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Catholic chestnuts

IT'S that time again. We should be used to surveys telling us that the Scottish public want Roman Catholic schools phased out - 81 per cent now, according to the Nat-ional Centre for Social Research, compared with 76 per cent in 1992. If it is not Catholic schools, the spotlight is on the future of independent schools or another old favourite of pollsters - spanking.

The chestnut of whether Catholic schools promote bigotry is one that will never be pulled out of the fire. Nobody who knows anything about the regimes in Catholic schools, staffed at the end of the day by teaching professionals, would ever suggest they actively promote intolerance. That is not to say, of course, that what some may regard as the privileged position of Catholic schools does not inspire intolerance in others. The litmus test is to ask the question: would sectarianism disappear tomorrow if Catholic schools disappeared tomorrow? The very question is implausible.

But at a time when the Church of Scotland minister who leads the education authority in Edinburgh is moved by the spirituality of Catholic schools to suggest that non-denominational schools need a good dose of a similar ethos and when we have an Executive that claims it is not going to be distracted by diversions (not least in this case, losing its traditional Catholic vote) and when Tony Blair is embracing faith schools in England, this may be the least propitious time for the issue to be given serious consideration.

Moreover, it was only last year that Jack McConnell, as Education Minister, went to the Catholic headteachers' conference to commend their schools for having the "very best" ethos and achievement. Not only that, he anticipated the argument by Edinburgh's Rev Ewan Aitken in last week's TES Scotland by suggesting that non-denominational schools had much to learn from their Catholic brethren. Barring some self-propelled, lemming-like rush for the cliff edge, Catholic schools should feel secure for some time yet.

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