Is Glasgow’s Lord Provost Eva Bolander right to celebrate Catholic schools?

ONE of the main arguments posited against Catholic education is that the bigotry against Catholics they were set up to overcome is no more.

It’s difficult to stand by that argument when, just on Saturday, a priest was attacked outside his church in Glasgow as an Orange parade went past. Spat on, lunged at. This apparently happened when a police guard outside the church was called away to deal with something else.

A police guard, at a church.

It is amply clear that there is still a problem with sectarianism in Scotland. If not, then charities such as Nil By Mouth, set up to challenge just such sectarianism, would no longer exist.

A charity’s ultimate success is in no longer existing – they function to fix a problem. No problem, no need for the charity.

Of course, others would argue that separating children based on their faith – or, often more accurately, the faith of their parents – helps perpetuate sectarianism.

This is the view of the Scottish Secular Society, which criticised Lord Provost Eva Bolander this week for plans to host a civic reception to mark the centenary of the Education (Scotland) Act 1918, which introduced public funding to Catholic schools.

Catholic schools were founded with the aim of raising Irish Catholic immigrants out of poverty by ensuring they had equal access to education provided free of bigotry, as well as of perpetuating doctrine.

In this aim, a problem to be overcome, Catholic schools have had ample success. An academic at Glasgow University, Anthony Finn, examined 99 school inspection reports from 2012 to 2014.

Professor Finn found 51 per cent of Catholic schools were rated “excellent” or “very good” compared to 30 per cent in non-denominational schools.

Some 36 per cent of inspections in non-denominational schools were graded “weak” or “unsatisfactory”. In Catholic schools the figure was 13 per cent.

While school league tables showing how many pupils gain Highers are a very blunt instrument, for Glasgow’s top performing schools this year, two of the top three are Catholic.

So, the problem of providing quality education for the children of Catholic parents is, you can argue, solved.

But parents say, well, they want the best quality education possible for their children and that is provided by Catholic schools. Remove faith from the school and you risk lowering standards, thus damaging the outcomes for pupils.

I’ve always found this a confusing argument because I believe firmly in equal opportunities for all children. So, if there is something about the ethos (importance of community, importance of empathy) of Catholic secondaries that lends itself to improved discipline and better exam outcomes, then shouldn’t the debate be about finding ways to replicate that in secular schools?

Another common argument against Catholic education is that of not wanting one’s taxes paying towards something one does not believe is right.

This also makes little sense. Paying taxes is about making a contribution to society in the knowledge money will go towards endeavours you may not agree with. Catholic tax payers can’t mandate their dues don’t go towards abortion or contraception.

I’ve seen all such arguments put forward this week following the Scottish Secular Society comments – and many times previously. Just as I’m sure they will be put forward many times again.

I believe it must be possible to have a sensible conversation about faith-based education without accusations of bigotry.

It’s a discussion that makes sense in the context of Scotland becoming an increasingly secular society in which only three faith groups – Catholic, Jewish and Episcopalian – are provided with state funded education.

Is Ms Bolander wrong to celebrate the centenary of the Education (Scotland) Act 1918? No.

Catholic schools have lifted thousands of Scots out of poverty. They have done and continue to do good work.

Whether that good work could and should be done in a non-faith environment is an entirely different question.

It is, however a question politicians have no appetite for when the answer risks alienating hundreds of thousands of voters.



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