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Assembly avoids clash over religious schools

Education has always been close to the heart of the Church of Scotland. The General Assembly last week heard debates on state funding for religious schools, school closures, theological training and university tuition fees. Neil Munro reports

THE EAGERLY anticipated debate on segregated education at last week's General Assembly of the Church of Scotland proved to be much ado about nothing.

Pressure in the form of an overture by Dumbarton Presbytery for "the cessation of religious segregation in all state secondary schools" was overtaken by the decision of the Church's education committee to review its policy in any case.

Indeed, the Rev John Cairns from Dumbarton told the Assembly it should in effect vote against his motion. This was because he wanted it withdrawn after winning the undertaking of a review from the education committee, but it was too late to do so.

Andrew Blake, the committee's convener, said that the commitment by Parliament to fund denominational schools dates from 1918 legislation. Since 1972 the Church has had a clear policy that all state funded schools should be non-denominational. But this was a majority view, not a unanimous one. Mr Blake, the retired head of Lockerbie Academy, said it was therefore time "to review the Church's position taking into account factors in the present situation which were not there for discussion either in 1918 or 1972".

Speaking to The TESS afterwards, Mr Blake would not speculate on the outcome. He said there was a feeling simply that 20 year old policies ought to be revisited.

But it seems clear there is concern in church circles at the growing pressure from other religious groups, including Muslims, Seventh Day Adventists and Presbyterian sects, to set up their own schools with state help. This could eclipse the Kirk.

Mr Cairns gave notice, however, that he would expect next year's report from the Church's education committee to confirm that Scottish schools should reflect "the ethos of a nation that shares many things, that is multi-cultural, multi-faithed and multi-denominational." He said the state should not support only one faith.

He was not attacking any particular denomination, Mr Cairns insisted, merely suggesting that "our education system be made more contemporary".

Different concerns were expressed by Rev Howard Hudson from Bridgeton, in the east end of Glasgow. He wanted the Church review to investigate the balance between denominational and non-denominational pupils in west of Scotland schools.

The trend towards a more secular society had led parents to send their children to the local school irrespective of its denominational nature, Mr Hudson said. This meant some Catholic schools had significant proportions of non-Catholic pupils.

But he was told by David Alexander, one of the Assembly commissioners and a former senior depute director of education in Strathclyde, that no education authority holds information about the religion of its pupils.

A warning not to tamper with the status quo came in the form of a passionate but carefully worded defence of Catholic schools from the RC observer attending the Assembly.

The Rt Rev Dom Hugh Gilbert, the Abbot of Pluscarden in Moray, said: "As long as Catholic Christian families want a Catholic Christian education for their children, the Church regards that as a service she is bound to provide."

He denied this amounted to segregation or produced bigotry. "It is no more true that a Catholic school is intrinsically a cause of bigotry than that a Church of Scotland home for the elderly is a source of Christian intolerance.

"Bigotry, where it exists, must be unlearnt from within our own Christian tradition, not from imposing a secular culture which might be here today and gone tomorrow."

Rt Rev Gilbert added that insisting on non-denominational schooling "would be more probably a victory for secular intolerance than Christian tolerance. It would be a victory for the monochrome against the healthily pluralist. It would impoverish our society.

"Many of you will know how hard it can be to maintain a Christian toehold in certain schools. Our young people deserve more than RE. They need more than that. They have a right to more than that."

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