RE in Scotland

Landscape of Scotland with a castle.

Religious Education in Scotland

Since 1707 Scotland has been part of the UK. However, throughout this period Scotland has had separate religious, educational, and judicial systems or provisions. The Scottish Education Act of 1872 created a national system of compulsory elementary schools. Prior to this the protestant churches had financed the Scottish parish school system. However, the churches could no longer support the burgeoning school populations of the late 19th century and the state intervened. This legislation effectively sanctioned the creation of a secular school curriculum with religious instruction as an appendix. The 1872 Act also furnished schools with a statement of support for Religious Instruction and Religious Observance. It also provides the first mention of a conscience clause for parents giving them the right to withdraw their child from Religious Instruction.  To this day, the 1872 act provides the legislative framework for RE in Scottish non-denominational schools with these two stipulations in place; that it is a mandatory subject for all pupils, and parents can still withdraw their children from RE should they so wish. In a linked development, the 1872 Act also preserved the recommendations that schools have a corporate act of religious worship (Religious Observance).

As far as Roman Catholic schools are concerned, these were first founded in the early 19th century to meet the needs principally of immigrating Irish Catholics, mainly in the areas of the industrial west of Scotland. The numbers of voluntary catholic schools increased towards the end of the 19th century. Catholic schools came under state control in 1918, mainly as a result of financial need, but also reassured that they would maintain theological autonomy. At present approximately 15% of schools in Scotland are catholic, although many of their pupils may be from non-Catholic backgrounds.

One hundred years on from, in 1972, the Millar Report was published which was made the case for non-confessional Religious and Moral Education (RME) in non-denominational schools. A number of events and trends had led to a perceived crisis in Scottish RE in the 1960’s. Until this point RE was taught out by non-specialist teachers in primary and secondary schools and was firmly centred on Bible reading. The incongruity of RE provision, as it existed at the time, came to a head for 4 main reasons

  1. Educational insight into the appropriateness of Bible lessons for children as young as five;
  2. The rise of secularisation to unarguable levels in teachers, pupils and society at large;
  3. The emergence of a multifaith society, and
  4. 20th century Biblical scholarship and theology.

​Scottish Census and Social Attitudes Survey data, which has included questions on religiosity since 2001, charts a move from majority Christian affiliation. The Millar Report can be summarised as recommending non-confessional, multi-traditional (including non-religious traditions) RME delivered by specialist staff. It also acknowledged that in advocating non-confessional RME, on the grounds of respect for freedom of thought and because of the plural society, that there is a tension between this and the continuation of acts of worship in schools. The uneasy relationship between RME and Religious Observance (corporate acts of worship in schools) continues to be problematic within the non-denominational sector. In some schools to this day the two are conflated and in other schools RME staff continue to feel undermined by the persistence of acts of worship.

In 1982 national certification for RE was introduced for third- and fourth-year pupils in the secondary   school (ages 14-16). The content would provide a rough template for RE in that these courses allowed pupils to study world religions, moral issues and issues of belief or philosophy. 

From 1999 Scottish secondary schools have been offering Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies (RMPS) national qualifications and units. Units from the suite of qualifications are predominantly offered in third and fourth year core RME time, rather than as an elective. The majority of these concern morality and values. This increase in certificated provision in RME (RMPS) may be part of a drive to enhance the credibility of RE in schools. The prevalence of units dealing with moral philosophy, philosophy of religion and philosophy of science may reflect on teachers’ perceptions that such content may sit better with an increasingly secular pupil population. The desire, by some non-denominational RE teachers to rebrand the subject RMPS may also be born of this perception.

​Within the current curricular guidance (Curriculum for Excellence) ‘RME’ has been acknowledged as one of 8 ‘Curriculum Areas’ that should inform curricular planning. Curricular ‘experiences and outcomes’ were created for Catholic and non-faith RE in 2008, though it should be noted that, despite this separation of provision at core level, children from Catholic and non-faith schools are presented for the same national qualifications and that this has been the case since the creation of RE certificates in the 1980’s.

A number of issues are current within RE/RME/RMPS in Scotland and have been discussed and debated in research:

  • The nomenclature and related aims and content of the subject
  • The continuation of the right of conscientious withdrawal
  • The confusion with Religious Observance, particularly in Primary schools
  • The uniqueness of developments in Scottish RE as well as comparison with other countries
  • Qualifications required to become a teacher of RE given the multifarious nature of provision
  • The move to faculty managements models in secondary schools which have seen RE typically con-joined with History, Geography and Modern Studies (Politics) in a Humanities faculty rather than being a distinct department. There are concerns that this development may marginalise RE.

Education Scotland area for RME & RERC. Contains curricular and statutory guidance:

General Teaching Council (Scotland) Memorandum for Entry to Teaching
Scottish Government Impact Report on RE/RME

A selection of research papers:

Matemba, Y.H., 2015. Mismatches between legislative policy and school practice in religious education: The Scottish case. Religious Education, 110(1), pp.70–94.

Nixon, G. 2018 Conscientious withdrawal from religious education in Scotland: anachronism or necessary right?, British Journal of Religious Education, 40:1, 6–19 

Nixon, G., Smith, D. and Fraser-Pearce, J., 2021. Irreligious Educators? An Empirical Study of the Academic Qualifications,(A) theistic Positionality, and Religious Belief of Religious Education Teachers in England and Scotland. Religions12(3), p.184.

Nixon, G. 2012. The Emergence of Philosophy within Scottish Secondary School Religious Education. PhD Thesis, University of Aberdeen.

Scholes, S.C., 2020. Challenges and Opportunities in Religious Education: Re-Considering Practitioners’ Approaches in Scottish Secondary Schools. Religious Education115(2), pp.184–200.

Smith, D., Nixon, G. & Pearce, J., 2018. Bad Religion as False Religion: An Empirical Study of UK Religious Education Teachers’ Essentialist Religious Discourse. Religions, 9(11), p.361.