Not since the heady, reforming days of Michael Forsyth in the late 1980s has a minister given such unrestrained support to a sector that continues to face challenges over its legal right to defend its sectional interest.
Mr McConnell even suggested that non-denominational schools could learn from their more overtly Christian neighbours. "There needs to be some thought given to providing a spiritual element to the environment of non-denominational schools and that is a challenge we may need to look at as we try to secure the needs of the whole child and its relationship to the wider world," he said.
He was responding to Bill Horton, a religious education adviser in Glasgow, who challenged the Church of Scotland's lack of positive action on schooling and RE in particular. "We do have a tradition in Scotland, which is a very Christian tradition, and although many people do not practise, it does have an importance in people's lives," Mr Horton said.
Mr McConnell said that while the Church of Scotland's contribution at national level had been positive, local parishes could do more.
In his keynote address, Mr McConnell said Catholic schools were among the "very best" for ethos and achievement. "In the involvement of parents, setting of standards, the commitment of staff, school culture and raising attainment levels among disadvantaged children, Catholic schools often show the rest of Scotland what can be done. I want to spread that example - use that best practice - and secure an ethos throughout Scottish education that makes us proud," he said.
Anne Marie Fagan, head of John Ogilvie High, Hamilton, and chair of the Catholic Headteachers' Association of Scotland, said: "Mr McConnell has given an unequivocal affirmation of Catholic schools and our ethos of achievement and that is extremely heartening. Last year, the message coming out of the Scottish Executive was a lack of recognition of the distinctiveness of Catholic schools."
Sam Galbraith, the former minister, turned down appeals from the Catholic Education Commission for an additional element for aspiring denominational heads in the emerging Scottish Qualification for Headship. But Mr McConnell quickly agreed to the demand, a decision that has gone down well with the Church which argued vociferously for skills' training in the promotion of the faith.
Mrs Fagan said: "Our mission is the formation of lifelong faith and learning and that faith aspect is integral to all we do."
Mr McConnell has accepted a specific Catholic representative on the national continuing professional development committee, which he chairs. He has further endeared himself by pressing others in the Executive to include a reference to marriage in the revised guidelines on sex education. The Church, led by Cardinal Thomas Winning, had been in the forefront of the campaign against repeal of Section 2A.
Mrs Fagan praised Mr McConnell for creating a new atmosphere. "Last year the message was that schools could do better and we lacked professionalism. There did not seem to be any real belief that we were working very hard and that comprehensive schools were successful," she said.
Tom Burnett, head of St Mungo's Academy, Glasgow, reinforced the positive reaction. "I am beginning to see people blossoming again in a way I have not seen for a long time," Mr Burnett said.
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