celebration. The image above symbolises this view, by combining the memes of DNA and Divine Creation. Accommodationism, in the best and truest sense of this much misused word.

Michael Zimmerman expresses his reasons for concern as follows:

There are many reasons why a law of this sort is inappropriate and undemocratic, and you can read most of them in the petition, but rather than focusing on those aspects of the situation, I want to address the potential for serious problems associated with science education. As we have seen in far too many instances, some with deeply held fundamentalist beliefs, beliefs that are well out of both the religious and secular mainstream of society, feel compelled to promote their narrow perspective rather than the consensus of the scientific community. These extreme views are almost always at odds with the religious beliefs that are held just as deeply by the vast majority of the religious community.

And events have shown this concern to be well justified.

The law, in practice, has led to disproportionate representation of extreme Calvinists sects, who believe that God has told us that the Earth is only some 6000 years old, and that the entire body of science that says otherwise is diabolically mistaken. Thus we have, on the very Committees who control education at the local level in Scotland, nominees of groups who regard key parts of science education as damnable falsehood. And they are there, not because the voters or their representatives have invited them (as in a democracy there must be free to do), but because laws first framed over a century ago require their presence, shielded from democratic accountability, whether anybody wants them or not.

How we got here

Timeline of divisions within the Scottish Churches (click on link for clearer image); by Wikidwitch via Wikipedia

In the 1870s, the Church of Scotland was fragmented by the Great Disruption into two (soon to be three) major components. The faction retaining the title of Church of Scotland was regarded as tainted by its subservience to the landed aristocracy and the civil powers, while its main rival assumed the name of Free Church of Scotland. The latter, in turn, was soon to split between a theologically reformist group retaining the Free Church name, and traditionalists calling themselves the Free Presbyterian Church.** Meanwhile, over the previous two decades, Scotland's Catholic population had rapidly grown as the result of a major influx of economic refugees from famine-devastated Ireland. These refugees were the victims of serious discrimination and hostility, the echoes of which live on in Glasgow's notorious football sectarianism. No wonder that the Catholic educational organisation chose to stay aloof from the general merger, only joining the publicly funded mainstream in 1918, with special provisions under which the Catholic hierarchy retain major powers over the schools' ethos, and the teaching of topics related to religion, including human sexual morality.

The legislation from 1872 through to the most recent, in 1994, have in various ways recognised this history, with particular regard to the denominations in whose interest [these actual words recur repeatedly in the relevant Acts of Parliament] the individual schools had initially been run. While the earliest legislation was more flexible, current legislation specifies one representative nominated by the Catholic Church, one by the Church of Scotland, and one by some other denomination to be selected, with regard to local demographics, by the Council. This choice of Church to make the third nomination is the only point at which the elected Councillors have any influence on the process. The choice is, however, limited; the nominating body must be a church, or, at least, represent what the Acts refer to as a “religious charge”. Thus Humanists, for example, need not apply, even though there are now more Humanist weddings in Scotland than Church of Scotland, with other denominations lagging far behind.

Assumption, presumption, and privilege

The requirement for three religious reflects the fractious history of Scottish Protestantism, and the presence of these representatives is a relic of the Churches' historical input. The representatives exert power on local authorities' most important committees, their Education Committees, over and above the power they would exert as citizens, and the Churches to which they are answerable thereby exert power over and above the power that they certainly exert, and in a democratic society must be free to exert, as associations of individuals. This is not about religion; it is about power. It is not about universally shared rights; it is about privilege.

Consider the Church of Scotland's own code of practice for its religious representatives, which states:

Since the state assumed responsibility for the provision of school education in 1872 the Church of Scotland has been granted a statutory role as part of the education authority of the day. This privileged position reflects the historical link between schooling and the church. For that reason, if for no other, it is important for church representation on local authority committees with a responsibility for education, to ensure a respected presence across Scotland. This may be achieved by establishing good relationships; by exercising your statutory right and endeavouring to influence council education policies in areas of interest to the national church, including the development of the curriculum, Christian values, religious and moral education and religious observance in schools

This merits close examination. First, there is a claim to be a national church, although in today's Scotland only a fifth of the population say that they belong to it, while twice as many say they have no religion. Then there is the reference to the historic link between schooling and the church, as if the right to influence the education of Scotland's children were so much inheritable property. Thirdly, there is the assertion of a statutory right to seek to influence council education policies in areas of interest to the national church. What, one wonders, could this interest possibly be, over and above the interests of the pupils themselves, and the broader community to which they belong? As for the reference to Christian values, these are of two kinds. There are generally shared values, such as compassion and the encouragement of human flourishing, and regarding these we do not need the Church's guidance. Then there are values specific to the Church, such as the acceptance of Christ as one's personal saviour, which are explicitly (indeed vehemently) rejected by members of other faiths, and by nonbelievers. Finally, there is the stated objective of influencing the curriculum to which all pupils will be subjected, and doing so explicitly in the areas of religious and moral education and religious observance. This is diametrically opposed to the public position of Scotland's Education Department, which states that religious and moral education (this is actually a curriculum subject!) should educate but not indoctrinate, and that religious observance should represent those shared values, transcending denominational boundaries.

