No political will exists to question the worth of Catholic schools and their place in the education system is “secure”, the sector’s newly appointed spokeswoman has claimed.
Barbara Coupar, director of the Scottish Catholic Education Service (SCES), said their schools should be “centred on an opportunity for children to become friends with Jesus”, even if some pupils were of non-Christian faiths or had no religion.
The 100th anniversary of the legislation that led to Catholic education being publicly funded will be marked in 2018 and, despite increasing levels of secularity, Ms Coupar believes that her sector is in a stronger position than at any other point in its history.
Schools now needed to highlight what made them different to others, she added.
In an interview with TESS, Ms Coupar said: “I’m certainly getting the impression that there’s no political will among the mainstream to question the worth of Catholic schools – everybody can see the value of them. I would say the place of Catholic schools is secure.”
‘No need to be defensive’
Her remarks are significant, following past concerns that the SNP would not be sympathetic to faith schools when the party took power in 2007, although then first minister Alex Salmond quickly underlined his support for the sector.
A survey commissioned by the Scottish government last year revealed that 43 per cent of people were against denominational schools, compared with 25 per cent in favour. About 30 per cent of respondents believed that the schools contributed to sectarianism, the research found (bit.ly/SSASresearch).
Parents of today’s pupils “grew up when Catholic schools were being questioned more”, said Ms Coupar, and teachers were “anxious” about drawing attention to how they differed from other schools.
“We’re at a point in our history where I don’t think we need to be defensive,” she said, adding that if “we’re not seen to be different, then the question could be asked of us, ‘Why are we here?’”
In the past, the sector had tended to point towards strong school inspections, good exam results and the high proportions of school leavers who go on to reach “positive destinations”. But Ms Coupar believes that Catholic schools should not play down their religious dimension.
“I’m going to use the ‘Jesus’ word here: Catholic schools should be centred on an opportunity for children to become friends with Jesus,” she said. This did not exclude pupils of other faiths or no religion, she added, as Catholic schools merely extended “an invitation to faith, even if they’re not at that point in their life at the moment”.
Catholic schools should resist ‘political pressure’ on LGBT issues
Barbara Coupar has rebuffed calls from lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups (LGBT) to make more room for teaching about gay and lesbian issues in Catholic schools, insisting that they should not bow to “political pressure” (see John Naples-Campbell comment, page 20).
Ms Coupar said Catholic schools accepted “complex realities” and that it was possible to be sensitive to the many different types of modern family, as well as to church teaching.
Groups such as LGBT Youth Scotland and Stonewall Scotland have recently carried out research highlighting the problem of homophobic bullying in education settings, which has fuelled calls for mandatory education on LGBT sex and relationships in all schools, including the Catholic sector (“LGBT pupils feel ‘least protected’ in schools”, TESS, 1 April).
Ms Coupar said that schools might not on their own be able to provide LGBT pupils with all of the support they need, but added “we can make sure that no child feels excluded or bullied”, by working with local authority staff.
She said that whatever the “political pressure” on schools to put greater emphasis on LGBT issues, there were other ways of “looking at individual needs and ensuring that the dignity of every child is maintained”.
Despite same-sex marriage becoming legal in Scotland in 2014, Ms Coupar said that Catholic schools still emphasised the church’s view that unions between a man and a woman were the “best definition of marriage”.