Break with the state for true diversity

12th October 2007 at 01:00
Keir Bloomer is former director of education and chief executive of Clackmannan-shire Council.

Glasgow City Council has revised its system of obtaining church approval for teachers in Catholic schools in light of successful action by the atheist teacher David McNab, who claimed he was the victim of discrimination.

When I was depute director of education in Strathclyde in the early 1990s, I reached an agreement with the Roman Catholic Church authorities, which this ew ruling has deemed legally flawed. But my aim was to create a workable ystem that did not involve the church passing judgments on teachers who didn't claim to be Catholic. In other words, it was a pragmatic response to the existence of state faith schools.

Reactions to the McNab judgment tend to be coloured by individuals' views of the issues that lie beneath. People opposed to the existence of Catholic schools welcome the judgment. But this seems to me less than honest. If there are to be Catholic schools in the state sector, it is surely reasonable that they should be staffed in a way that enables them to be genuinely Catholic.

It is a common misapprehension that legislation in 1918 gave the Catholic church a privileged status. That act provided an opportunity for any faith group that had previously run its own schools to transfer management to the state, while retaining some powers in relation to religious instruction and the appointment of staff.

There is no specific reference in the legislation to Catholicism or any other faith. This is not to deny that the Catholic church was the main beneficiary. Indeed, the purpose of the act was to take over financial responsibility for schools that their community valued but could no longer afford. The Church of Scotland had no need of its own schools because non-denominational schools were effectively Presbyterian.

The 1918 act (or those parts of it that have been incorporated in subsequent legislation) was influential in bringing Calderwood Lodge Jewish School in Glasgow within the state system 25 or so years ago, although I have found it hard to establish what its status has become.

What worries people is the thought that the legislation could be used by others. It would be difficult to argue, however, that faith schooling funded by the state should be open to some and not others. (This point is not negated by legalistic quibbles about whether, for example, Islam can properly be described as a "church or denomination".)

Many people would no doubt prefer it if faith schools were not an option I would be among them but that is hardly the point. There are really only two credible positions: the first that state schooling should be secular; the second that families should have some choice within the state system.

Of course, if you take the second view, another question arises: is faith the only kind of choice that should be allowed? How about single-sex education or choice of teaching style and educational philosophy? Indeed, in an institution devoted to learning, aren't these choices more relevant than faith? Certainly, the question of state support for Steiner schools has received some sympathetic consideration in the past. Perhaps this extended diversity is just what the state sector needs to encourage innovation.

It is possible to take this argument a stage further. Can choice only be accommodated by having the state manage schools of various kinds? Indeed, reverting to the McNab case, might the state not prefer that the beneficiaries took responsibility for the equal opportunities implications of whatever employment policies they adopted in order to keep their schools faithful to their mission?

Readers may think I have come a long way from McNab but surely it is better to discuss real issues rather than proxies?

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