Lib Dems can live with church schools;Liberal Democrat conference

3rd April 1998 at 01:00
An attempt to challenge denominational education failed at the Liberal Democrat conference. David Henderson reports

The Liberal Democrats may be the only Scottish party openly to favour the removal of religious instruction from schools, but they pulled back from open warfare with the Roman Catholic Church at their conference in Inverness last week.

Delegates reaffirmed the party's preference for non-denominational schools, but only after the leadership added a rider defending the rights of Catholics to attend their own schools. The party wants separate schools to continue until parental choice makes the system "untenable".

Donald Gorrie, education spokesman and Edinburgh West MP, said the party had to accept the reality that parents in Scotland choose to send their children to Catholic schools.

"It's not really feasible in a democracy to force a lot of people to give up a right they've had for some time," he said. Schools would only become non-denominational through persuasion, consensus and agreement.

But Sue Tritton, an Edinburgh councillor, said conference should resist any attempt by the Catholic Church to introduce separate nursery classes. All state education should be non-denominational, as in the United States and France. Both countries have higher rates of religious commitment but no religious instruction in schools.

Mrs Tritton said: "We now live in a multicultural society. If we're going to remove prejudice on the grounds of colour, race or religion, it's essential we mix and understand each other. This will happen if we meet together in schools."

It was wrong to label people by the school they went to, she said, and wrong for religious leaders to pressure parents to send their children to denominational schools.

Judy Hayman, an East Lothian secondary teacher and Scottish parliament candidate, said she was "shocked" by the sectarianism she saw in schools. It was built into the system, and parents alone would never make the system untenable.

"Sectarian education inevitably produces prejudiced adults. We must give children the freedom of choice," she insisted.

But Eileen McCartin, a Renfrewshire councillor and former parliamentary candidate in Paisley, said bigotry did not grow within Catholic schools. "They are just the target. If they were abolished, there would be something else for the bigots to attack," she said.

It was "infantile nonsense" to believe problems would be solved by removing the legislative rights of Catholics enshrined in the 1918 Education Act. Catholic schools were favoured by many non-Catholics, including many Asian families. Liberals believed in freedom and choice, she said.

Willis Pickard, Edinburgh Pentlands and editor of TESS, forecast any attempt to remove rights would be bitterly opposed by the Catholic hierarchy and "cause an enormous stushie" in the Scottish parliament.

* The party's new policies on young people in trouble were "embarrassingly naive" and should be reviewed, said Sandra Grieve.

The former Scottish party convener, told the conference the peak age for offending was 15 years 9 months, but the proposals, part of a plan to overhaul the juvenile justice system, focused on 16-18 year olds.

However, she accepted that young people between 16 and 18 "fell into the black hole between the children's hearing system and the adult justice system".

Despite reservations, conference backed the proposals, including the creation of a Scottish ministry of justice, a Bill of Rights to safeguard rights and a chief inspector of youth justice.

Marilyne MacLaren, the party's crime spokeswoman, pointed out that under-20s commit 40 per cent of crime in Scotland at a cost of pound;730 million a year and 10 per cent of 16-18 year olds have been in custody in the past six years.

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