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Bishops round on critics of schools

David Henderson reports from the Catholic secondary heads' annual conference in Crieff

THERE is precious little evidence that mixing children together in school will remove sectarianism, Donal McKeown, Bishop of Down and Connor, last week told Roman Catholic secondary heads at their annual conference in Crieff.

Research four years ago by the Department of Education for Northern Ireland had found that there was "little evidence one way or the other to support claims about the efficacy of integrated schools", Bishop McKeown said.

In fact, studies appeared to prove that Catholic schools in Northern Ireland were more committed to cross-community work.

He said: "If we assume that the problem is just to do with Catholics not getting on with Protestants, then integrated schools are the logical answer. However, if you have another essentially political - as distinct from sectarian - interpretation of the problem, then the solutions may need to be found elsewhere."

Two years ago, Northern Ireland's bishops agreed to promote a culture of tolerance and integration as an outcome of education.

Bishop McKeown's remarks were designed to reinforce the determination of the Catholic sector in Scotland to fight off what Archbishop Mario Conti of Glasgow described in a written conference welcome as "repeated attacks" on the existence of denominational schools.

Archbishop Conti maintained that schools are "one of the richest instruments we have for the communication of our Catholic faith, gospel values and the culture that comes from them". He added: "More than ever, this culture as a countersign to the prevailing culture of the day is needed."

Since Jack McConnell, the First Minister, lent his support in the last Parliament to the campaign against sectarianism, Catholic schools have been seen as fair game by their secular critics, even though Mr McConnell has repeatedly defended them. The debate around joint campuses under the public private partnership initiative has intensified the arguments.

But Bishop McKeown found it strange that Catholic schools were under attack when they had never been more open institutions.

He agreed with other commentators that Catholic education was seen as unacceptable only in those countries with certain forms of fundamentalist Christianity - Northern Ireland, Scotland and the southern United States.

Other evidence in Scotland showed "ongoing deliberate discrimination" against Catholics in white-collar jobs such as banking, offices and hospitals.

Leader, page 26

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