Scotland's chief law officer whose personal mission it is to stamp out hate crime has insisted that Catholic schools should not be held responsible for sectarianism.
Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland, who himself attended a Catholic school, said his own education had taught him the importance of values such as respect and equality. He told the annual conference of the Catholic Head Teachers' Associations of Scotland (CHAS) that he disagreed with claims that denominational schools promoted "bigotry and sectarianism".
Mr Mulholland's comments come after a major government-commissioned survey earlier this year found that 43 per cent of people in Scotland are opposed to denominational schools, while about 30 per cent believe they contribute to sectarianism (bit.lySSASresearch).
The Humanist Society Scotland criticised Mr Mulholland's position, saying that denominational schools "underscore an outdated notion of religious discrimination".
The Lord Advocate told delegates at the CHAS conference: "It's been said in some quarters that the cause of bigotry and sectarianism is Catholic schools. I completely disagree."
In the 1970s, Mr Mulholland attended Columba High School in Coatbridge, which was later merged with St Patrick's High to form St Andrew's High. Recalling his time there, he said: "I was taught nothing but respect, fairness, equality, love and compassion.I cannot think of any occasion when I was taught any form of bigotry."
`Zero tolerance' of hate crimes
Mr Mulholland spoke of his involvement in legal cases relating to some of Scotland's most notorious sectarian crimes. These included the 1995 murder of schoolboy and Celtic fan Mark Scott - in whose memory the anti-sectarian Nil By Mouth charity was founded - and the parcel bomb plot of 2011, which targeted Celtic manager Neil Lennon, lawyer Paul McBride and Trish Godman, former deputy presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament.
The Lord Advocate said he had dealt with cases of "young lads being thrown off a bridge for wearing the wrong scarf", and that there should be "zero tolerance for hate crime". But religiously aggravated crime had fallen in Scotland, he added, and education was "absolutely critical" to ensuring this trend continued.
Deputy first minister John Swinney, who also addressed the conference, said that he had a "deep respect" for Catholic education. "There are people at the heart of government in Scotland that have the confidence in the Catholic education system [and] entrust their children without hesitation into [its] moral environment," he added.
Michael McGrath, director of the Scottish Catholic Education Service, welcomed the comments by Mr Mulholland (pictured, right). "As a professional, he is supremely qualified to review claims that Catholic schools contribute to the problem of sectarianism," he said. "Having done so, he has dismissed all charges."
But the Humanist Society Scotland's chief executive, Gordon MacRae, disagreed. "There is ongoing debate within academia as to whether or not sectarianism is still prevalent in society today, never mind its causes," he said. "One thing is undeniably true, however: denominational schools underscore an outdated notion of religious discrimination."
`Anathema to equality'
The Education (Scotland) Act 1918, which enshrined denominational schools in the state education system, was designed to address "appalling levels of attendance and attainment" by children of Catholic and Irish immigrant families, Mr MacRae said, as well as the institutional sectarianism they faced.
But in modern times, he added, teachers needing the approval of the Catholic church to work in such schools was "completely anathema to the idea of equality". He also noted that the church retained control of areas such as religious education, religious observance and sex and relationships education.
"The Lord Advocate may wish to engage in aloof academic discourse about the causes of an incredibly complex phenomenon," Mr MacRae said. "However, I would be more interested to hear his defence of the clearly discriminatory legal arrangements."
Gerry McCormick (see panel, below), headteacher of Taylor High School in Motherwell, said that Catholic schools were keen to build bridges with other communities in Scotland.
"The importance of respect for others and for the wide range of faith practices is paramount in Catholic schools," he added. "Every school I have worked in over the past 35 years has given equal importance to this matter."
Earlier this year, TESS reported on research by Professor Stephen McKinney, of the University of Glasgow, which found little evidence that Catholic schools were a cause of sectarianism ("Research absolves Catholic schools of sectarianism", News, 27 February).
Bridging the gap between `them and us'
About 10 per cent of new pupils at Taylor High in Motherwell come from beyond its catchment area, including many from non-Catholic families. And the Catholic school has strong links with the local Muslim community, says headteacher Gerry McCormick (pictured).
A range of programmes tackle sectarianism. For example, all S1 pupils take part in Them and Us - an initiative cited by Frank Mulholland in his presentation - which is organised by North Lanarkshire Council and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service.
"It looks at how we can categorise people by family background and the school they attend," Mr McCormick says. "It also examines the `Scottishness' of pupils and their roots, as well as focusing on real-life instances of hate crime and how the law deals with it."
Last year, pupils from Taylor High and nearby Brannock High revamped Holytown railway station in a project that encouraged young people of different denominations to work together.