Comment: Schools must defend respect and tolerance

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For millions of Scots the main experience of religious observance has been at school. Prayers at morning assembly, harvest festival services and celebrations around Christmas time were timeless markers on the school calendar.

But might all this be soon consigned to the past?

New figures show that the number of parents withdrawing primary school children from class prayers in the Capital has more than doubled.

Some 180 pupils across 31 schools are now opting out, up from 74 in the 2013-14 year.

Secular campaigners say parents are now more confident about removing children from “RO”.

But we don’t have a breakdown of why parents are making this decision. And until we do, we should avoid jumping to conclusions about Edinburgh becoming a more secular city.

Moreover, the jump in primary school children withdrawing from RO is not reflected in equivalent figures for high schools, where there has been only a marginal increase in pupils opting out.

The figures may reflect parental concern about grooming after a series of highly publicised cases. Or it may be symptomatic of an increasingly multi-faith society – a preference for instruction in other faiths rather than a rise in secularism.

While more parents may no longer consider ourselves as belonging to a particular religion, it’s clear a large majority are not antagonistic to religious observation, particularly as the teaching of Christianity has itself become more secular and more tolerant of other faiths.

And parents continue to 
value schooling that provides guidance between right and wrong and a grounding in ethical behaviour.

But in an increasingly multi-faith age, parents have a choice, and it is right that they are able to exercise this.

It is this fundamental principle of tolerance and respect for other people’s beliefs that our schools must defend. This is particularly the case when anti-Islamic protesters take to the streets of the Capital.

Such demonstrations may draw little support from local residents but can work to legitimise religious intolerance and give succour to those who see their prejudices confirmed in public.

The message from the overwhelming majority of people in Edinburgh is one of tolerance and respect for the contribution that those of differing faiths make to the life, work and culture of the city.