The debate should really be about choice – Keir Bloomer

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It was inevitable that the recent upsurge in sectarianism in the west of Scotland would give rise to renewed debate about the future of Catholic schools. That debate has, equally predictably, been conducted in terms of whether separate schooling gives rise to prejudice. Expressed in that way, the question is not an educational one. Rather it is one concerned with the social effects of the existing arrangements.

There are, however, quite different ways of looking at the issues which raise profound educational questions.

It is worth first considering the existing legal position. The current provisions are contained in the Education (Scotland) Act 1982 which incorporates sections first introduced in the Education Act 1918. It is frequently asserted that the 1918 Act gave a privileged position to the Roman Catholic church. It is certainly the case that the legislation was introduced in order to provide a mechanism for the state to ensure the future financial viability of Catholic schools which had been set up at its own expense by the relatively poor Catholic community. However, the Act does not make any special provision for the RC or any other named church.

Instead, it enabled a ‘church or denomination’ that had established schools to hand them over to the state while retaining certain rights in relation to the selection of staff and limited areas of the curriculum. Under the Act a small number of Episcopal schools also came into the state system. The Church of Scotland did not make any use of the Act, presumably being satisfied that the non-denominational schools would provide a form of religious observance and instruction in line with its beliefs. The fact, then, that there are Catholic schools but not Protestant schools is not the result of any bias in the legislation.

There has been one later interesting use – or threatened use – of the Act. In 1962 the Jewish community on the south side of Glasgow set up a school to provide distinctively Jewish education. When it seemed that the school might become financially unviable, it was reluctantly taken over by Glasgow Council which was aware that it might be forced to do so under the existing legislation. Whether Judaism is a church or denomination as meant
by the legislators in 1918 is a question that the courts were spared the need to consider. There are, of course, other religious bodies that could consider whether they would be able to make similar use of the law.

The 1918 Act reflected the fact that, at the time, parents’ willingness to use state schools would largely depend on whether those schools offered an acceptable form of religious education and worship. Although not described in these terms, it was about parental choice. This is an aspect of the existing arrangements that is seldom discussed. Nobody forces Catholic families to use the denominational sector, but the great majority – at any rate in the west of Scotland – choose to do so. Non-Catholics, such as me, might prefer that they did not make this choice but the fact is that they do. Any action to close down RC schools must involve removing from parents the right to make this choice.

A legitimate question, therefore, is whether it is important that the choice should exist. Clearly, there are answers based on personal freedom but are there also educational considerations?

The 1918 Act offered only one kind of choice; one based on the nature of the religious education on offer. No doubt, that accurately reflected parental educational concerns at the time. However, it is questionable whether it does so today. In an increasingly secular society, parents are more likely to be interested in the educational practices of the school, its ethos and its level of success.

The law in Scotland does afford a degree of choice in relation to such matters. Any family can put in a placing request seeking the right for a child to attend a different school from the catchment school. They do not require to give a reason but it might be based on educational considerations, such as pedagogical philosophy or the availability of a particular range of subjects, or any of a range of others such as convenience of transport or having fallen out with the headteacher. So long as the chosen school has space, the placing request will be granted.

This falls short of a clear right to select a school on educational grounds. A family might wish to access a Steiner education or a school where the International Baccalaureate is available. These seem to me to be legitimate choices. However, it is very unlikely that they will be accommodated by the local authority. On the other hand, there is a geographically limited opportunity to opt for a Gaelic medium education. (Of course, there is no absolute right to a Catholic education either. There are many areas of the country where that choice is simply not available.)

The question, therefore, might be reformulated; not about whether a particular kind of religion should be available within the state sector but about whether reasonable parental preferences – educational, religious or on other grounds – should be met so long as disproportionate cost is not incurred. Such an approach would increase diversity within the system. It could create the kind of circumstances in which the system would be capable of learning from its own experience, which is not currently the case.

There are, of course circumstances where it might be possible to demonstrate conclusively that the ability to make certain kinds of educational choice leads to unacceptable adverse social consequences. In such cases there would be an argument for withdrawing that right of choice. However, Scotland is not in that situation. The causal link between religious choice and the existence of sectarianism is not established beyond doubt. Any social harm, though very regrettable, is hardly extreme. Other methods are available to combat it.

The purely educational argument supports wider choice on grounds more attuned to contemporary concerns. The system would benefit from it.

Keir Bloomer is Chair of the Commission on School Reform.