Relative values are a challenge

Catholic education faces a threat from pervasive secularism, Henry Hepburn hears at the Catholic Headteachers' Association of Scotland's annual conference in Crieff.

A parliamentary debate on gay adoption crystallised a shift in attitudes which, Professor John Haldane of St Andrews University believes, puts the future of Catholic education in doubt. During the session in the Scottish parliament, it was claimed that a Catholic's opposition to gay adoption was not a matter of conscience, because that person would be merely repeating the Vatican's stance.

"The rhetoric that Christian conscience is a matter of resigning reason and giving yourself over to authority is becoming more and more prevalent,"

said Professor Haldane. "These ideas will be in civil servants' minds in 15 years' time, and practised for 15 years after that."

The implications are clear, he argues: "The very idea of Catholic education is going to find itself facing more and more challenges."

Crucially, however, Professor Haldane does not isolate this as a concern for Catholics alone, but one that will also threaten other religious faiths. "People of deep moral, religious commitment are going to find themselves seriously challenged," he said.

Secularism, argued Prof Haldane, seemed to encourage tolerance, but actually gave rise to a relativism that restricted the range of views permitted in society, since it would be deemed "unfair" to promote one group's views over another. He said this meant, for example, that "it would be improper to teach in families that marriage is a lifelong union between one man and one woman".

The same principle extends to state education: "There is no space for publicly funded (Catholic) education because that is to privilege one conception of life."

Professor Haldane argued that a society characterised by diverse searches for "truth" through various religions was more tolerant than one dominated by secularism. It was more conducive to tolerance, he said, as believers of different faiths were united by belief in an objective truth. "The best friends of tolerance are the absolutists, not the relativists," he said.

Professor Haldane explained to the annual conference of Catholic secondary heads that the trend towards secularism was largely a legacy of John Rawls, one of the 20th century's pre-eminent political philosophers, who thought there was no place for religion in the public sphere.

Although he did not believe that existing political parties would protect Catholic education, he dismissed one delegate's idea that the answer might be the formation of a Christian democratic political party, because this would not receive widespread support.

Paradoxically, the threats identified by Professor Haldane come at a time of high demand for places in Catholic schools, and impressive reports from HMIE. "It is not a question of demand, but of whether that demand will be seen as politically legitimate," he said.

Role reversal Pupils could be asked to help inspect their own schools.

Graham Donaldson, senior chief inspector of education, hopes to build on efforts that already involve further education students in inspections.

He told Catholic heads that a recent inspection of Edinburgh's Telford College had seen the idea tried out, with one student asking peers for their opinions on the college. "The student is able to talk to other students in a way that men and women in suits won't," Mr Donaldson said.

He hopes to extend the process to include younger learners: "I want to look at ways we could do that in secondary schools."

Mr Donaldson also talked of the need to "lance the boil" that separates academic and vocational education. "I think this is a false antithesis," he said. "Learning is for all children - we have to find ways we can achieve the appropriate blend for all people."

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