It's no sin to share a campus

9th May 2003 at 01:00
Catholic heads, meeting this week, should face up to the challenges of a modern Scotland and stop burying their heads in the sand, says Tino Ferri

HEN Jack McConnell, as First Minister, made his modest proposal for shared school campuses, he made the mistake of suggesting that it might help in breaking down religious barriers. While this showed that he was not a slave to accepted opinion, he would have been better advised to put forward economic arguments.

After all, what could be more reasonable than the pooling of expensive facilities like school gymnasiums, science and technology laboratories, refectories and playing fields? Especially when there has been a massive decline in the school population, with the result that numerous buildings and facilities are under-utilised or abandoned.

This week's Catholic headteachers' annual conference needs to give the whole issue of denominational schools an airing as part of the ongoing debate about education. Could it be that this august body's vision of the trees will no longer be impaired by the wood and that at long last it will accept that the historical reasons for the state funding of separate denominational schools may no longer be as compelling? Catholics - whether immigrant or autochthonous - are no longer a persecuted minority.

The idea of a shared campus has the Roman Catholic hierarchy denouncing it as "not respecting the Catholic ethos", as Bishop Joseph Devine of the Motherwell Diocese put it when he rejected North Lanarkshire's plan for a shared campus in Cumbernauld. Yet there are significant numbers of non-Catholic, indeed non-Christian, pupils in Catholic schools. Does this affect their ethos?

If in a joint campus pupils are still taught separately, Catholic headteachers must tell us in what way pupils would be denied the ethos of a Catholic education - the ethos whereby children are taught in a Catholic environment with Catholic teachers adding, where possible, a Catholic dimension to their specific subject teaching.

Teachers are expected to uphold this ethos by teaching within the context of their Roman Catholic faith, especially in the sciences, English and the social subjects where the Catholic dimension is paramount, because such subjects can be particularly illuminated by a specific ChristianCatholic context. Catholic teachers see before them not just children, but Catholic children who are both inheritors and transmitters of Catholicism. Does this become impossible if facilities are shared with non-Catholic children?

It is incumbent on the hierarchy to explain its objections in a more reasoned manner, rather than the current vague grumbling about the destruction of Catholic education. In the current economic climate, the Catholic authorities may have to face up to the fact that amalgamation of facilities and sites may be unavoidable.

If that is the case, it is better for them to become positive rather than negative, and to devise ways of ensuring the continuance of a Catholic educational philosophy for Catholic pupils in such circumstances. Burying heads in the sand and re-emerging only to attack whenever there are proposals for change is no longer an option. Catholics are not separate from the world and must welcome the opportunity, and indeed have an obligation, to give active witness of their Catholic faith. Catholic headteachers should perhaps consider that shared facilities might be an ideal preparation.

It may be the case that the inter-reaction of Catholic and non-Catholic pupils on a shared site could break down the divisions which are the shame of Scotland - the shame whereby, as Swift put it, we have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.

Tino Ferri is a practising Catholic who spent his career teaching in the Catholic sector.

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