Let us pay: £10m bill to axe religion in schools

A referendum costing millions would be required to decide future of religious assemblies in city schools. Picture: David Jones/PA

A referendum costing millions would be required to decide future of religious assemblies in city schools. Picture: David Jones/PA

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A MOVE to scrap religious assemblies in Edinburgh’s schools would land the city with a £10 million bill, councillors have been warned.

It has emerged that if the council wants to end the practice, the 1980 Education Act requires it to hold a city-wide referendum to get the backing of voters.

And as the last Edinburgh referendum – on congestion charging in 2005 – cost £9 million, officials have calculated this would cost at least ten per cent more.

The potential bill was revealed as rival petitions for and against religious observance were debated by the city council’s petitions committee.

Committee convener Maggie Chapman said: “Religious observance is enshrined in the Education Act and a referendum is the only way it can be removed. I don’t think there is much appetite for that given it will cost millions of pounds when we are considering so many cuts.”

Secularist campaigners say they are happy for schools to provide religious education, which they say teaches “about belief”, but not religious observance, which teaches “to believe”. But their petition to the council sparked a rival one, claiming that Christianity was being 
marginalised.

Tory councillor Jeremy Balfour said holding a referendum on the issue would not be a good use of taxpayers’ money at a time of austerity. He said: “No constituent has ever contacted me about this. I don’t think it is a pressing issue for the people of Edinburgh.

“I think the majority of people think it’s good to have some kind of religious observance in schools.”

Liberal Democrat group leader Paul Edie added: “I’m not sure this is what we would want to spend £10m on at the moment.”

But he said: “There is a significant opinion against religious observance in schools and we have to recognise that. There must be a better way of determining this than a hugely expensive referendum.”

Gary McLelland, chairman of the Edinburgh Secular Society, said the provision for a referendum on abolishing religious observance had also been part of the 1872 Education Act, which “suggests there was some dubiety about the practice even then”.

He said: “We don’t know the full costs of any referendum. With modern technology it’s possible it could be done much cheaper. Schools are not just for parents, teachers and pupils, they are social establishments paid for by the residents of Edinburgh and they are entitled to a say in whether religious practices are allowed.”

Veronica Wikman, who brought the petition calling for an end to religious observance, suggested: “The referendum need not cost so much if you combined it with another 
election.”

The issue will now go to the education committee for 
consideration.

iswanson@edinburghnews.com