Morality, education, and the Churches

Most religious believers take it for granted that the morality derived from their own religion is superior to others, and indeed a very common argument in favour of religious belief is that, without it, there is no basis for moral conduct. (Note, by the way, that this is not an argument in favour of the truth of religion, but only of its usefulness.) This is not the place to dwell on the deep confusion involved here; the problem of constructing a coherent morality with or without appeal to the supernatural has been the stuff of philosophical discourse for more than 2000 years.

Consider instead an area where the moral consensus in the West has shifted dramatically within my own lifetime, and how the Churches have responded to this change. I am referring to sexual morality, and the closely related subject of the treatment of women.

Not too long ago, in Scotland, lower pay for women, and restricted employment and promotion, were regarded as part of the natural order of things. Sex between men was illegal, and, the “promotion” (i.e. discussion) of homosexuality in school health education classes specifically forbidden. Sex outside marriage was, however hypocritically, considered wrong, and the availability of contraception to young adults was restricted, for fear of condoning such activity. Abortion was illegal, unless it could be shown to endanger the mother's health, and the barrier for this was set so high that illegal abortions were commonplace. Now, by contrast, job discrimination against women is illegal, except for certain jobs (such as the priesthood!) where gender is regarded as important to performance. We have same-sex marriage, and a highly successful grassroots campaign (TIE; Time for Inclusive Education) is leading to the incorporation of nonjudgemental discussion of homosexuality in school education programmes. Sexual morality is seen as based on human values of respect and concern, and teenage pregnancy is at an all-time low. There is still a legal requirement for doctors' agreement to the necessity of an abortion, but it would be extraordinary for such an agreement to be withheld.

All of these changes will to most of us seem to be changes for the better. And all of them have taken place in the face of opposition, in some areas still effective and active, from the clergy. Thus in the areas of morality of the greatest concern to schoolchildren, the Churches have not been leaders, but laggards. The very last people, one might argue, to be granted a position of privilege on the committees that decide education policy.

Does it matter?

Yes. The unelected clergy hold the balance of power on 19 of Scotland's 32 Education Committees, and owing to the fractious nature of Scottish politics, we can expect some such situation to continue. The Education Committees control a larger slice of Council budgets than any other, and decide on the opening and closing of schools, whether those schools should be denominational or non-denominational, local educational policy in such flexible and sensitive areas as religious observance and religious and moral education, and the hiring of senior teachers. These clergy are independent of the electorate (sometimes this is paraded as a virtue!) but are not independent of their nominating Churches. Catholic nominees presumably follow doctrinally uniformity, when discussing policy for nondenominational as well as for denominational schools, although the Catholic denominational schools have their own organisational links to Scotland's Catholic Education Service, bypassing curricular direction by the Councils. The Church of Scotland nominees may well be far more doctrinally diverse, but this is not necessarily a good thing, especially in the theologically conservative north of the country. There Church of Scotland trainees for the Ministry can receive instruction from Highland Theological College, a self-regulating body with strong links to the Young Earth creationists of the US Southern Baptist Convention. The third representatives are appointed in a number of different ways, some ranging from the ethically dubious (a newspaper advertisement that only one Church happens to notice) to the ludicrous (a Councillor who had just lost his seat in an election successfully nominated himself as representative of the Boys' Brigade). In numerous cases, one or more of the appointees are known to be creationists, committed by their beliefs to the denial of the evolution science that lies at the heart of Scotland's biology curricula.

How could this theocratic relic have survived?

Ignorance, inertia, power ploys, and timidity.

Ignorance. I had spent more than 20 years of my adult life in Scotland before I discovered the existence of these unelected clergy, and only then it was by the sheerest of accidents, when Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis boasted of the fact that one of the speakers at his Creation Museum sat on a Scottish Education Committee. I wondered how such a person ever came to be elected, and soon discovered (thanks, Google) that he hadn't been elected at all, but put in place by his Church. I have repeatedly discovered that even well-informed Scots are unaware of the existence of these appointees. Indeed, when discussing the matter with MSPs (Members of the Scottish Parliament), the Scottish Secular Society discovered that some had never heard of these appointees, or, reasonably but wrongly, assumed that they must be there by the free choice of the elected Councillors. The system survives in part because of its very outlandishness; in conversation I have found it difficult to convince people of the realities, because they are so far in violation of common sense.

