The Roman Catholic hierarchy is on a collision course with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities over the proposal to remove the Church's right of appeal over school closures. Helen Liddell, Labour's education spokesperson, also distanced herself from the move.
A pastoral letter from Cardinal Thomas Winning, issued on Education Sunday last week, described the present statutory position as "an invaluable legal right which has helped protect Catholic education over many years by acknowledging that our last line of defence rests with Parliament, represented by the Secretary of State".
Cosla wants all Scottish Office powers over school closures removed as part of the proposed "bonfire of controls" announced by Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State, in his St Andrew's Day lecture last year. The Scottish Office is currently consulting on these and other regulatory requirements with the aim of increased "devolution of power to councils".
Mr Forsyth made it plain last November, however, that he was not convinced of the case for changing the position of Catholic schools.
Cardinal Winning urged "the entire Catholic community" to write to Mr Forsyth protesting about a proposal that "runs counter to the well-being of our Catholic schools and which would weaken the position of Catholic education at a national level".
David Ferguson, assistant secretary at Cosla, said the view among councils was that "the organisation of school provision is a matter for the education authorities not the Secretary of State".
The Secretary of State's consent is also required for rural closures where distance to the alternative school is five or more miles away in the case of primaries and 10 miles or more for secondary pupils and for the closure of popular schools which are more than 80 per cent full (the so-called Paisley Grammar rule).
John Oates, national field officer with the Catholic Education Commission, made it clear that the Church was not opposed to school rationalisation. Eight of the nine primaries and three of the 17 secondaries closed by Strathclyde Region in the past 10 years have been Catholic schools.
The only recent occasions when the Church exercised its right of appeal to the Secretary of State were over two primary closures in Lochaber and Dumfries. The decisions went against the Church in both cases. The hierarchy was particularly unhappy at the ruling in Highland which equated "adequate provision" of Catholic education with religious education in a non-denominational school. "Our view has always been that the ethos of the Catholic school is much wider than religious education," Mr Oates said.
Since the 1980 Education Act, there have been only 62 case files containing referrals to the Secretary of State. These include appeals over catchment area changes as well as closures. Ten of the files relate to Catholic schools, although some of these cases relate to the 80 per cent rule.
A Scottish Office spokeswoman said the existence of the regulations may have acted as a deterrent against some closures or as a safeguard encouraging authorities to look at alternative arrangements in order to avoid a referral to the Secretary of State.