A STUDY investigating how much privilege religion receives under Scottish law has found the influence of churches has increased in education over the past 140 years.

The initial findings from the research, which was carried out by researchers at Glasgow University and is being published tomorrow, is expected to say there has been a general pattern of diminishing statutory support for religion in many areas in an increasingly secularised society. But it will conclude education has bucked this trend since state schooling was created in 1872, by changes which have strengthened the place of religion in schools.

The project, which is the first study of its kind in more than 100 years, was funded by £40,000 from the Humanist Society Scotland (HSS) and the findings will be discussed at the HSS annual conference, which is taking place in Edinburgh today.

Study leader Callum Brown, professor of late modern European history at Glasgow University, said that when the state took over education from churches in 1872, the law that was created was “woolly” over the role of churches.

He said: “The churches' biggest role came through clergymen standing for election to run what were then called elected school boards, which ran the education system in Scotland.

“It was through their popular election that the churches retained their influence, rather than the churches having a statutory influence.

“What has happened in the 20th and into the 21st century is a statutory position has come into being.

“For instance, from 1929 onwards religious education for schoolchildren was effectively made compulsory."

Brown said the biggest change had happened “remarkably late” in 1973, when the Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church were given representation on local authority education committees.

He added: “Before 1973 there was just an ad-hoc acknowledgement that the churches had to be consulted about education, largely in relation to religious education and religious observance. But from 1973 it is made statutory.

“My feeling the reason it happened is that it came straight after the trauma for the churches of secularisation in the 1960s - it was a very challenging decade of change in society, and it may well be the churches were strongly seeking some kind of safety net for their position in the school system at that time.”

Gordon MacRae, chief executive of HSS, said he hoped the “landmark" report would trigger debate and discussion about the future shape of society in Scotland.

He said: “The report comes just a few weeks after the latest Scottish Household Survey show that 47% - nearly in one in two people in Scotland – identify with no religion.

“We think the time is right to be having a discussion in Scotland about how do we create the society that reflects the values and outlooks of the people of Scotland in 2015?”

However Father Thomas Boyle, assistant general secretary of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, said churches and other religious bodies had ceded much of their day-to-day control of Scottish schools to the state in modern times.

“Since the reign of James IV and the passing of the very first Education Act in the world in 1496, schools in Scotland have been a partnership between church and state,” he said. “Modern legislation reflects this historical partnership.”