TruthBeToldR: An anti-evolutionist text handed out to pupils at Kirktonholme Primary, the school referred to in the paragraph below

Inertia. The nuts and bolts of local government are not the stuff of banner headlines. The evil done by the system is slow and corrosive. When yet another evangelising bus offers schools an afternoon of fun and fundamentalism, this does not make the news. When areas of the curriculum at a school near Glasgow fell under the control of a US-based fundamentalist sect, it was years before anyone noticed. It must have taken courage on behalf of the District's Education Officer to respond appropriately (as he did) when the situation came to light, since he would have known that there was (and still is) a Young Earth creationist church appointee on the Education Committee to which he answers.

Power ploys. No one gives up power without a struggle. I confidently predict that the Churches will portray the attempt to rein in their power over Scottish education as an attack on religion, and will rally their supporters in its defence. That is their right in a pluralistic democracy, and the correct reply is to broaden the discussion and seek support for change from a wider audience.

Timidity. MSPs will know that by supporting the removal of the Church appointees, they risk alienating some constituents, and this must give them pause for thought. So it should; MSPs are representatives of all their constituents, not just those they agree with abut theology. But the times are ripe for change. Almost half of all Scots, and a clear majority of those with children of school age, have no religion, and once religious privilege has been exposed as questionable, the genie will not go back into the bottle.

The petition process

The Scottish Parliament's petitions process is admirable, and embodies the ideal that Scottish politics should be conversational rather than confrontational. The Parliamentary website carries full instructions on how to submit a petition, and the draft petition, including background, arguments, and action previously taken on the matter, is scrutinised by zealous (perhaps over-zealous) Parliamentary Clerks, to ensure that it meets the standards for the Parliamentary website. It is then opened for 6 weeks, for online signature and comment from all interested individuals, not only in Scotland. The petition, signatures, and comments, are forwarded to the Scottish Parliament's Public Petitions Committee, a cross-party group. Interested parties can write to this Committee, and the Committee itself may well decide to approach relevant bodies for comment, and to ask the Scottish Government for its views and intentions. It may also ask (in the present case, almost certainly will ask) for oral testimony from the petitioner, and after further consideration will decide either to close (i.e. deny further hearing to) the petition, or, more probably if the case is strong and the petition well-supported, to forward it to a committee with more specific remit. In the present case, this would be the Education and Skills Committee. Further discussion, further scrutiny of evidence, possible further action… and all of this with Press coverage and public comment.

I gave evidence on behalf of an earlier petition, asking the Scottish Government to issue guidelines preventing the teaching of creationism as fact in Scotland's public schooling system. It was fascinating. Opinion was divided, but the split did not follow party lines. A minority would have liked to close the petition, either for fear of offending creationist constituents, or (I strongly suspect, in one case) out of personal creationist conviction; the ostensive reasons were denial that there was a problem requiring action, and concern that such guidance would amount to governmental micromanagement of the curriculum. Nonetheless, the Committee resolved to obtain further written evidence from educational bodies, and, eventually, to forward the matter to the then Education and Culture Committee. This Committee duly wrote to the Scottish Government, while, very importantly, individual supporters of the petition had been writing to their own MSPs. The combined effect of these efforts was to extract a new statement from the Government, presented as clarification rather than change, but containing for the first time a clear statement that creationism should not be taught as valid in the science classroom. Less than we would have liked (if it is not valid in the science classroom, how can it be valid in the Religious Education classroom, where it is one of the viewpoints that must be discussed?) But more than there was before, and as much as we could hope for, given that the then Schools Minister represented a theologically conservative constituency.

And what of the present petition? Inevitably, much will depend on the personal views of the members of the relevant Committees, but even more will depend on public support and discussion. This time, there is no easy resolution. The petition presents a simple binary choice. We can leave things as they are, or we can change them. And since what needs to be changed is written into the actual law, rather than into secondary regulation and policies, the only way to change is by Act of the Scottish Parliament.

What you can do

You can read, comment on, and if you agree sign the petition directly on the Parliamentary website, here. You can publicise it to your friends, or through social media, especially if you are Scottish or have Scottish connections. Again, particularly if you live in Scotland, you can write to your MSPs, or to the Scottish newspapers. You can also comment on relevant articles when they appear.

If you represent any organisation with an interest in education, religion, and the links between them, or if you feel moved and qualified to do so as an individual, you can send a submission to the Public Petitions Committee, through, specifying Petition PE0623, Unelected Church Appointees on Local Authority Education Committees. Such submissions will not, however, be made public on the Parliamentary website until after the petition is closed for signatures on November 16.

We know that there is much sympathy for change among MSPs. We know that the present system is indefensible, and do not imagine that it will be seriously defended in the face of a determined challenge. We also know that many key players are waiting on public reaction before taking a position. What you do, counts.

*The 1929 Local Government (Scotland) Act, as amended by the similarly named Acts of 1973 and 1994.

**The Disruption was largely healed by the end of 1929 through a series of agreements between the Churches, creating the present Church of Scotland as the main voice of Scottish Presbyterianism, and leaving what are now called the Free Church of Scotland and the Free Presbyterian Church as fundamentalist splinter groups.