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Catholic education leaders in Scotland back teaching union’s concerns over parent’s right to opt out of RE

By Ryan McDougall and Peter Diamond

CATHOLIC education leaders in Scotland have backed concerns from a teacher’s union over parents’ right to withdraw children from Religious Education.

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), a trade union in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, argued on Monday February 4 that parents should not have the right to remove their child from RE.

Sarah Hannafin, senior policy advisor for NAHT, said that ‘high quality religious education should be a fundamental part of every school’ and that it ‘helps pupils develop an understanding of, and respect for, others.’

“This is vital for their life in modern Britain,” she added. “Indeed, it is a government requirement of schools to promote British values, including respect and tolerance.”

RE is one of the only subjects from which parents have a legal right to remove their children.

Ms Hannafin said there is widespread misconception of what RE is.

She added that the right for parents to withdraw their children from RE on these grounds ‘surely means that RE is more important than ever.’

The director of the Scottish Catholic Education Service (SCES) Barbara Coupar backed the union’s concerns over the RE withdrawal rights.

Mrs Coupar said Catholic schools consider both RE and religious observance as integral in their approach to education, and that ‘RE should be weaved into the school day’ within all subjects.

Citing the importance of RE in schools for giving pupils the chance to grow their knowledge in religion, she added: “It would be a concern if a parent from any religious tradition, or none, were to say that their child could not/should not be present while others learned about faith or put it into practice.”

James Kerr, chair of the Catholic Headteachers’ Association of Primary Schools, said: “Developing understanding and respect for the views and beliefs of others is an important aspect of the work of the Catholic school and this is only enhanced by welcoming wholeheartedly those of different faiths and beliefs into the community of faith.”

Mr Kerr, who is also headteacher of St Paul’s Primary School, Whiteinch, added: “In its guidance the government acknowledges the integral nature of religious education and religious education within a Catholic school.

“As Catholic headteachers we have to ensure that we enter into a dialogue with parents before they make this choice for their child. We must be clear about the nature, purpose of mission of a Catholic school so that a parent can make a fully informed judgement about the holistic education their child will experience.”

Lorraine Legrix, chair of the Catholic Headteachers’ Association of Secondary Schools and headteacher of Holy Rood High School Edinburgh, said that while ‘Catholic schools respect the right of parents to withdraw their children from Religious Education’ in practice ‘such requests are very rare and, after an open conversation, are usually withdrawn.’

“This is because in choosing a Catholic school to enrol their children in, parents are actively buying in to the holistic nature of Catholic education,” she said. “Gospel values and the teachings of Jesus permeate the totality of the learning experience of pupils in Catholic schools, so that withdrawal from RE cannot negate the Faith dimension of the school’s ethos.

“The inclusive nature of Catholic schools means that we educate many pupils of different religions or, indeed, none. This provides strong evidence that parents, Catholic or otherwise, value the given spiritual framework within which our schools operate and this undoubtedly extends to the value they place on Religious Education.”

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