Send sectarianism flying into the back of the net

24th June 2011 at 01:00
A new Bill is tackling the problem, but so too are Scottish schools. Julia Belgutay reports on the efforts teachers are making to unite pupils

A new Bill to tackle sectarianism related to football was published a week ago and could be law by June 30 - in time for the start of the football season in July.

The Scottish Government aims to tackle disorder around football matches and clamp down on internet hate postings on sites such as Facebook and Twitter. But with Parliament being given less than two weeks to scrutinise The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Bill, a growing chorus of voices - from the Justice Committee to the Law Society of Scotland - is warning that a law rushed through at breakneck speed could be a bad law. Others are highlighting the need to focus on prevention through anti-sectarian education in schools and communities.

Strathclyde Police assistant chief constable Campbell Corrigan backs the legislation, but warned: "You do not solve a problem like this by arresting your way through it."

But does education have the power to cure a disease so virulent that recent months have seen parcel bombs and bullets sent through the post to Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager, and other prominent Celtic supporters, while Cardinal Keith O'Brien received a letter containing a bullet prior to Pope Benedict's visit to Scotland?

In light of recent events and the newly-published Bill, it is tempting to depict sectarianism in Scotland as an extreme manifestation of football rivalry. But sociologist Dr Michael Rosie of Edinburgh University argues that what was commonly known as sectarianism in Scotland is perhaps better described as "ethno-religious prejudice and anti-social behaviour, often focused around the conjunction of football, masculinity and alcohol".

Those working to tackle sectarianism agree the problem is wider-ranging and more deep-seated in Scottish society than elsewhere, and believe education is the only long-term solution.

During his time as First Minister, Jack McConnell (now Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale) made tackling sectarianism a priority; young people needed to be the key to addressing what he called Scotland's "secret shame".

"We can change some of the older generation, and we can silence and marginalise some, but it is very hard to change entrenched attitudes and fears that have been there for a long time," he said. "The key is the next generation, and the key to that is schools and education," he told TESS.

Some believe the existence of Catholic schools creates mistrust among children and a feeling of one group being different from another. This point was most recently raised in Scolag, a journal published by the Scottish Legal Action Group.

In the editorial to its May edition, editor Andrew Wilson argued that changing the law in one respect was unlikely to counteract sectarianism while the law in other regards continued to "enshrine, protect and systematically promote social division among religious lines".

This was done most widely and effectively in the education system, where the maintenance of religious instruction and observance, along with the public funding of denominational schools, created and perpetuated religious discrimination, he said.

The argument was not about what was taught in Catholic schools, or their Catholic identity, but about "segregation along religious lines", he told TESS.

"The Catholic Education Service tells us 95 per cent of Catholic schoolchildren go to Catholic schools and these schools educate almost 20 per cent of the population. That means you have more than 80 per cent of the state sector in which school children go to classes alongside children of all different denominations: Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, atheists and agnostics, but no Catholics. That is what gives the space for that minority bigotry to foster," said Mr Wilson.

Michael McGrath, director of the Scottish Catholic Education Service, rejects this argument. "The reality is that Scotland's Catholic schools are mixed and varied, they are open to all who wish to choose them. That is regularly recognised. I have yet to be provided with one piece of evidence to support the view that the existence of choice causes a problem in society."

Dr John Kelly, lecturer in sports and recreation management at Edinburgh University, who took part in a recent public debate on sectarianism, also believes there is no proof that Catholic schools cause sectarianism.

"Personally, I think their existence is only linked to religious bigotry in the same way that females wearing short skirts or black people existing is linked to rape and sexual abuse and black racism.

"My argument about the schools' importance is not the issue of Catholic versus non-Catholic schools; it's about educating about the difference between integration and assimilation, that to be a multi-cultural society you can still have a dual - and a different - identity without being prejudiced."

Lord McConnell said the debate around the existence of Catholic schools was a diversion. "Parents are not going to give up these quality schools. What you can do is bring schools together," he said.

During his time as First Minister, Lord McConnell championed the concept of twinning denominational and non-denominational schools, introducing a fund to support these projects, as well as shared campuses with Catholic and non- denominational schools. Not only did this give schools higher- quality facilities, but it also brought children together, he said.

