No room at the inn

5th December 1997 at 00:00
Peter Quail deplores the bigotry which permeates the Catholic education system

A recent column in the TES Scotland by Hugh Reilly called "Under the bishop's shadow" was a matter of both embarrassment and shame to me, for it demonstrated yet again that the voice in education of the Catholic Church in the west of Scotland is one of intolerance and distrust.

To make such a statement gives me no pleasure. I have taught for more than 20 years in the Catholic sector and am the third generation of my family to teach in Catholic schools in Scotland. Indeed, the first generation taught long before the 1918 Act and there is now a fourth generation of Quail teaching in Catholic schools, so I speak with knowledge, experience and regret.

In the same TESS slot, another columnist, Joseph Kelly wrote about "Renewing the Catholic school" and painted a curiously rosy picture of the institution. He implies there is a warmth, an openness and a desire to "come to terms with the positive and specific papal directives on more Catholic involvement with ecumenism". The brutal truth is no such desire exists, and certainly not on the part of the Catholic Church in the life of our schools.

There is a current of ecumenism flowing through Catholic schools. It flows to the poor of the developing world, the underprivileged, the sick, the homeless, right down to the most unfortunate in our society. It can flow anywhere in the world - except across the road. Ecumenism stops dead at the door of the local "non-catholic" secondary school. Communication or co-operation with such schools is actively discouraged by the church. This unfortunate situation is the result of a ghetto mentality nurtured at the highest level.

This mentality generally makes its presence felt around Christmas. This, the season of goodwill, is the time when, in making their choice of secondary school, certain parents will come face to face with animosity of the church. If there is not a Catholic secondary close by and - with long bus journeys in the offing, or even travelling to a school in another local authority area a possibility - the parent chooses a local secondary school instead, a right they have in law. The choice will be followed by a hostile and unchristian reaction from the church. This reaction alienates the parents, ill serves the teaching staff and, worst of all, singularly fails the pupils, the very people for whom the school exists.

Recently, in a discussion on the provision of Catholic schools, Father Tom Connolly, a church spokesman, was quoted as saying, "parents will take that decision by voting with their feet". But he did not say that when parents take the first tentative steps, the church ensures their path is strewn with thorns. In my own local area of East Dunbartonshire, over the past 20-odd years there has been a steady drift away from the designated Catholic secondary schools to the local non-denominational secondary.

The animosity on the part of the clergy towards this movement is a festering sore that causes friction between the parents, the school and the church. Parents are accused of deserting the Catholic system, of being traitors to their faith, of endangering the provision of Catholic education for others and, of course, of being snobs. But strangely, those who choose private Catholic education face no such accusations. They are the recipients of benign smiles.

Should one be in the unfortunate position of being both a teacher and parent, and the local non-denominational secondary school is your option, then expect to be treated like a pariah. If a Catholic teacher exercises the right in law to choose a non-denominational school, an act which breaches no article of faith, he or she will become the focus for enmity and subtle smear campaigns. Professionalism will be questioned, there will be no advancement, no promotion and on occasions there is overt pressure to resign.

For teachers there is the added problem of strained professional relationships with colleagues in the non-denominational sector. They come to us seeking essential information about their new pupils and are met with prevarication and indifference. I remember a young colleague at the local non-denominational school asking if there were many bigots in Catholic schools, because he wasn't getting much help. I started to protest vigorously, then paused as I realised he was quite correct. It was only because he was representing a non-Catholic school that he was being given the run-around.

In this sorry situation it is the pupils who suffer most. The transition period from primary to secondary is widely recognised as having a seminal influence on the child's academic achievement. Yet, at this crucial time in their lives, the Catholic Church intervenes and seriously prejudices their educational opportunities.

Primarysecondary liaison between local authority Catholic primary schools and their non-denominational secondary is not permitted, even when that secondary is receiving the majority of the transferring pupils. The church hopes to bludgeon parents into making "suitable" choices.

In my own school, over the past nine years I have seen the parents' choice moving away from the affiliated Catholic secondary in nearby Glasgow, to the local non-denominational secondary. Currently, more than 60 per cent of the pupils transfer to this school, yet they are offered no primarysecondary liaison at all. Well, that is not strictly true. Around 1994, a letter went home telling parents the date and time at which their children had to make their own way to the local secondary, while at the same time staff and transport were laid on for the third of the class going to the Catholic secondary. This minimal contact was, however, hastily withdrawn when the clergy expressed displeasure.

The current situation is, that for the four or five pupils transferring to the Catholic secondary, there will be a significant number of meetings at management level, visits by guidance and subject staff, joint topics, curricular links and open days for parents - all very necessary and laudable. But for the 18 or 20 children going to the local secondary there will be absolutely nothing. Parents will be told, by word of mouth, the day on which they must ensure the children make their own way to the school.

Imagine that these 18 or 20 children were from our black or Asian community. The furore would hit every headline. The Equal Opportunities Commission would be on our tail, the Educational Institute of Scotland would be campaigning on their behalf, councillors would be appearing from the woodwork and no stone would be left unturned till the problem was resolved.

It is interesting to note the dichotomy between the prevailing situation and the recent statement by Father, Danny McLaughlin, spokesman for the Catholic Church in Scotland, who, commenting on religious bigotry said, "what harm can there be in sharing a platform with somebody? It is important we speak to each other and listen to each other to get over the divisions that are between us". Fine words, but I fear the sad truth is that the "barque" of Rome may have hoisted the ensign of ecumenism, which may even now, be fluttering boldly in the breeze, but she herself is still riding firmly at anchor in the Bay of Bigotry.

Do not look to the Catholic Church to change of its own accord and don't blame it alone. We should look to ourselves and remember what Martin Luther King said about bigotry and intolerance - it flourished because of the "fear and apathy of the children of light". The eradication of this type of bigotry lies in the hands of everyone, teachers, council officers, elected officials, politicians and, most importantly of all, with parents. Together they must ask one simple question of their local education committee. By what criteria does the current shoddy provision match the aims and objectives of the many "mission statements" and "quality pointers" of which they are so justifiably proud?

Peter Quail is a senior teacher at St Joseph's primary school in Milngavie.

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