Religious observance in special schools

As you may have read elsewhere, the Humanist Society of Scotland are bringing a judicial review against the Scottish Government’s decision not to review the law in relation to religious observance in schools.  At present, the law affords an opt-out for parents, but not for children.

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Following on from recommendations from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child at the last UK “inspection”, the Humanist Society called upon the Scottish Government to review the law to allow older children to take their own decision.  The Scottish Government have refused, stating:

“There is no equivalent statutory right to withdraw afforded to children and young people. However many schools will find it helpful and sensible to include young people in any discussions about opting out, ensuring their wishes are aired.”

My own views on this are already on record elsewhere, and have been for some time:

“The right to withdraw from religious instruction or observance is given to the parent of a pupil, rather than to the pupil themselves. In light of more recent legislation, including the Human Rights Act 1998 (cf. art.9: freedom of thought, conscience and religion) and the Equality Act 2010, schools should also have regard to the views of the child in relation to such matters.”

And what does the law actually say?  It can be found in three main places, which is not always appreciated.  As always the legislation is written as if all children have only one parent (or two who always agree on everything) – there is no rule for what happens if parents disagree about religious observance!

First, Section 9 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 sets out the basic rule, under the section heading “Conscience clause”, which is to the effect that the parent of a pupil at a public school has the right to withdraw them from “any instruction in religious subjects” and “any religious observance” in any public school or grant-aided school.  Interestingly, the term “pupil” is used here, rather than child – so the right remains with parents in relation to pupils even after they have turned 16.  Remember also that this is a right to withdraw, not a right to ensure participation.  Arguably – and this may indeed be what the Scottish Government end up arguing – a child or young person who wishes to withdraw from religious observance could insist on other rights (the Human Rights Act 1998 or Scotland Act 1998 in terms of their Article 9 rights) to achieve that result.  There is nothing in this preventing the school from granting such a request.

The children’s rights issue arising from Section 9 would be where a pupil wishes to participate in religious observance – and is prevented from doing so by reason of a parent’s withdrawal request.  An interesting cause for the Humanist Society to be taking up!

Section 10 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 (“Safeguards for religious beliefs”) applies to pupils who board at a residential school (or at a hostel for educational purposes).  This affords parents the right to insist on the child being permitted to attend worship, receive religious instruction and participate in religious observance in accordance with the tenets of their parents’ religion.  There is no equivalent to this for the child, but again the duty on the school is to permit the child to do these things (outside school hours and not incurring unreasonable costs) – there is no requirement to compel the pupil to take part.  Nor is there anything preventing the school from allowing the pupil to participate in worship in relation to their own religious beliefs (if they differ from those of their parents).

Finally, Regulation 12(3) of the Schools (General) Regulations 1975 applies to pupils at a special school (includes a special unit within a mainstream school).  This ensures that no education authority may compel a pupil to attend religious observance or receive religious instruction against the wishes of their parents.  Further, it requires the authority to give the parent an opportunity to express their wishes – a requirement not present in the other sections.  Again, the children’s rights issue which may arise is that of a child who wishes to attend religious observance – although this could be permitted, so long as it is not compelled!

The law is no doubt in need of revision – even the terminology barely fits modern educational practice – particularly in non-denominational schools.  However, the Scottish Government’s position is that the law does comply with pupils’ Convention Rights (when read with the guidance and Curriculum for Excellence).  Given the nature of the duties set out above, this may just be correct – although there may be a question mark over how well schools understand this.  If there is an area where the law may breach a pupil’s Convention rights it is for the child who wishes to attend religious observance, but is prevented from doing so because of their parent’s decision to withdraw them.

 

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State funding for “independent” schools?

An interesting development. Today’s Herald carries an article on the Glasgow Steiner School seeking direct state funding, following the fire which effectively closed the school back in 2013.  (“Steiner school hit by blaze in landmark bid for state funding”, 20 June 2016)

As the article points out, this is the latest group to seek direct Scottish Government funding for their school, following in the well documented footsteps of St. Joseph’s Primary School in Milngavie.

The Scottish Government already have all of the powers they need to grant the Steiner School’s request.  Section 73 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 allows the Scottish Ministers, by regulation, to pay grants to the managers of any educational establishment, and to “any other persons” for providing education or educational services. Section 74(1) allow conditions to be imposed on such grant payments.  This is how Jordanhill School is funded.

No primary legislation would be required. It would be a politically huge step to take, no doubt. Especially in the case of the Steiner School which, as I understand it, runs a different curriculum (i.e. not Curriculum for Excellence).

From a legal perspective, there are two points to consider here.

The first is that both St. Joseph’s and the Glasgow Steiner School are making, essentially the same argument that St. Mary’s Episcopal Primary School made in the case of Dove v. Scottish Ministers back in 2001/02.

The argument is essentially this – the Scottish Ministers directly fund Jordanhill School as a mainstream “grant-aided” school; so why not us? Jordanhill is an anomoly within the system, and maybe some day it will be altered – but until then it can be explained away as a historical curiosity, unique circumstances etc.

Funding other schools directly definitely would open the floodgates, the “why not us?” case becoming more and more difficult to answer each time an exception is made. Maybe the Scottish Government are keen to have more autonomous grant-aided schools but, if so, it should surely be on the basis of a national policy and one which is accessible to all schools who might choose to opt in, not just those which the best PR skills.

From that point of view, and even if this were being done on a “pilot” basis, the proposals have very different implications.  Fund the Steiner school, and the Scottish Government is allowing parents at an independent school to depart from Curriculum for Excellence, and funding them to do so.  Fund St. Joseph’s in Milngavie, and what does that do to East Dunbartonshire Council’s primary school estate planning?

