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The Secularisation of Scottish Education

by Rev. Tim Donachie

150 years since 1872

Following reports of the Argyle Commission in 1865, 1867, and 1868, the Education (Scotland) Act, which introduced state-controlled compulsory schooling for all 5- to 13-year-olds, passed into law on 6 August 1872. Prior to this, education had been largely undertaken by the Church through a system of Parish schools set up by an Act of parliament in 1696. Such schools were established and funded by local landowners and the established Church. Industrialisation and immigration from Ireland in the nineteenth century led to the formation of the so-called ‘adventure’ schools which were funded by parents with no input from the Church and were of variable quality. Because of rapid urban growth, the parish school system was unable to cope, and many children were not even receiving basic education. The formation of hundreds of new schools following the disruption of 1843 further complicated the educational picture.

It was against this background that the government determined to establish a national system of education. The implementation of the Act improved the provision of basic education for more of Scotland’s children, but it was disastrous for religious education and for the teaching of Biblical morality throughout the land. Whereas previously, the Bible and Christian principles had been central to the education provided – because the curriculum was in the hands of the Church – the 1872 Act created a secular school curriculum with religious instruction as an appendix. It also created a conscience clause giving parents the right to withdraw their children from religious instruction. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the Protestant Churches did not insist on legal safeguards for the religious ethos of the schools they handed over to state control. Instead, they trusted that religious education would continue according to local ‘want & usage’.

This rather naïve attitude proved to be correct, although not in the way that those nineteenth-century churchmen hoped! At the time of the introduction of the Act, it was common practice in many parts of Scotland for the vast majority of the population to be regular or semi-regular attendees at public worship, the sabbath day was observed as a holy day, and Biblical morality was considered to be normative. As a result, the churches were quite happy for the schools to reflect the religious environment in which they were situated. This situation, however, changed fairly rapidly, especially following the First World War. Society became more secular and church attendance, particularly in the cities, began to decline and so the religious aspect of education increasingly reflected the norms of society.

The change was more gradual in some areas. It was certainly less obvious in rural areas where church-going continued to be more normative than in urban settings. The decline was also masked to some degree by the number of Christians who entered the teaching profession and who were able to mitigate some of the worst aspects of secularisation in the classroom. The reality, however, is that the churches no longer had any major say in the curriculum or in the ethos of the schools, and the management increasingly reflected the secular mores of the society in which they functioned.

The rapidly increasing multi-cultural and multi-faith makeup of society led to the downgrading of Christian teaching in the school curriculum and religious education being stripped of its exclusively Christian content to be replaced by so-called ‘comparative religions’ or ‘Religious and Moral Education’. The daily act of worship was abandoned or turned into an innocuous moral chat. By 2005 the goal of secularising Scottish education had almost been achieved when the Review of Religious Observance (Scottish Executive 2005) stated that acts of worship are no longer appropriate in schools where the pupil population is not continuous with the faith community in question, a situation likely in almost all ‘non-denominational’ (i.e., non-Catholic) schools in Scotland. So, in the years since 1872, Scottish education has moved from having the Bible at the centre of the educative process to being almost totally removed from it.

It is, perhaps, understandable why the Churches were prepared to give up their schools to the state in 1872. Society was more specifically Christian then and there appeared to be a commitment from the state to continue the Christian character of education. It is less easy, however, to comprehend why Christian parents continue to support a system that, in spite of the valiant efforts of Christian teachers, attacks and undermines the principles and practices that they teach their children at home and at Church! There is very little possibility that the onward march of secularisation in modern Scotland can be halted or reversed unless the Lord sends a great awakening. Until such time, children within the state system of education will continue to be exposed to humanistic and godless views that contradict the clear teaching of the Word of God.

All parents, especially those who profess to be Christian, have a responsibility to care for their children, and that care must include the spiritual and moral as well as the physical. It is no surprise, that an increasing number of parents are deciding to home-school their children rather than subject them to the morally bankrupt teaching offered in most state schools. It is very concerning that Churches, seeing the moral and spiritual dangers facing children in school, not only do not seek to provide Bible-based education but often campaign against Christian schools and come up with spurious arguments for why they are not a good thing! There needs to be a return to the Reformation principle enunciated by John Knox in his First Book of Discipline (1560): ‘of necessity it is that your honours be most careful for the virtuous education and godly upbringing of the youth of this realm, if either ye now thirst unfeignedly [for] the advancement of Christ’s glory, or yet desire the continuance of his benefits to the generation following. For as the youth must succeed to us, so we ought to be careful that they have the knowledge and erudition to profit and comfort that which ought to be most dear to us – to wit, the church and spouse of the Lord Jesus.’

Rev. Tim Donachie (RPCI)

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