Call for ‘new national settlement’ from independent Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life

An independent commission established by Cambridge’s Woolf Institute has today published its final report, calling for a ‘new settlement’ in relation to religion or belief in the UK.

Living with Difference: Community, Diversity and the Common Good is the end result of the work of twenty commissioners, including leaders from a range of religions, equality and human rights specialists, and the Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association. Chaired by the Rt Hon Baroness Butler-Sloss of Marsh Green GBE, they spent two years gathering 200 evidence submissions in writing and held oral witness sessions across the UK, in order to make recommendations targeted at policy makers, government officials, religious leaders and the wider public for how policy and practice relating to religion and belief should develop in the UK. Humanist Society Scotland held an evidence hearing for the Commission at the University of Glasgow, the only Humanist organisation to do so.

The report draws attention to the way that the religion and belief make-up of UK society has changed immeasurably in recent decades. Positive recommendations of the report include:

  • ‘Governments across the UK should introduce a statutory entitlement for all schools within the state system for a subject dealing with religious and non-religious worldviews… The content should be broad and inclusive in a way that reflects the diversity of religion and belief in the UK.’
  • ‘Governments should repeal requirements for schools to hold acts of collective worship or religious observance and issue new guidelines building on current best practice for inclusive assemblies and times for reflection’
  • ‘Government should recognise the negative practical consequences of selection by religion in schools, and that most religious schools can further their aims without discriminating on grounds of religion in their admissions and employment practices, and require bodies responsible for school admissions and the employment of staff to take measures to reduce such selection.’
  • ‘State inspectorates should be concerned with every aspect of the life of faith schools, including religious elements currently inspected by denominational authorities.’
  • ‘The BBC Charter renewal should mandate the Corporation to reflect the range of religion and belief of modern society, for example by extending contributions to Radio 4’s daily religious flagship Thought for the Day to include speakers from non-religious perspectives such as humanists.’
  • There should be ‘equitable representation’ in hospital and prison chaplaincy services ‘for those from non-Christian religious traditions and for those from humanist traditions.’

HSS Chief Executive Gordon MacRae commented,

“There are a lot of welcome proposals in this report today, it is certainly progress in the right direction. It does not go far enough though, that is clear.

“We welcome the proposals in this report to repeal the requirement for Religious Observance. It’s important to reflect that comes less than a month after a report by the Arts and Humanities Council also called for RO to be dropped.

“The report specifically highlights the dramatic fall in rates of religious identification in Scotland, it’s so important that public policy in this area begins to reflect the reality of modern Scottish society.”

For more information, please contact Gary McLelland, Head of Communications and Public Affairs for Humanist Society Scotland, on or 07813060713.

HSS welcomes calls for major reforms to Religious Observance in Schools

Humanist Society Scotland has welcomed the publication of an important report into the provision of religious observance in Scotland (and collective worship in England, Wales and Northern Ireland). HSS has followed up the release of this report with a call to Education Scotland and the Scottish Government to establish a working group to examine the rationale for the continuation of RO in schools, in-line with the report’s recommendations.

The report, compiled by The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) on Collective Worship, was launched at a public conference at the University of Leicester on 13th November 2015. In addition to the presentation of the Network’s findings, the conference – which was chaired by Lord Sutherland of Houndwood – also featured presentations from a number of influential figured from the UK and overseas. These included: the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Professor Heiner Bielefeldt; the sociologist of religion, Professor Linda Woodhead (Lancaster University); the Professor of Theology and Education, Mary Elizabeth Moore (Boston University); and the Professor of Education, Geir Skeie (Stockholm University).

 The report makes some key recommendations, all of which HSS fully supports:
  1. It is recommended that each government urgently establishes a working group to consider, in the first instance, whether a rationale exists to require schools to arrange a collective activity in a distinct and designated period within the school timetable. This deliberation should take place within the framework of the six questions relating to rationale set out in this report, and in light of the aims and values of each country’s educational system.
  2. It is recommended that each government establishes a working group to review in detail the nature of the current duty, the extent of its implementation, and (to the extent they exist) the efficacy of inspection regimes. This review should consider the need for empirical research to inform its work.
The report also highlighted three Scotland-specific recommendations:
  • It is recommended that Education Scotland provide clear guidance as to what constitutes religious observance and where worship is situated within that.
  • It is recommended, in line with Section 6 of the Standards in Scotland’s Schools etc. Act 2000, that children are consulted on the day to day running of the school as set out in the school’s Development Plan and that this should include consultation relating to religious observance.
  • It is recommended that the term ‘Religious Observance’ be formally changed to ‘Time for Reflection’ in order to be more inclusive.
Humanist Society Scotland has publicly stated its commitment to reform. In January 2014 we issues the following joint statement with the Church of Scotland:
‘The Church of Scotland and Humanist Society Scotland have called for legislation to be brought forward to change Religious Observance in schools to “Time for Reflection” as a way of making these events more inclusive and clearly not gatherings where one faith or belief system is promoted over another.’

Speaking after the release of the report, Gary McLelland, Head of Communications and Public Affairs for HSS, said:

“We welcome the publication of this report today. The report is a very comprehensive overview of the current state of law and policy around religious observance in Scotland.
“The report highlights some major challenges for the ongoing provision of RO in Scotland. The time has come for a full and frank debate about the future role of religion in education. It has been a decade since the last comprehensive review of RO in schools, and we agree with the authors of this report that the time has come for a fresh look.

“The outdated requirement for ‘religious’ observance has no place in a 21st century education system. We call upon Education Scotland and the Scottish Government to establish a working group to examine the rationale for the continuation of RO in schools, in-line with the report’s recommendations.”

The full report, and HSS response, can be found here:

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