Bias or freedom?

7th April 2000 at 01:00
THE 1918 Education Act served Scotland well. It gave Roman Catholic schools access to financial support which allowed them to attain parity with non-denominational establishments and eventually to surpass in terms of exams passes those with a similar social composition. Between the world wars there was still overt discrimination, anti-Catholic demonstrations in Edinburgh and undisguised prejudice in the Church of Scotland. The education system became a tool in social engineering and enlightenment.

Within the 1918 Act the Catholic hierarchy was given authority to approve teachers "as to religious belief and character". In dealing with professed Roman Catholics in an age of religious observance, the power was acceptable. But in more secular times it has been questioned by some Catholic teachers and increasingly by those outwith the church. In particular, the problem of compulsory transfer of teachers between schools in a local authority is raising questions of unequal treatment (page one). The Educational Intitute of Scotland points out that Catholic teachers can choose from any available schools, whereas non-Catholics are restricted to non-denominational ones.

Equal employment opportunities are enshrined in UK legislation and in European law, too. The position of teachers may now be raised, and the Executive, bruised by the fate of temporary sheriffs under the European Convention on Human Rights, will hold out little hope of quietly maintaining a longstanding practice that looks odd from across the Channel. The inclination of ministers will be to let sleeping dogs lie. The Section 28 saga shows the risks of well-intentioned stirring among latent prejudices.

If, however, a challenge is made it will be met head-on by the Catholic Church. Cardinal Winning in particular has no qualms about refusing to render unto Caesar what he says is not the state's business. A teacher's freedom to choose seems a small matter now, but so at first did the Executive's wheeze of scrapping the redundant Section 28.

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