Thank you for inviting us, convener. My thanks to the rest of the committee, too.
At present, every council education committee in Scotland is required by law to include three full voting members nominated by churches. Voters and their elected representatives have no choice in the matter. That legal requirement dates back to 1929—and, in its present form, to 1973—but it is so broadly worded that it could apply to any future education system.
We believe that the current system is out of place and does not reflect a constantly evolving, rapidly modernising Scottish democracy. We would not dream of allowing churches to impose their members on the Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee, for instance, but that is exactly what we do with Scottish councils. The future of Scottish education is under active discussion, and we believe that this would be the perfect time to review the status quo.
One major consideration is the fact that parents who hold no belief now represent the majority among primary school parents. That has created a democratic deficit with regard to representation within local authorities. To address that changing demographic, we respectfully suggest that the simplest change would be to relax the requirement. We would like the law to allow—not compel—elected members to appoint up to three such representatives and to decide whether to give them voting powers, much as they do now for parent-teacher councils and representatives.
We gauged the views of all of Scotland’s MSPs by writing directly to them, and we found considerable cross-party support in our responses. I will quote and comment on some of the responses that we received. We got comments such as:
“there may well be merit in looking afresh at this again”;
“there should be a greater amount of autonomy in choosing the best people whether they be religious leaders or not”;
“I am broadly supportive of the concept of members of Education Committees being elected”;
“it is up to each local authority to decide who should be on the education committee.”
The final comment was:
“the status quo is an anachronism”.
Supporters of the petition include Professor Dame Anne Glover, who was a scientific adviser to the Scottish Government and the European Union; the clergy letter project, which is a global representative body comprising 15,000 ordained clergy; the secretary of Glasgow Unitarian Church; and the Glasgow Theosophical Society.
Our petition statement makes it clear that the present situation is undemocratic and unjust. It encroaches on human rights and is highly problematic in its enforcement. Moreover, it infringes local autonomy and is actually the opposite of participatory democracy. It is also unnecessary, given that denominational schools have their own separate mechanisms of governance. Churches are already involved to some extent in most Scottish schools, including non-denominational schools. Believers, like everyone else, can and should vote, take part in public debate and stand for office. That is not what we are challenging today. In this case, however, religion should be afforded no privilege against those who may hold no belief.
The requirement infringes local autonomy because laws handed down by central Government—in this case, by Westminster Governments in 1973 and 1994—are imposed on local councils irrespective of councils’ wishes and needs. It is certainly not participatory democracy. The broader community is not involved, and the appointees are answerable only to their own churches.
Finally, many councils have difficulty filling the positions. In our view, there are some questionable appointments. If the system were meeting a legitimate need, that problem would surely never arise. In its own response to the petition, the Church of Scotland admits that an element of reform is required, and we believe that the simplest reform is the one that we have suggested. Scotland’s regions are highly diverse, and we believe that local councils are the best judges of local needs. They already have a local mandate from their voting system, and they should be free to use it.
In conclusion, we respectfully ask you to seek opinions from organisations that represent non-believing as well as believing bodies and from organisations and campaigns such as the time for inclusive education campaign and the Equality and Human Rights Commission that are concerned with schooling and human rights with a view to forwarding our petition to the Education and Skills Committee. Thank you.