Religious schooling has its price

4th April 2008 at 01:00
Alex Salmond recently made explicit his support for Scotland's present system of denominational schools and discussed the possibility of extending "faith" schools from the Roman Catholic sector and the solitary Jewish school to a wider range of religions. There is a proper debate about whether that would be a good thing.

Meanwhile, it is worth considering the impact of denominational schooling on teachers' employment rights. The 1991 agreement between Strathclyde Regional Council and the Roman Catholic Church provided that non-Catholic teachers could be appointed to any post in a Catholic school except that of headteacher, principal or assistant principal teacher of guidance or religious education, principal teacher of biology, teacher of religious education or senior teacher in a primary school. The formal position, however, is that all appointments to all posts in RC schools require church approval.

David McNab, an atheist maths teacher at St Paul's High in Glasgow, took the council to an industrial tribunal when his application for a principal teacher (pastoral care post) was blocked on the grounds of his not being a Catholic. He won. His case, however, is by no means unique.

A long-serving principal teacher in a denominational secondary, who was an elder of the Church of Scotland and a committed Christian who had given long, loyal service to his school, was rejected on each occasion that he applied for an assistant head's post. To achieve the promotion he deserved, he eventually left the denominational sector. In the long term the denominational school was the loser but, in the years of unsuccessful applications, it was the teacher who suffered.

It would be invidious were the considerable number of Roman Catholics who teach in the non-denominational sector to suffer discrimination in pursuing posts because of their faith. In fact, it is non-Catholic teachers who now suffer discrimination. The Catholic teacher can apply for a post in any school, denominational or non-denominational, at any level. The non-Catholic cannot. Current thinking seems to accept the extension of this discriminatory advantage to Muslims, Sikhs and adherents of other specific religions.

The absurdity of the situation is illustrated by two parallel facts. First, the denominational sector would cease effectively to be one if those who managed it were not committed to it (from that point of view, the church's insistence on its right to discriminate for head and depute head posts does follow a powerful logic). Second, however, the denominational sector could not survive without the many non-Catholics who teach in it.

But the key employment argument against denominational schools is not that a system to sustain particular religious beliefs can only be shored up by employing those who do not share those beliefs; it is that it requires the cash of taxpayers of many beliefs and of none. I have little problem with the Catholic Church practising discrimination in the employment of teachers. Discrimination is at the very heart of religion. My problem is that I pay for it.

Alex Wood is head of Wester Hailes Education Centre, Edinburgh.

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