Self-serving humbug

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
Bishop Joseph Devine's article (TESS, April 11) reads at times like an extended job description for the new post of director of the Catholic Education Service (CES).

The new situation requiring this high-powered appointment is that "the role of Catholic education has been subject to intense scrutiny and questioning by a range of secular voices".

Bishop Devine makes a plea for diversity but, if that is to be taken as a serious statement of educational philosophy, it must apply to all faith groups. Whenever others such as Muslims have tentatively raised the possibility of having a publicly funded faith school, they have been knocked back in no uncertain terms by the political establishment.

This is where we encounter real political and popular resistance that has serious implications for the Catholic sector. Scotland's image of itself is of an all-inclusive, non-discriminating community. While the image may not always correspond with reality, it is nevertheless a powerful driver of political opinion. It is clear that no political party, with the possible exception of the Scottish Conservatives, will even contemplate having a full range of faith schools within the public sector.

So the Catholic schools, for as long as they exist, will continue to be seen as the maverick outcome of historical events, as an anomaly rather than a model for further diversity. In this context, the Catholic hierarchy's newfound advocacy of diversity is likely to be seen as self-serving humbug.

If the 1918 settlement which established publicly funded "denominational" schools in Scotland was unique, it was also uniquely flawed.

There is a serious contradiction between having a highly regulated education authority system and allowing a non-elected faith body to determine whether teachers may, after a test of religious belief and character, be employed within parts of that system. The legal and human rights aspects of this situation have been carefully fudged for many decades and the fudging has been on both sides.

Thus many Catholic staffrooms contain lapsed Catholics, divorced Catholics and Catholics "living in sin". Furthermore, Catholic secondary schools, especially in the east of Scotland, have always employed large numbers of non-Catholic teachers because insufficient Catholic candidates were available. Surely this situation must have an impact on the ethos of the schools concerned? Yet the case for a separate Catholic sector, as made by Bishop Devine and others, leans heavily on the existence of a different and superior ethos.

If this is so, why does the case for a separate system only have weight in respect of a limited age range and a limited geographical area? Why no separate Catholic nursery education or further education or higher education? Why are there no Catholic secondary schools north of Dundee or south of Ayr (with the doubtful exception of Dumfries)?

It is not simply a numbers game: Catholic secondary education would be viable in, say, Aberdeen or Inverness. The truth is that there is no pressure for it from Catholics in northern and southern Scotland.

Archbishop Mario Conti accepted this when he was Bishop of Aberdeen. In the east, Catholic education is withering on the vine and it has no significant roots in parts of the west such as Argyll and Bute. Even in its west central Scotland heartlands, it has a much diminished presence due in part to the birth rate.

The decision to set up a new CES and to recruit a new director for it, whose remit will be demanding in the extreme, will be seen in retrospect as a last attempt to shore up a collapsing edifice.

Catholic religious education should continue but in the home and the church, not in the state schools. This is already the position with many faith groups in our multicultural society.

Fred Forrester

North Larches

Dunfermline

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