The SNP Government scrapped the twinning fund during its first term, and research by the Sunday Herald in 2009 showed the majority of local authorities in Scotland had not opened shared campuses or twinned schools in the intervening years. But Glasgow City Council's education service has since made twinning projects one of the priorities of its Sense over Sectarianism campaign, which has worked with schools for the past 10 years.

For two years, 10 primaries around Knightswood and St Thomas Aquinas secondary schools have worked collaboratively, involving 500 P7 children in activities aimed at combating sectarian and racist attitudes.

All children in P7 at these schools read Divided City by Theresa Breslin. It is a novel that tells the story of two friends who overcome sectarian barriers to their friendship and are confronted by issues relating to racism and bigotry. Each non-denominational school has been twinned with a denominational school, and joint groups visit Glasgow landmarks, go on trips or take part in sporting events.

Garscadden and St Brendan's primary schools were the first to join forces as part of this project. Since their co-operation started, they have created stained glass windows and pictures of a Glasgow free of sectarianism, and have taken part in joint sporting events such as golf and visits to each other's schools.

Donal Currie, headteacher of St Brendan's, said the project had snowballed after an initial co-operation over Divided City. "The idea was they would realise the other children were just like themselves. It gives them a chance to meet people in their community who do not go to their school," he said.

During his first few years in post, there had been incidents of fights between the children from the two schools which had centred on religious bigotry, he added.

"Those children were picking up sticks, and they were 11 or 12. Since we started this, we have never had any confrontations after school." The atmosphere has now improved considerably, said Mr Currie.

The true impact of the project, he stressed, could not be assessed until the children were older. "The benefit will be if it works when they are 19 or 20. The first cohort is now 16, 17, and I would like to think they take the message with them. As these children get older, we hope they will be able to make those choices despite the adult influences.

"It will probably affect some; others it might just pass by, because the influences at home might be stronger. But it is worth having a go, otherwise we would just stand still and accept the status quo and will always be a divided city."

Sense over Sectarianism works with children by delivering workshops and projects to individual schools, but also by supporting twinning projects across the city.

Alison Logan, who has led the project since it was launched in 2001, said that in her experience, children were often using sectarian language without truly understanding its meaning, and the project helped them to break down barriers and understand the words and phrases they were using.

Much of its current work is based around Theresa Breslin's novel, which is used as the basis for cross-curricular work around literacy. Ms Logan initially found it hard to get "half a dozen people in a room to talk about it", she said. "Now we have 83 primary schools and 21 secondary schools engaging."

Schools outside Glasgow have also carried out projects to tackle sectarianism in their local area. In 2009, TESS featured St Margaret's and Cowie primaries, near Stirling, where P6 pupils were collaborating to form four-piece bands using the computer game Guitar Hero, changing the lyrics to create their own anthems of tolerance and togetherness.

The Scottish Government, as part of its election promise to tackle sectarianism, is now providing funding to a wide range of organisations to deliver projects to combat sectarianism and all forms of religious intolerance, said a spokesman.

Anti-sectarianism is at the heart of the ethos of Curriculum for Excellence and issues relating to it would arise in areas such as religious and moral education and social studies, as well as through the life of each school community, he added.

Online educational resources and workshops are currently being developed, while Learning and Teaching Scotland is working on national guidance to promote anti-sectarianism.

Glasgow-based charity Nil by Mouth, which has been targeting its work at children since it was founded in 1999, is one of the organisations benefiting from the Government's funding boost. It has had its financial support restored by the Scottish Government for one year to enable it to continue its work in and around schools.

The charity, founded by Cara Henderson in response to the brutal murder of her schoolfriend Mark Scott, who was fatally knifed for wearing the wrong football colours, offers workshops and projects for schools. This autumn, it plans to bring teachers, pupils and parents together in a unique Anti- Sectarian Accreditation Scheme, which will involve "initiatives uniting denominational and non-denominational schools in the community to help foster respect and understanding between different faith groups".

