RELIGIOUS influence on education in Scotland has been "significantly strengthened" in recent years, according to a landmark report.

The Religion in Scots Law report found that while other areas of public life – including marriage – have become more secular, education is the "major exception".

The research points to an "increasing" influence on schools - a finding which has been disputed by both the Catholic Church and Church of Scotland, which claims its role in education is "measured and appropriate".

The Humanist Society Scotland, which instructed the report, argues that the time has come for a move toward a more secular education system.

The report, produced by Glasgow University, states: "For the most part, in other areas, the general trend has for some time been towards the secularisation of the law.

"The major exception to this is education.

"Education is an area in which the influence of religion has changed its form, but has in many ways been increasing.

"There is no question that education in the school classroom and the university lecture theatre has been secularising. But this is in contrast to changes in curricular and governance structures which have not diminished, but rather strengthened the place of religion."

At present there are 370 denominational schools in Scotland – 366 Catholic, three Episcopalian and one Jewish.

The Catholic Church continues to have the right to discriminate in favour of Catholic staff and pupils in denominational schools, while council education committees must reserve three places for religious representatives one from the Catholic Church, one from the Church of Scotland and another for an alternative religious group.

There are also rules governing the amount of time which should be set aside for "religious observance" in schools.

The Humanist Society believes there is now a need for reform.

Society chief executive Gordon MacRae said: "For us the most significant theme in the report is a weakening of the position of religion in Scots law in all areas, except education; where it has been significantly strengthened in recent years.

"Humanist Society Scotland supports the move towards an inclusive, secular education system where children and teachers are not discriminated against because of their religion or belief."

He added: "This report will be a key catalyst for the ongoing public debate about the role of religion in education. In the coming weeks and months we will be outlining our position for reform of the education system in Scotland."

A spokesman for the Church of Scotland said it had been a "defining force" in shaping Scotland's education system.

He added: "Today we retain an active interest in the moral and spiritual development of children. We believe this is measured and appropriate given that churches and faith groups of every kind are invited to reflect the traditions and beliefs which are a significant part of our common culture through religious observance and Time for Reflection.

"Repeated scrutiny of the current arrangements by Members of the Scottish Parliament in recent years has not found any compelling need for change."

Catholic Church spokesman Peter Kearney argued that, in some ways, religious influence on education has diminished - pointing to the move away from religious observance of "Christian character" in non-denominational schools.

He added: "When the Catholic Church agreed to hand over all of its schools to the state, part of that agreement was that they would continue to represent the interests of the Catholic Church.

"That's why the church continues to have a role in some aspects - that was the agreement with the state."

Mr Kearney also suggested that the Humanist Society should "put their money where their mouth is" and set up their own schools representing their views if they feel so strongly about it.