Secondly, in the background, the Scottish Government is still working through the implementation of the Doran Review recommendations – part of which may have a major implication for the seven special schools in Scotland which currently receive direct grant funding from Scottish Government.

Introducing new mechanisms for direct grant funding from Scottish Government in the middle of that process would be complicated to say the least.  It would be problematic to try and insist that any new system could only apply to mainstream schools.  And, if the Scottish Government were open to encouraging parent controlled schools which may take different approaches to education, then projects like the Stoa School in Edinburgh may well be very interested indeed.

While superficially attractive, moves to direct funding of schools by Scottish Government would create more problems than it solves.  Without major structural (and legislative) changes to the way in which education is managed and delivered in Scotland, it is basically a non-starter.

Photo of Rudolf Steiner, 1905 (public domain) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waldorf_education#/media/File:Steiner_um_1905.jpg

Term-time holidays – the law in Scotland

Big news in education law as Jon Platt, a father from the Isle of White, was cleared of a criminal offence in terms of Section 444(1) of the Education Act 1996.  Having been acquitted by a Magistrate following a seven day absence for a family holiday to Florida, the High Court agreed that the court was entitled to look at the overall record of attendance in determining whether a child had failed to attend school regularly.

Is this decision of relevance to education authorities in Scotland?  In a word, yes.  The legislation is worded in similar terms.  An offence arises in England or Wales where a pupil “fails to attend regularly at the school” – though a defence of “reasonable justification” may arise in some circumstances.  In terms of Section 35(1) of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, the offence occurs where a child of school age “fails without reasonable excuse to attend regularly at the said school”.

Scottish Office guidance on school attendance was formerly that up to two weeks of family holiday could be regarded as an authorised absence, where attendance was otherwise good.  However, in 2007 the Scottish Government published Included, Engaged and Involved Part 1: Attendance in Scottish Schools, which took a distinctly harder line.

3.6 Family holidays during term time

Following consultation with headteachers, it has been clarified that family holidays should not be recorded as authorised absence, except in exceptional domestic circumstances, where a family needs time together to recover from distress, or where a parent’s employment is of a nature where school-holiday leave cannot be accommodated ( e.g. armed services or emergency services). It is for local authorities and schools to judge when these circumstances apply and authorise absence, accordingly.

The categorisation of most term-time holidays as unauthorised absence has been a contentious issue for some families, many of whom are concerned at the higher cost of holidays during school holiday periods. The Scottish Government has no control over the pricing decisions of holiday companies or flight operators. Our main focus is to encourage parents and pupils to recognise the value of learning and the pitfalls of disrupting learning for the pupil, the rest of the class and the teacher. It is for schools and education authorities to judge what sanctions, if any, they may wish to apply to unauthorised absence due to holidays.

Note that this change to the guidance, which effectively seeks to alter who can be prosecuted for a criminal offence was done without any alteration to the law.  Similar changes were attempted in a similar way south of the border, and now it seems that these efforts have been undone by the courts in dramatic fashion.

Despite differences in the systems, in my view, it is very likely that courts in Scotland would adopt a similar approach to the interpretation of the phrase “attend regularly” – although it should be noted (anecdotally) that the Scottish Courts already take a more lenient approach to sentencing in such cases than the English Courts which have jailed at least one parent for her child’s non-attendance.

It is all but certain that solicitors representing parents being prosecuted in Scotland will be making this argument in appropriate cases from now on.  At the time of writing, the Scottish Government have not responded formally to the judgement, but the Department of Education in Whitehall are already talking about changes to the law.  At the very least, north of the border, education authorities may wish to consider carefully which cases are brought before the courts in future.

The author, Iain Nisbet, is a member of the Attendance Council for his local area.

When is school not at school?

Section 1 of the Standards in Scotland’s Schools etc. Act 2000 says that every child of school age (roughly: ages 5-16) has the right to “school education” by, or arranged by, an education authority.

However, not every child of school age receives education by way of education at a school or other establishment.

Some children are, of course, home educated.  But even where the education authority remain responsible for a child’s school education, the law requiring “school education” does not necessarily imply that the education will be provided in a school.

For example, in Section 3(2) of the 2000 Act, education authorities are obliged to secure improvement in school education provided in their schools; and in s.3(3), those duties “shall apply also in relation to school education which is provided in pursuance of any arrangements made, or entered into, by an education authority under (a) section 14 of the 1980 Act; or (b) section 35 of this Act.” that is education while excluded from school or unable to attend school due to ill-health; and nursery education provided by partnership nurseries.

Section 16 of the 2000 Act forbids corporal punishment given by, or on the authority of, a member of staff to “a pupil .. for whom school education is provided by an education authority (whether or not at a school);”

In the Explanatory Notes to the Standards in Scotland’s Schools etc. Act 2000, it is explained that “Section 16(1)(a) covers school education provided by an education authority, whether at school or elsewhere, for example at home or in hospital.”

Section 277 of the Mental Health (Care & Treatment) (Scotland) Act 2003, amends Section 14 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 to require education authorities to make arrangements for “school education” for children unable to attend school because they are subject to compulsory measures authorised by the 2003 Act or, in consequence of their mental disorder, by the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) 1995 Act.

The legal definitions of “pupil”, “primary education” and “secondary education”, found in the 1980 Act, do not necessarily require attendance at school or any other establishment.

This is of relevance in the context of new duties to be introduced by Section 21 of the Education (Scotland) Act 2016.  Section 21 introduces a new Section 2ZA (“Learning hours”) which requires education authorities and grant-aided schools to provide a minimum number of learning hours per annum for every pupil.

Section 2ZA(12) defines “learning hours” as “hours of school education of such type as may be prescribed”.  Much may depend on the precise form of the regulations which are to follow, but it is worth noting that this definition does not necessarily require all (or any) of these learning hours to take place at school.