What's wrong with faith?;Opinion

11th June 1999 at 01:00
This weekend the Educational Institute of Scotland debates denominational education. Brian Cairns is a strong defender of a separate system

I HAVE worked in the denominational sector as a classroom teacher for the past 22 years. I feel that the current level of debate about denominational schools does not always accurately reflect the reality I see, and have known. I will first respond to some current comments, then try to present my understanding of reality.

Denominational schools are sometimes accused of promoting bigotry and reinforcing prejudice. Two recent pieces of work show that the facts are otherwise.

* "There is no evidence that they (Catholic schools) do in fact have such effects" (ie are socially divisive, foster division or bigotry in the way that some of their detractors allege). - "Social citizenship and Catholic education", a talk by Lindsay Paterson of Edinburgh University in April * "There is no real evidence to show that denominational schools in themselves lead to prejudicial attitudes." - Education report to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland last month Denominational state schooling has existed in Scotland for some 80 years. During this time religious intolerance has steadily decreased and ecumenical relations between churches have grown. Roman Catholic schooling has contributed to the decrease of bigotry, not the reverse.

People do not expect to be made to "feel bad" when they choose forms of sport, art, leisure that differ from others. Why should those parents who choose Catholic schools in Scotland feel this way? Such schools exist without problems in Europe, the Unites States, New Zealand, Australia and Canada. In England, the state sector contains not only Catholic but also Anglican, Jewish and Muslim schools. Parents in Scotland are simply exercising a fundamental right long recognised by law.

Under the European Convention on Human Rights, "the state respects the rights of every parent to ensure education in conformity with their own religiousphilosophical convictions". Freedom of choice is what lies at the heart of being truly human. The exercise of such choice does not display bigotry. To attack it as being unreasonable shows intolerance.

But is denominational schooling an anachronism? Two years ago I attended a conference at which Douglas Osler, head of the Inspectorate, commenting on the higher performance of denominational secondary schools in national exams compared to the non-denominational sector, said that something "unique" existed in the denominational sector. He challenged Catholic educationists to explain what it was.

Catholic education has a unique, clear vision about God, people and life. It is centred in Gospel values, and the ideas of some of the greatest thinkers the world has known. It has developed its vision over 2,000 years.

A Church document, Religious dimension of the Catholic school, explains that the school should help the pupil "to discover the true value of the human person; loved by God; with a mission on earth and destiny which is immortal".

Catholic education challenges the pupil to develop in mind, body and spirit. It is "whole person education". It is a "programme for life" in the fullest sense, and is also "value driven".

How is this done? It happens through the ideas that are taught, and the example of the adults in the school. The teacher in the Catholic school faces the challenge of passing on Christian values . . . in the dinner hall, the maths class, the religious education class. In Catholic schools it is important that all teachers are believers, or accept the values of the Catholic school. It is worth noting how many parents who are not Catholic enrol their children in this "value-centred" system.

Some areas are crucial to this process. In RE, the faith of the teacher is used to help the pupil explore deep questions about life. The type of knowledge sought cannot always be provided by the mind alone, but also by the spirit. Hearing about God, and knowing God are two different types of knowledge.

Whether the pupil is Catholic or not, the faith of the teacher and the sources and process undertaken help the pupil engage in personal search in depth. The pupil's response need not conform with Catholic teaching.

For this process to be delivered in an authentic way, the RE teacher must be a Catholic. In non-denominational schools, teachers of RE do not have to be believers of any faith. They differ in their understanding and approach to what they do.

In the pluralist Scotland of today, parents have a choice of school. Differences should be recognised, valued and respected. Understanding and respect have to be promoted. To remove the Catholic system of education, which is recognised as being successful and popular, would reduce choice, and with it the quality of state education.

Any suggestion that plurality means teaching pupils that they are all the same suggests a vision of life in monochrome instead of full colour. Our young people deserve a future richer than that.

Brian Cairns is principal teacher of religious education at St Thomas Aquinas Secondary, Glasgow.

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