Voting powers on education committees
Voting by Church/Religious Representatives on Local Authority Education Committees
Following discussions in a number of local authorities connected with the voting powers of Church/Religious representatives on local authority education committees, the Church of Scotland offers the following comments and reflections.
The Church of Scotland has a commitment to serving our nation and our communities. The Kirk's constitution, the Articles Declaratory, whose lawfulness was declared by Parliament in the Church of Scotland Act 1921, affirm that we are a national Church and that we have a distinctive call and duty to every person in Scotland, whether or not they are Christian or a Church of Scotland member. The Articles Declaratory also state that we acknowledge the "authority of the civil magistrate" within their own sphere, and that "the Church and State owe mutual duties to each other, and acting within their respective spheres may signally promote each other's welfare". They go on to say that "the Church and the State have the right to determine each for itself all questions concerning the extent and the continuance of their mutual relations in the discharge of these duties and the obligations arising therefrom."
In the work of education and schools, our contribution is offered to promote the common good and in the highest interests of all people. Where we are present, in committees, in schools, in church and in community we seek to offer advice, challenge and affirmation to those charged with responsibility for caring for and educating our children and young people.
Our role in community gives the Church insight into the experiences of people struggling against poverty and marginalisation; the Church is often there alongside people in times of difficulty. Where we can our role will be to stand and speak alongside those in need, advocating for greater inclusion and equality for those who face additional barriers to attainment and achievement.
Through our extensive provision of youth and children's workers, the care and dedication of school chaplains, and our comprehensive safeguarding policies and culture, we are clear that we always put the welfare of children and young people first.
This means that our involvement in local authority education committees is free from party political influence. Our presence on committees is not about pursuing narrow or sectional self-interest of the Church of Scotland; we see it as a continuation of our calling to serve the people of Scotland.
The history of the Church of Scotland's involvement in the establishment of Scotland's schools and education system is well known. It was the early Reformers who led the call for ‘a school in every parish', to teach reading to all so that all may study the Bible. Since the handover of responsibility of schools to the state in 1872, the Church has continued to be involved in education matters, including representation on boards and committees.
Our continued presence on education committees is founded on this history. It has been recognised and by the Scottish Government and Parliament that it is justified that we continue to be formally present. This is not due solely to history but more importantly because of the positive examples of work that we do within our communities: this includes school chaplaincy, youth and children's work, and work alongside the poor and marginalised.
The Church of Scotland representatives on local authority education committees are chosen for their expertise and experience. They are often former teachers, school chaplains or have had a direct, real and recent understanding of what happens in a classroom. Their insights and knowledge can often be invaluable to share with politicians and others, allowing a wider diversity of ideas to be brought to the table.
Faith in public life
We acknowledge that we are entitled to a formal advisory role on education committees. We believe that we have a useful contribution to make whether or not our representatives have voting powers: in our experience very few decisions in local authority education committees are put to a vote, and in many circumstances the Church of Scotland representatives do not take part in voting, even where they have the powers to do so. Whatever decision is made by an individual local authority about the Church/Religious Representatives voting powers, we believe there remains a strong justification for the continued presence of Church of Scotland representatives to play a part in the life of local authority education committees.
We note there are others who may not share this view and consider the issue to be related to the principles of democracy, and that only directly elected representatives should be involved in public decision-making. We would observe that there are many local and national government bodies, boards, advisory groups and inquiries which have powers of expenditure and making high-profile recommendations for public policy where the members are not elected, but appointed based on merit. We also note that in other UK jurisdictions, Church representatives are appointed to decision-making bodies such as non-denominational school governing bodies.
Where discussions are being held in local authorities about removing voting powers for Church/Religious representatives, we have a particular concern for our sisters and brothers in the Catholic Church. In Scotland there is a particular place and role for Catholic education, and we recognise that removing voting powers is resisted by the Catholic Church for the sake of maintaining a degree of influence over policies with regards to its schools. We stand in solidarity with the Catholic Church and urge that particular weight be given to their arguments with regards to the distinctiveness of Catholic education.
We welcome public discussion and debate about what actually happens in local government decision-making. This also allows for an opportunity to consider the wider role of faith in public life, and in particular with regards to education and schools. While we are in the main untroubled by the removal of voting powers of Church/Religious representatives on local authority education committees (given the relative infrequency of votes and the higher rates of abstention by Church of Scotland representatives where there is a vote), we would strongly resist any moves to end the role of faith in education, such as removing the statutory requirement for the Church of Scotland to be represented on education committees, restricting the provision of school chaplaincy or diminishing the provision of Religious and Moral Education as part of the curriculum.
Request for public debate
We believe the role of the Church of Scotland representatives, and many representatives themselves, are held in high regard by those they work with: councillors, local authority staff members, teachers, parents/carers and children and young people. We aspire for their being fully involved in contributing to discussions to make a positive difference to the lives of schools and young people.
We fully respect the role of elected councillors. As is implied in the Articles Declaratory summarised above, we are here and willing to serve and contribute at the invitation and request of the State. Councillors undertake an important public service and we thank them for it. We also acknowledge the fundamental importance of democratic principles in our society.
We request that where a local authority is considering a change, that there is a discussion about the role of Church/Religious representatives and their involvement in the committee. This should be open, engaging, transparent and willing to listen to and respect different points of view. We encourage local authorities and councillors to speak to their Church of Scotland representative and to contact the relevant Church of Scotland Presbytery to engage with the views and ideas of people locally.
Status of this paper
This paper has been agreed by the Faith Action Programme Leadership Team and represents the position of the Church of Scotland. It was developed in the summer of 2023 and published on 25 October 2023. It will be reported to the General Assembly of 2024 for information and affirmation.