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Catholics counter charges of bigotry over split schooling

The Roman Catholic Church in Scotland has issued a new education "mission statement" which its leaders say demonstrates that denominational schools are a force for harmony.

Cardinal Thomas Winning, who presided over the launch in Glasgow on Monday, acknowledged there was nothing particularly new in its defence paper, Education in a Moral Context. He denied it was intended to head off any new threat to Catholic schools but added that the Church should become "less defensive and more confident" about its schools.

"If you've got a message, you've got to keep repeating it so people are properly informed," he added. "Everyone's got a mission statement these days."

Cardinal Winning, who has been regarded as cooling the Church's traditional ardour for the Labour Party, praised supportive comments about church schools south of the border this week by David Blunkett, the Education Secretary there.

John Oates, national field officer with the Catholic Education Commission (CEC), called for Mr Blunkett's endorsement to be echoed by stronger support for Catholic schools from politicians in Scotland. "What we get at the moment is support for Catholic schools so long as the Catholic community wishes to have them.

"That is a rather grudging acceptance of Catholic schools. If people would go into our schools and see for themselves what they are doing, they wuld see that they are intrinsically beneficial to society as a whole. That is what we genuinely believe."

Cardinal Winning issued an open invitation to the media and others to visit R.C. schools and make up their own minds. He wearily deflected a question about whether separate denominational schools contribute to bigotry, pointing to a passage in the statement underlining the importance of "the need for openness and dialogue with others of differing religions and none."

Ronnie Convery, Cardinal Winning's official spokesman, banned questions which were not relevant to the education statement, ensuring the Church authorities were not dragged into the fresh debate over sectarian bigotry stirred up by the Carfin grotto affair.

The statement makes clear that the Catholic school seeks to add a moral, personal and spiritual dimension to education. This emerged strongly in comments by Father Joe Chambers, vice chairman of the CEC, who said it was essential the Church embedded this as a special feature in the training of teachers and headteachers.

The Church authorities are particularly keen to introduce separate modules to the Scottish Qualification for Headship, emphasising what it regards as the distinctive leadership qualities required to head a Catholic school. But they emphasise they are not seeking a segregated SQH.

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