SNP MP hits back in row over faith schools

Tommy Sheppard has rejected claims that he is opposed to faith schools.  Picture: Neil Hanna

Tommy Sheppard has rejected claims that he is opposed to faith schools. Picture: Neil Hanna

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A leading SNP figure has hit back at claims that he is opposed to faith schools.

The move by Tommy Sheppard follows reports that the SNP MP for Edinburgh East used an appearance at a Humanist Society Scotland Fringe gathering held last year to call on people to “chip away” at the “power of organised religion” within the school system.

The event was promoting the Scottish humanist society’s “Enlighten Up” campaign, which seeks to end mandatory religious representation on local authority education committees.

Mr Sheppard, who describes himself as a humanist, said that the role of religion in classrooms was for “people to learn about it but not for it to define the value system in the school”.

His remarks at the event sparked anger among leaders of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, with a spokesman saying that they amounted to a “blatant attack on religious freedom” and were “chillingly intolerant”.

But the criticisms have been rejected by Mr Sheppard, who said he was “not discussing the existence or otherwise of Catholic schools but the involvement of unelected church appointees in education committees which decide education policy for everyone”.

He also stressed that he had “no more or less antipathy towards Catholicism than any other religion”.

In a new blog post, he said: “Catholic schools exist and form an important part of our education system.

“If, though, they are to be funded from the taxes we all pay for public education then there must be an expectation that they will provide an inclusive and comprehensive service to the whole community.

“So I draw a difference between the overall character and ethos of a school which might well be determined in large part by its relationship to a religious faith, and the content of the teaching it provides which should not, I believe, be conditioned by religious belief, particularly in sciences and humanities.”

Mr Sheppard went on to say that he knew of a number of “very good” Catholic schools in his own constituency which maintain a distinction between ethos and the specific content of teaching.

“They do excellent work and I have no intention of doing anything other than commending them for it,” he said.

“I’d be lying if I said I saw this situation as ideal according to my belief system, but it is certainly one I can live with and one I have no ‘plan’ to try and change.

“However, at the meeting which [was reported] I was not discussing the existence or otherwise of Catholic schools but the involvement of unelected church appointees in education committees which decide education policy for everyone.

“This is set out in the 1973 Local Government (Scotland) Act brought in by Ted Heath’s Conservative government which requires each local authority education committee to appoint three religious members - one Church of Scotland, one Catholic and one other. It is an anachronism that will have to be addressed at some point.

“As a democrat I believe that whilst public policymakers should consult widely with everyone affected by their decisions, they themselves should be elected by and accountable to the electorate.

“It is certainly very hard to justify why some faiths and not others should have a vote on committees which decide everyone’s education. The specific campaign is called Enlighten Up and I’d encourage everyone to support it.”

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