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On the moral high ground

Religious education should mean more than just knowledge of religions; it should be about the value of faith in people's lives. Elizabeth Buie reports.

Alex Salmond, the First Minister, has given his strongest endorsement yet of faith-based education, calling on Scots to celebrate Catholic schools rather than "grudgingly accept" their existence.

But a leading academic has challenged the assumption that the church's schools are as distinctive in their education as is supposed.

Delivering the Cardinal Winning Education Lecture at Glasgow University at the weekend, Mr Salmond articulated his "unswerving support" for faith- based education in Scotland - a declaration likely to bolster the Campaign for Muslim Schools in Scotland.

"My advocacy for faith-based education extends beyond Catholic schools," he told an invited audience led by Cardinal Keith O'Brien. "I believe we are in full agreement on the tremendous role that faith schools can play in Scottish society."

Mr Salmond said faith-based schools endowed children with a strong moral foundation, a positive and distinctive identity, a keen sense of personal responsibility and the common good, a strong commitment to charity (the true meaning of which is helping others) and belief in the basic principle that "each of us can and should make a positive contribution to our world".

Michael McGrath, director of the Scottish Catholic Education Service, welcomed Mr Salmond's remarks, saying they represented the "kind of mature celebration of diversity for which we have been searching for some time in Scotland".

However, Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at Edinburgh University, warned that faith schools in Scotland, which are publicly owned and financed, had to be differentiated from those espoused so strongly by Tony Blair in England, where they remain owned by the church, or those found in France or the United States.

The 1918 Education Act which obliged local authorities to fund Catholic education within the state system, had also led to less distinctiveness in these schools because they were required to provide a common curriculum, teacher education and continuing professional development, said Professor Paterson.

This meant, for instance, that there could be much less Islamic influence in a Muslim faith school in Scotland than south of the border, he suggested: "All these nuances have been lost in the debate."

Mr Salmond is not the first politician to laud the values-based ethos of Catholic schools, however. In 2001, while education minister, Jack McConnell suggested to the Catholic headteachers' conference that non- denominational schools could learn from their denominational neighbours and that thought should be given to providing a "spiritual element" in non-denominational schools.

Mr Salmond said draft guidance on RE for A Curriculum for Excellence, to be published by Learning and Teaching Scotland in the spring, would emphasise values, beliefs and attitudes in young people.

There will be separate guidance for denominational and non-denominational sectors. The latter will move away from the 5-14 version by emphasising the value of faith in people's lives, not just knowledge about religions.

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