Catholic veto 'flawed'

17th March 2006 at 00:00
A landmark employment tribunal finding that an atheist teacher suffered religious discrimination when he was not allowed to apply for a pastoral care post in a Catholic school may mean that the Roman Catholic Church is obliged to vet the "religious belief and character" of any teacher who wants to work in one of its schools.

Michael McGrath, director of the Scottish Catholic Education Service, said the Church had been arguing for a number of years that the practice by more than half of Scottish authorities of advertising certain posts as "reserved" for Catholics only was flawed.

He welcomed the tribunal's ruling that all teachers appointed to denominational schools had to be approved. "This does not mean they have to be Catholic but they have to be approved," he said.

Mr McGrath declined to speculate about what specific circumstances would prevent a non-Catholic from being approved, but added: "A lot depends on the extent to which the person is giving public witness to their views and beliefs."

This "public witness" was present in respect of David McNab, the maths teacher at St Paul's High in Glasgow who took his case to the tribunal. Mr McNab made no secret of being an avowed atheist, but claimed unlawful discrimination on religious grounds against Glasgow City Council under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Mr McNab said he was told he could not apply for the post of acting principal teacher of pastoral care at his school because it was a post "reserved" for Catholics and he was not Catholic.

The tribunal agreed that Mr McNab had suffered religious discrimination and awarded him pound;2,000 in compensation. It did not award him legal costs and he now faces a sizeable bill, having had no union backing.

If the tribunal's ruling is followed, a new threshold of approval for non-Catholics will be required which will effectively mean that the Catholic Church has to judge non-Catholics' moral fitness to work in its schools.

Mr McGrath said non-Catholics would be required to provide letters of reference similar to those written by priests for Catholics. They could be testimonials from their minister, or by someone of good standing, as to their honesty and integrity. But references would have to convince the Church of their suitability to work in a denominational school.

The ruling that a 1991 agreement reached in the former Strathclyde Region is unlawful means that "sensitive" posts such as senior management jobs, and posts in guidance, biology and religious education, will now be open to applications from non-Catholics. Education authorities will no longer be able to label them "reserved", which the tribunal says is contrary to the Education (Scotland) 1980 Act.

In a significant passage, its report states: "The evidence which we heard stressed the importance of (pastoral care) advice being given in accordance with the teaching or doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. In our view that advice could be given by a teacher who was not a Roman Catholic if the teacher was given any training which was required."

The tribunal's report pointed out that external agencies were already used in Mr McNab's school for personal and social education. "Therefore, within the responsibilities of a teacher of pastoral care, advice would be given on a large number of issues and it may be that only in a small number of matters (which we shall call 'sensitive matters') would the teaching or doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church be relevant," it stated.

Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, agreed that the main implication of the ruling was that candidates for all posts would have to be approved by the Church.

"They can't take this attitude of hands off for some posts and hands on for others," Mr Smith commented.

He suggested that the vigour with which the Church had pursued approval had often varied according to the availability of teachers and the difficulties of staffing schools.

Glasgow City Council said it was considering whether to appeal. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities said it would study the implications of the judgment for teacher recruitment and promotion.

Leader 22

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