THE number of parents withdrawing primary school children from class prayers in the Capital has more than doubled.
181 pupils at 31 schools are now opting out of religious observance (RO) – up from 74 over the 2013-14 session – with secular campaigners claiming mums and dads are far more confident about removing children.
Organisations including Scripture Union, Bible Alive, Prayer Space and the Gideons are regularly allowed into city schools to conduct religiously themed activities such as lunchtime clubs and poetry readings.
It is thought the opt-out surge has been driven by parents’ greater awareness of RO after high-profile media campaigns, as well as non-Christian residents who feel uneasy about their children taking part.
The increase follows a petition from mum-of-one Veronica Wikman, 50, which called for a local vote on discontinuing RO – which includes prayers in assembly and events such as Harvest festivals – in Edinburgh’s non-denominational schools amid fears it is a front for indoctrinating pupils.
Ms Wikman said the numbers withdrawing, while small compared to the total primary school roll, would continue to soar in line with a growing tendency among parents to say they do not follow any religion.
She said: “It’s possibly to do with the media coverage that there has been on the issue over the past couple of years – people will have become more aware of RO. Maybe they did not really know about this before so much and have started to look into it.
“I’m not surprised at the rise. More and more people are turning away from religion so it’s natural this will be reflected in the number of people opting out.”
However, a jump in the number of primary school children withdrawing from RO was not reflected in equivalent figures for high schools, where there was only a marginal increase in pupils opting out.
Ms Wikman said: “I think the lower increase in high schools could possibly be that there’s a lot more interest in coming into primary schools among evangelical organisations – they target primary school children.”
Church of Scotland leaders said they recognised a parent’s right to withdraw children but insisted RO offered valuable opportunities for reflecting on different points of view and values.
A spokesman said: “Chaplains are only ever there if the school invites them in. They are not trying to convert children. They are essentially raising awareness of spirituality, of otherness, a sense of something other than materialism.”
Neil Barber, of Edinburgh Secular Society, said: “Lots of people are exasperated by compulsory RO in schools but have never been prepared to be that weird parent who takes their kid out of class.
“But there’s a growing consciousness among parents that they’re not alone and that’s why the figures are going up.”
A city council spokesman said: “The Scottish Government has been clear that they see a place for Religious Observance, or Time for Reflection, in schools, so we are seeking to implement their guidance to ensure that pupils are confident in expressing their own beliefs and values, and to help them develop an understanding of and empathy towards others.”