Religious divide for deaf and blind

29th August 1997 at 01:00
Specialist provision for deaf and blind children in Glasgow will be split between Roman Catholic and non-denominational schools after councillors agreed a sectarian compromise. Critics claim the division will fail and will restrict parent choice.

Malcolm Green, the city's education convener, said: "It is not an ideal situation, but it is the best that can be done. We have not been able to come up with anything better."

The education department has been attacked by diverse organisations, including the Church of Scotland and the Grand Orange Lodge, for planning to site all provision for deaf children taught by total communication methods (lip reading, signing and high-powered radio aids) at the Catholic-run St Vincent's School in the Tollcross area. It wants to close the non-denominational Glasgow School for the Deaf and Parkhouse School. The St Mungo unit at Parkhouse will also shut later this session.

Officials deny any religious influence and maintain the outcome preserves existing best practice, which itself reflects different approaches to hearing impairment. Parents have always chosen to send their children to the most appropriate school and have already crossed the religious divide, according to Ken Corsar, director of education. The city is aiming to create a "centre of excellence" at St Vincent's, Mr Corsar said.

Non-Catholics will not be eligible for senior posts at St Vincent's, an agreement that has been heavily criticised. But the Catholic Church accepts other teachers can be appointed from any denomination and has agreed to the presence of Protestant ministers. Dr Green said non-Cathol ic teachers would not be discriminated against.

In a complex arrangement, provision for visually impaired children will be removed from St Vincent's and transferred to non-denominational units at Penilee Secondary and Darnley primary. Kelvin School will be retained as an all-through specialist school, and Ashcraig School will also be available.

Mr Corsar said the city needed to retain some specialist provision, although the majority of deaf and visually impaired children are in mainstream schools, backed by support staff. Figures show 70 deaf pupils are in specialist provision and 167 in mainstream; 88 visually impaired pupils are in specialist schools and 106 in mainstream. Only 40 per cent of current specialist capacity is used and the Glasgow School for the Deaf has only four pupils.

However, there was a furious row over the plans, which follow three consultations. Gordon Macdiarmid, depute leader of the council, said it was "regrettable" that provision for hearing impaired children was now entirely in the denominational sector and for the visually impaired in the non-denominational sector. It was a "sad reflection" on the city.

Chris Mason, Liberal Democrat leader, said the proposals would "not stand the test of time" and called on the Catholic Church to loosen its grip on St Vincent's. "The best solution in education terms would be to change St Vincent's from a denominational school to a non-denominational school but the archdiocese will not allow it. I speak as an atheist," Dr Mason said.

Peter Mullen, Catholic Church representative, said that Cardinal Thomas Winning did not dictate the terms. "Parents who want a Catholic education for their visually or hearing impaired children want them to go to St Vincent's," Mr Mullen said.

Mr Mullen, former head of Holyrood Secondary, said visually impaired Catholic children would not receive the same religious education as they got at St Vincent's. "These proposals are the best we could have," he said.

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