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Editorial: Should the bishops be running nurseries?

The denominational education pot has been well and truly stirred in the past week, as home economics and modern studies apparently emerged as "reserved subjects" to be headed only by Roman Catholic principal teachers in Catholic schools. The reason, according to one of the Church's spokesmen, is that both subjects have to cover sensitive ground such as parenting, birth control and the world population explosion (are they perchance related?).

This was, in fact, a decision taken by West Dunbartonshire and it is indeed remarkable that a meal prepared by one education authority should suddenly become the diet for the whole country. The cook, of course, is Fr Noel Barry, who represents Catholic interests on West Dunbartonshire's education committee but often acquires heroic and representative status as spokesman for Cardinal Thomas Winning.

The former Strathclyde Region had a policy of "only Catholics need apply" when it came to appointments of headteachers, deputes, assistant heads, all religious education teachers, heads of guidance and biology in secondary schools, and to all posts in primary schools. This was not the policy in every part of Scotland. But Strathclyde, facing the reality that the tap of teacher supply did not provide a smooth flow of staff in the necessary denominational proportions, was forced to prioritise so that the most sensitive posts in Catholic schools were held by Catholics.

The current angst, however, is strictly unnecessary. For the law was changed a decade ago giving the Catholic church power to approve all appointments to posts in Catholic schools not just selected ones - whether the opponents of segregated schooling like it or not. The position was clarified in 1987 legislation following the Maureen Ruddy case in Dundee when George Younger, the then Secretary of State, confused everybody by ruling that the priestly veto was restricted to first appointments only, after which the power was redundant. Now, strictly speaking, the Church's consent is required even for every job move by the same person. So home economics and modern studies, dare we say it in this partially culinary context, are red herrings.

The other issue that has given the opponents of segregation a field day, the establishment of Catholic pre-five classes, is more complex. There are already such units attached to Catholic primaries but, since nursery education is not statutory, it appears they cannot be regarded as denominational and therefore the Church's regime of curriculum and staffing approval does not apply. This may seem like a distinction without a difference: a unit attached to a Catholic primary is unlikely to have a secular ethos.

But this issue does require to be clarified. Does the Catholic Church only acquire authority over what happens in its schools if the provision is statutory? Nursery education may not be statutory de jure but it will have that de facto status since the Government intends pre-school provision to be comprehensive. Putting aside the issue of principle, is there any essential distinction between a Catholic education for a four-year-old and a five-year-old?

This seems an appropriate week to observe that the issue is not one that should await upon the arrival of the Scottish parliament.

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