Leader who put education first

22nd June 2001 at 01:00
Cardinal Thomas Winning is being mourned by the Catholic education community, reports David Henderson

Irish immigrants to Scotland built schools before churches and "that's the priority I have, too", Cardinal Thomas Winning, leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, told denominational secondary heads at their conference two years ago.

And he revealed that, if pushed, he would close a church before a school, such was the importance of education to people's humanity, especially in places such as Lanarkshire, where he grew up.

The 76-year-old Cardinal died of a heart attack last weekend but has left a lasting educational legacy to Scotland, key figures in the Catholic community emphasised this week. Just under one in five Scottish pupils attends a denominational school.

Anne Marie Fagan, president of the Catholic Headteachers' Association of Scotland and head of John Ogilvie High in Hamilton, said: "He was one of the most outstanding people in Scottish history. He gave leadership in moral issues, which is a very difficult thing to do when society has travelled away from the finite 'what is right and wrong?'. He led from the front."

John Oates, field officer for the Catholic Education Commission, confirms the Cardinal valued education highly and relished his role as president of the commission. In some 20 years, the Cardinal missed only one plenary session and there were five a year. "He was a hands-on president who was at the heart of everything we did," Mr Oates said.

Pressure from the Cardinal, Mr Oates explained, forced through a successful amendment to the local government bill that ended the regional councils and brought in single-tier authorities in 1996. Cross-boundary payments were introduced after the Church protested that denominational pupils could be prevented from attending a school in a neighbouringauthority.

But in recent years, it was the Cardinal's strong stance on the repeal of Section 2A and fresh sex education guidelines that brought him backing from Catholic leaders and accusations of homophobia and illiberalism from critics. The traditional family was paramount, he stressed. Scottish Executive ministers were given no quarter as he joined the Brian SouterDaily Record campaign that split co-signatories at the Scottish School Board Association.

Mrs Fagan adds: "He spoke out against what he thought was wrong, knowing full well it would cause an uproar. He was standing up for truth and justice. He took on the establishment and challenged politicians of all parties. Life and morality were larger than politics."

Professor Bart McGettrick, dean of the education faculty at Glasgow University, believes the Cardinal was not out of line with the Catholic community. "He was a man who thought very deeply about stances he would take and he was a man of principle," he says.

The Cardinal challenged the marketplace vision of education and stressed its importance to people, such as those in his Lanarkshire homelands, the professor says. This week, Tom Winning was due to spend three days at Glasgow University now that St Andrew's College - the only denominational teacher training base - is incorporated into the education faculty.

"He supported the development of the faculty so long as we could be sure it maintained the principles that underlay it. He asked difficult and detailed questions," Professor McGettrick added.

Above all, Tom Winning was a regular visitor to schools. John Oates cites an international visitor, watching the Cardinal chat easily with children. "There are not too many bishops who have that kind of quality," the visitor said.

"We thought he was indestructible," Mr Oates concluded.

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