Time to call for a separation of Church and state in schools

6th January 2012 at 00:00
Scotland's state funding of denominational schools is an anachronism and has to go

The fact that Peter Robinson can call for an end to segregated schools in Northern Ireland should be a wake-up call to Scotland. He does, of course, have his own political motives. There will be a backlash from the Catholic Church but, unusually, Robinson and the Democratic Unionist Party will appeal to liberal sentiments in the UK and Sinn Fein will be perceived as maintaining the status quo.

But if a leading politician in Northern Ireland can call for an end to segregation, why are Scottish politicians so afraid of the issue?

There were good reasons for the 1918 Act's integration of the Roman Catholic voluntary school system into the local authority system. Roman Catholics in Scotland felt a beleaguered minority within an aggressively Protestant culture. Moreover, the Catholic Church and its members had created a widespread voluntary system for which they had paid from purses never bulging with spare cash, while the state system was funded by rates which they also paid. Separate but related, anti-Irish racism was also commonplace.

Today, however, there are four clear reasons why we should end state funding of denominational schools.

Firstly it maintains separation. Separate schools do not create bigotry or sectarianism, but these flourish where separation keeps young people apart.

Secondly, the existence of denominational schools gives the church power, on matters such as employment of staff, beyond what is appropriate today. Discrimination of a type otherwise unacceptable is tolerated in this system. Their existence also supports a separate curriculum, with the Church determining what is taught in personal and social education and potentially other key areas.

They also facilitate the subsidised propagation of one particular religious perspective from public money. It is invidious that the taxpayer should pay for any church to preach its particular theology. That is even more the case in our increasingly secular world, where adherence to religion in general and to the Roman Catholic religion is dropping.

The final argument against the particular form of denominational education common in Scotland, Roman Catholic schools, is that it cannot reasonably be supported without extending the same right to any other religious group. Scotland has one state-funded Jewish school and once had a network of Episcopal schools. The Islamic community has every right to demand its own schools and, ultimately, so does any religious minority, such as Sikhs, Hindus, Mormons or Evangelical Christians.

Which Scottish politician will have the courage to stand up for the separation of church and state in our schools?

Alex Wood, a former headteacher, works at the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration.

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