The Catholic Church hit the headlines late last year after Peter Kearney – director of the Scottish Catholic media office – called for schools with an atheist ideology to be set up if demand from parents existed. He argued that it was time to expand faith schools in Scotland so that the education system “truly reflects our plural society”.
“Why should tax-paying parents who follow a secular humanist belief system be denied the opportunity to have their children educated in accordance with their beliefs?” he asked. The Church’s call came after a proposal for Scotland’s first state-funded Muslim school was submitted to first minister Nicola Sturgeon late last year. Here’s what you need to know about the debate so far.
Why are faith schools back in the news?
Al-Qalam school, a private Muslim primary in Pollokshields, Glasgow, has submitted a proposal to Ms Sturgeon to expand into secondary education with the help of public funding. Under the plans, the 60-pupil school would be funded by the state, but run by an independent board of governors outside council control. The school aims to be non-selective, seeks to serve the whole community, including other faiths, and it would strive to become a beacon school for Curriculum for Excellence, with particular specialisms in artificial intelligence and Islamic education.
What’s the problem?
Faith schools are a controversial topic in Scotland, where sectarianism remains a very real problem. Just before Christmas, there were reports of an East Renfrewshire primary teacher under investigation over sectarian comments posted online. Faith schools are often seen as exacerbating the issue.
Do faith schools fuel sectarianism?
A group established to advise the Scottish government on tackling sectarianism in Scotland concluded that the problem did not stem from denominational schooling or, specifically, Catholic schools. The issue would not be eradicated by closing such schools, it found. And last year, research found scant evidence that Catholic schools are a major cause of the problem. However, 43 per cent of people in Scotland are against denominational schools and only 25 per cent are in favour, according to research commissioned by the Scottish government in 2015. Of those surveyed, 37 per cent believed that Catholic schools contributed to sectarianism, although football and Orange Order marches were believed to contribute the most.
What kind of faith schools does Scotland have now?
The vast majority of Scotland’s schools are non-denominational. The Education (Scotland) Act 1918 gave the go-ahead to separate denominational state schools. According to figures published in 2013, Scotland has 370 state-funded faith schools – 366 Catholic, three Episcopalian and one Jewish. There have been a number of private Muslim schools in Glasgow and Dundee, but at present there are no state-funded Muslim schools in Scotland. State-funded schools that are run by independent trusts are common in England, but there is no similar provision in Scotland. Eight Scottish schools are grant-aided, receiving some or all of their funding direct from the Scottish government. All of these schools cater for children with additional support needs, with one exception: Jordanhill in Glasgow’s west end.
When will people know if Scotland’s first state-funded Muslim school has got the go-ahead from officials?
To date, there have been no firm details on when a decision might be made. A Scottish government spokesperson said: “Ministers are currently considering the approach made by Al-Qalam and will respond in due course.”
Is the Scottish government likely to receive a proposal for an atheist school?
Not from the Scottish Secular Society, it would seem. It argues that schools should be neutral on religion and atheism, promoting or opposing neither.
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