There is scant evidence that Catholic schools are a major cause of sectarianism, according to new research by a leading Scottish academic. The comments from Stephen McKinney, of the University of Glasgow, come in the same week as a survey shows that more people in Scotland oppose denominational schools than support them.
The results of the survey commissioned by the Scottish government reveal that 43 per cent of people in Scotland are against denominational schools and 25 per cent in favour. About 30 per cent believe they contribute to sectarianism, the research says (bit.lySSASresearch).
But Professor McKinney, professor of creativity, culture and faith at the university's School of Education, believes they have little basis for such concerns. "There is very little empirical evidence to substantiate the alleged relation between contemporary Catholic schools and sectarianism," he writes in the Journal of Theories and Research in Education (bit.lySectarianism).
National reviews in 2005 and 2013 of Scotland's problems with sectarianism found few signs of it being fuelled by Catholic schools, Professor McKinney continues.
He adds that there is little evidence to back comments such as those made by Sheriff Richard Davidson during a 2013 court case, that "the way to tackle to sectarianism was to do away with Catholic schools", or A C Grayling's speech to the Scottish Parliament in 2013, when the philosopher said that the argument against faith-based schools could be summed up with the word "Glasgow".
The new national social attitudes survey for the Scottish government finds that football is the most commonly blamed factor in sectarianism, with 88 per cent of respondents mentioning it and 55 per cent considering it to be the primary catalyst. Some 37 per cent mention denominational schools - the vast majority of which are Catholic - and 5 per cent say they are the main cause of sectarianism. Although 43 per cent oppose denominational schools, that is down from 50 per cent in 2007. Meanwhile, support has remained fairly constant at about 25 per cent and others express no opinion.
Gary McLelland, policy and public affairs officer for the Humanist Society Scotland, said it was no longer appropriate to "segregate" pupils into denominational schools established amid "deeply ingrained sectarianism" a century ago, especially given that Scots were less religious now.
He questioned some practices "required to maintain separate schooling", citing Falkirk Council's move last year to ask for baptismal certificates for pupils hoping to attend its oversubscribed Catholic schools.
Mr McLelland also claimed that "open discrimination" was being practised against non-Catholic employees. Legislation allows the Catholic Church to consider religious belief when recruiting teachers, despite that right being challenged by teachers at employment tribunals in Glasgow in 2006 and 2012.
Michael McGrath, director of the Scottish Catholic Education Service, said that claims of links between Catholic schools and sectarianism were "not formed out of any rational analysis of the evidence". Inspection reports showed the "very positive influence" that Catholic schools had on pupils' attitudes and values, he added.
"It is a matter of significant concern to church leaders, teachers and parents who have experienced the very positive value of Catholic schools that some of our fellow citizens only show grudging tolerance of [these] schools rather than a positive regard for our contribution to society," Mr McGrath said. "Such attitudes say a great deal about how far Scotland still has to travel to escape its sectarian history."
Schools are a "huge part" of the solution to sectarianism, according to Dave Scott, campaign director of Scottish charity Nil By Mouth.
The organisation was set up in 2000 by friends of Mark Scott, a Glasgow schoolboy who was the victim of a sectarian murder in 1995. The charity has brought together pupils from denominational and non-denominational schools in areas with a history of religious division.
Mr Scott said: "Sectarianism is at its core a fear of difference, and those who hold sectarian attitudes will use the fact that people go to different schools, have different names or support different teams as an opportunity to divide people."