"As the charity has evolved it has become evident that any successful anti-sectarian strategy must have education at its core," a spokesman said.

"It is imperative that if we are to break the cycle of bigotry we need to encourage young people to challenge their own pre-conceptions and to respect other beliefs and traditions, rather than see them as a threat."

With sectarian influences often coming from friends and families, the problem has to be tackled through a multi-agency approach, and preferably with the involvement of Rangers and Celtic football clubs.

Dr Rosie says the rivalry between the two Glasgow clubs "focuses, shapes, provokes and timetables religious bigotry".

Many fans engage in behaviour they would otherwise deem unacceptable in order to fit in, said Dr Kelly. "So you have good people doing bad things."

If impressionable teens find themselves in an environment with people they know and trust, and realise how much the football clubs mean to their family and friends, they are more likely to believe the way they behave is reasonable, he said.

The clubs, increasingly aware of their responsibilities, have formed the Old Firm Alliance, an initiative which runs football leagues and workshops around football, health and tolerance to tackle religious bigotry. It has reached more than 25,000 primary school children since its launch in 2005.

Ross Deuchar, professor of research education at the University of the West of Scotland, has worked with teachers, youth workers and police and done extensive research into youth and sectarian issues in Scotland. He concludes that a long-term, multi-agency approach is most likely to yield results: "I think it will take a lot of time, but we can minimise it if children and young people are educated. Children hear these ideas and values from a young age. It needs to be a multi-agency approach where families are being educated."

Even then, campaigners caution, there is no "magic wand". Alison Logan says that while education plays a crucial role in breaking the cycle by exposing children to a variety of perspectives and teaching them to make independent choices, it is about taking "small steps in the right direction".

Lord McConnell is "absolutely convinced" it can be done.

Sectarianism survey

Sense over Sectarianism surveyed P7 children at seven schools in the Glasgow area last year to find out how they viewed Catholics and Protestants. Responses varied widely, but showed sectarian ideas and concepts were already part of the mindsets of some.

Examples of how children defined a Catholic:

- Someone who believes in Jesus and supports the Pope.

- Celtic designs, greenish, aggressive, gingered hair.

- A Celtic fan who always goes to chapel.

- You can't really describe one except that they are very polite.

- A holy person who is a wee bit like a normal person.

- A Celtic supporter.

- Religious person, bad manners and they only think of themselves.

- People I don't like.

Examples of how children defined a Protestant:

- Somebody who doesn't go to church and takes God's name in vain.

- Not as nice as us.

- I think Protestants are much nicer people.

- A Rangers supporter

- Someone who fights and insults other people.

- Someone who believes in God and cherishes the Queen.

- A person who has a religion but doesn't go to church or believe it very well.

- A bit jealous, full of his own importance and always drinking.

Case study

St Anne's Primary in the east end of Glasgow took in a substantial number of children in 2010, when the neighbouring non-denominational St James' Primary closed.

Headteacher Louise Jarvie said "sectarianism started to raise its head" shortly afterwards, with sectarian words and phrases being used in the playground amid increasing tension.

"We were all the children and adults of St Anne's, but there was this divide in the school," she said. The school decided to tackle the issue head-on, and organised an inter-disciplinary project on values education for all pupils at the school, which ran from August to Christmas last year.

Teachers developed special projects and lesson plans for each year group, with younger children focusing their learning on values, rather than sectarianism directly; P2 children produced a comic strip around values, which was professionally published. Older children tackled the issues directly, and P7s painted a graffiti mural on the school's shed to carry the message beyond the boundaries of the school.

"We wanted this to be a message that did not just go into the school, but one that went out into the community," said Mrs Jarvie.

P7 also looked at issues around Celtic and Rangers rivalry, as well as poetry. P6 developed a travel brochure for Glasgow to highlight the diversity and beauty of their city, and the school brought specialists in to speak to children about sectarianism.

"All children now have a deeper understanding; they now think about why they should think about their values," said Mrs Jarvie.

There have not been any sectarian incidents in the school since the project started, and Mrs Jarvie is determined to continue the work.

Original headline: Send sectarianism flying into the back of the net

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