MSPs have condemned "unacceptable" attacks on Catholic schools and hit back at claims that faith-based education could fuel sectarianism.
In a parliamentary debate led by Labour MSP and former teacher Elaine Smith on the "positive contribution" of Catholic schools, every speaker expressed their support for the sector, while education secretary John Swinney said the government did so “without equivocation”.
Ms Smith said: “Despite being in existence since 1918, faith schools have, sadly, again come under attack under the guise of ending sectarianism in Scotland. However, the issue in Scotland that needs urgently addressed is anti-Catholicism.
“Roman Catholics are subject to more attacks than all other religious groups combined; indeed, half of all reported religiously aggravated hate crimes are against Roman Catholics. The recent comments by a former senior police officer, who claimed that Catholic schools should be abolished in the bid to end sectarianism, are unacceptable.”
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She added: “That claim not only attempts to blame victims for the crimes, it flies in the face of reality. If sectarianism could be resolved simply by the removal of Catholic schools, how do we explain and resolve other forms of prejudice and religious discrimination? There are 2,000 Catholic schools in England and Wales; if Catholic schools cause sectarianism, why is it not an issue there?
“It is perfectly obvious that abolishing Catholic schools would not end the attacks on Catholics in Scotland."
Address the Scottish Parliament yesterday, Ms Smith said that Catholic schools’ ethos was “one of inclusivity and non-discrimination”, adding: “Parents of other faiths and none also choose Catholic schools for their children, which shows that their appeal goes beyond the Catholic community.”
She said: “While I was teaching, I was aware of the exceptional academic encouragement in the schools and of pupils being inspired to lead good lives built on Christian values, personal integrity and moral courage. That is the very opposite of the hate-filled sectarian bigotry.”
Education secretary John Swinney said: “It is vital that our support for Catholic education is expressed without equivocation; I do that positively and enthusiastically in the Parliament this evening. The Scottish government remains an unequivocal supporter of Catholic education.
“We value the contribution that Catholic schools and faith schools make and we are determined to ensure that the tradition is maintained in Scotland as a vital element of the Scottish education system.”
He added that “there is absolutely no substance to the suggestion that denominational schools cause sectarianism”.
Mr Swinney also said: “The government is committed to tackling today’s inequalities, and Catholic schools play a key role in that. Our Catholic schools contribute to all Scotland’s communities. Like nondenominational schools, they serve some of our most deprived communities and provide an important route out of poverty through the high-quality, values-based education that they provide.”
He added that Catholic schools make “a vital contribution to building a diverse, tolerant and loving society” and highlighted that his youngest son is being “wonderfully educated” at a Catholic primary.
Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith said that Catholic always “showed a very strong performance” in school league tables.
She added: “The Catholic Church has more than a millennium of experience in education and the holistic development of young people…whether that be educational, cultural, social or spiritual, has always been central to the Catholic structure of schooling, not only in Scotland but worldwide.”
Ms Smith said: “To those who argue that separating and encouraging fundamental lines of difference in schooling is contentious and leads to religious, ethnic and socioeconomic division, my response is that such an education may actually help young people to recognise and appreciate what lies around them.”
She added: “We have a lot to learn from the Catholic form of education, in terms of the tolerance with which their young people are imbued, and their understanding and appreciation of others’ cultural histories and divides."
But Ms Smith also said that "we should do more to encourage close partnerships between denomination-based schools".
Labour education spokesman Iain Gray, a former teacher, said Catholic schools “are an important reflection of our desire for a tolerant, diverse and inclusive state education system” and a “bulwark against sectarianism”.
SNP MSP Joan McAlpine referred to a recent social media post from Scottish comic book writer Mark Millar – known for Kick-Ass and his Spider-Man comics – who recently posted concerns on social media that he had heard a number of politicians saying Catholic schools should be abolished.
Ms McAlpine said: “I do not know who they were – I have never heard any politicians say that privately. I think that the turnout for the debate from across Parliament shows that Parliament is fully in support of Catholic schools.”