Catholics fight plan to integrate pupils

Parents up in arms at scheme to counter 'divisive' system

Catholic parents are fighting a scheme drawn up to end the divisiveness of Scotland's education system by allowing Catholic children to mix with pupils of other faiths at school.

As research reveals that four in five Scots believe the country's segregated education system, which separates children by religion at age five, should be abolished, the parents are mounting their campaign against a local authority for its plans bring Catholic pupils and those from other communities closer together.

In Dalkeith, on the outskirts of Edinburgh, the local authority, Midlothian, wants to replace two run-down high schools. One is Roman Catholic, the other is non-denominational. Under the plan, the schools, St David's RC High, and Dalkeith High, would be rebuilt side by side on a different campus. Each would retain its identity, but they would share some facilities, such as a canteen and assembly hall.

Outside Scotland, it may not seem like a radical move. But it will create a unique situation. For the first time, Catholic pupils, at lunch and class breaks, will be able to mix freely with pupils from other faiths, and those of no faith at all. The local authority thinks it the best solution. The head teachers are keen. The Catholic archbishop of Edinburgh, Keith O'Brien, has given his support.

But a group of Catholic parents, claimed to number 300, are implacably opposed. "We have written to the Pope. We are going to take this all the way to Rome," said Stephen Tiernan, of the parent action group. "There is a patent agenda that the councillors are going to try to get rid of Catholic schools by diluting what they are."

Feelings about Catholic schools run deep in Scotland. For the Catholic church, they are entirely unassailable. For their critics, they are a divisive anachronism that leads to misunderstanding and intolerance between the faiths. And the number of people who think these schools should go is rising.

In a survey carried out by the national centre for social research, 81% of Scots said they believed Catholic schools should be phased out, a figure up 5% since 1992. More surprisingly, however, 59% of Catholics think they should go - representing a rise of 12%.

But, though there are many who allege that segregated education promotes bigotry and intolerance, and the majority of Scots want to see it ended, there is little appetite among politicians for a fight on the issue. Politicians, already scarred by the recent battle with the Catholic church over the abolition of section 28 (the law that prevented local authorities "promot ing" homosexuality), have no stomach for another fray.

"I think life would be better if there was one school system which drew on the qualities of both [existing] systems," said Donald Gorrie, a Liberal Democrat MSP, who hopes to introduce a bill against sectarianism. "But Catholic schools are not on the political agenda because a major change like merging the school systems can only be done with agreement and the Catholic hierarchy would go ballistic."

Mr Gorrie says he does not believe Catholic schools promote the sectarianism that is so rife in Scotland. There are others, however, who disagree.

In a submission to MSPs examining sectarianism, Rangers football club said it believed separate schooling was at the root of the bigotry that mars Scottish football, where allegiance is defined by religion: Celtic drawing its support from the Catholic community, Rangers from the protestants. Motherwell football club has agreed.

Two years ago, the country's biggest teaching union, the EIS, stopped a whisker short of launching an all-out campaign for the abolition of denominational schools. At the last minute, a conference motion was amended with a caveat that the campaign had the backing of parents and the Catholic church. This will never happen and the motion has since been lost in committee structures. At present, there are 130,000 pupils in Scotland's 416 Catholic secondary and primary schools; the idea that it could ever be otherwise is anathema to the Catholic church.

"We look at the whole person approach. You have to get away from the idea that school is about bringing kids in at one point and spewing out exams at the other," said Peter Kearney, spokesman for the Catholic church in Scotland. "There's no evidence that Catholic schools provoke bigotry: they don't in countries like France or England. Scotland's sectarianism is a real problem, but it is not caused by schooling."

In a society, however, where young men are murdered because of their religion, and football fans sing about being up to their knees in the blood of those of another faith, there are rising numbers of people asking whether this segregation produces an unhealthy ignorance.

In Dalkeith, says Mr Tiernan, the parents have real concerns about their children sharing facilities. "Some of the material - about contraception, for instance - going up in the non-denominational school would not be appropriate."

But Donald MacKay, Midlothian's director of education, said: "We are not going to plaster medical rooms with posters on contraception. Obviously, there are financial benefits to schools sharing some facilities, and these facilities will be better than the schools could hope to get independently. But what we are trying to do is bring the two school communities together. We aren't trying to merge them."

[The Guardian, 13/3/02]