Plus ca change for religious schools

3rd January 2003 at 00:00
Thirty years ago, as comprehensives developed, Catholic schools were under threat, S4 exams were in turmoil and Glasgow secondaries were causing a rumpus. David Henderson dusts down the Scottish Education Department records

One of the eternal fault lines in Scottish education was as live an issue in 1972 as it is now. But then, as now, ministers were reluctant to remove the legal right of Roman Catholics to separate schooling, despite substantial pressure from Labour Party members to tackle the scourge of sectarianism in the west of Scotland.

Hector Monro, the Conservative's education minister, politely declined a Scottish Labour party conference motion to scrap denominational schools as part of the emerging comprehensive system in urban areas after the ending of selective state schools. He also declined an inquiry into the costs of separate schooling and any possible effect on sectarian attitudes.

Mr Monro (later to become Sir Hector) rather bluntly stated that "denominational schools should not be reviewed until there is general agreement among all the interests involved that changes should be made".

That same line is used today by government ministers and the Church of Scotland: no move towards integrated schools without the consent of the Catholic community. And they do not want it.

Scottish Education Department officials in September 1972, replying to the Labour Party's report, stated: "Successive Governments have taken the view that it would be premature to reconsider the basic statutory provisions relating to denominational and non-denominational schools until there is a wide measure of agreement between the religious and educational bodies concerned - and among the general public - about any changes which should be made."

They isnsisted: "This view accords with the report's recommendation that legislative changes should not be imposed upon an unwilling Catholic community."

Although the Labour Party was pressing for action, its own report tabled to its annual conference in 1972 acknowledged that sectarianism was not as fierce as it was sometimes assumed. Divisions within Labour ranks allowed an escape.

"Most evidence available appears to indicate that apart from isolated instances, friction between Catholic and non-denominational pupils in Scotland is on the decrease," it admitted.

It went on: "There is clear evidence of an improving situation in Scotland in relation to religious tolerance and we must guard against the trends by rash decisions. So long as the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the majority of Roman Catholics in this country feel a need for the protection of the 1918 Act, it would be counter-productive to force desegregation upon them. However, we would commend it to them."

Labour activists, including those in the STUC, wanted all children to attend their local comprehensive with no divisions on "race, religion, academic or fee-paying ability".

As ever, the Catholic Education Commission was stoutly defending its patch in traditional argument. Even if there were economies of scale in integrating schools, it would be a case "of expediency overthrowing principle".

The commission added: "Uniformity is not always a blessing and never so when it is imposed. Such division is an exercise in liberty, not a social problem. It becomes a social problem only when it is associated with suspicion, fear, hostility and sometimes even violence.

"In our opinion, it would be a disservice to social peace to insinuate that there exists, or is in the process of development, in Scotland any such tremendous social problems of a politico-religious nature. On the contrary, there is an increasing mutual toleration, understanding and friendship between Catholics and their neighbours and fellow workers of other religious affiliations or none," the commission stated.

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