Ian McKee: Time for schools to cross the great divide
Bringing Catholic and non-denominational schools together often creates a warzone, says SNP MSP Ian McKee
One feature of Pope Benedict's visit to Scotland has been a revival of the debate as to whether the existence of Catholic schools encourages sectarianism.
To educate children entirely apart from others of different or no religious backgrounds only risks increasing the ignorance and sense of alienation that fuel sectarian conflict and prejudice. But, to be fair, others claim equally sincerely that schooling has nothing to do with it and that the large numbers of non-Catholic children attending Catholic schools show that such schools are seen as valuable community assets.
One answer to get the best of both worlds is to encourage Catholic and non-Catholic schools to share the same campus. That way, parents wanting a Catholic education for their children can have it whilst their children have the chance of mixing with those from the non-denominational school next door.
But whether I like it or not, from the very start, many senior Catholics have been sceptical. In 2004, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Motherwell, Joseph Devine, came under fire for his "too ready" acquiescence to shared campus proposals in his diocese, from some parishioners who feared it was a step towards openly-integrated schools. The predominant fear of Catholics seems to be that schools will lose their unique character and role. A result was the insistence on separate entrances and staff rooms for each school, although this was not the pattern all over Scotland.
Support for shared campus schools has waxed and waned over the years. In 2005, Rev Ewan Aitken, Edinburgh's then-children and families leader, praised the concept whilst proposing the development of more such initiatives. At the same time, Edinburgh's director of education, Roy Jobson, is reported as claiming that shared campus schools were of benefit because they offered ". . . a larger pool of resources, staff experience and expertise".
But this was the theory. In practice, things have not always gone nearly so well. In Midlothian, a playground peace keeper had to be recruited to stop playground violence. And now there is further evidence in south-west Edinburgh that the recipe of sharing campuses is like trying to mix oil and water. Unless carefully managed, such schemes not only fail to heal the wounds of sectarianism, they actually make them worse.
Look at the case of Broomhouse Primary school and St Josephs RC school, ultra-modern buildings on the same campus but with different entrances and the sole joint facility shared on a regular basis being the dining room. The children don't even play together at break and wear different uniforms.
Added to this unhappy scenario is another serious cause for conflict. The Broomhouse school is larger than St Joseph's but now has a much smaller school roll. Also, St Joseph's is seen as offering a first-class education and so its school roll has swollen accordingly, with about 60 per cent of its pupils being non-Catholic.
St Joseph's has a simple solution - swap buildings. But this proposal has been met with indignation by Broomhouse parents. The Broomhouse Parents Council has suggested St Joseph's uses two surplus classrooms, but this has been turned down for being too far away from St Joseph's to feel part of the school. The corridors and classrooms would have to be blessed by a priest, iconography would need to be installed and the Catholic children would run a gauntlet of insults when walking through the non-denominational school.
The council came to a classic fudge, postponing the decision for another year. In the meantime, St Joseph's pupils continue to suffer from serious overcrowding and parents and children are resorting to verbal and sometimes physical violence.
Isn't it sad that innocent primary school children living in the same area should have to be exposed to such hatred and intolerance?
It will be little better when these children move on to secondary education. Most will either go to Forrester High School or St Augustine's RC High School, two schools in brand new buildings, and, like the primary schools, sharing a campus. Like their primary feeder schools, they share only one facility, but here it is a swimming pool.
When I attended the opening of each of these schools I asked pupils about how they felt about each other but, as they rarely, if ever, meet each other, it was as if I was asking about a strange faraway race, although one girl volunteered that she had a friend from the other school whom she had met during evenings at a local youth club. Roy Jobson's vision of shared campuses allowing for a larger pool of resources and staff expertise is unlikely to materialise if staff and resources are never shared. Far from combating sectarianism, the presence of Catholic and non-denominational schools on the same campus may serve only to light the blue touch paper of dissent and prejudice.
It doesn't need to be like this. In 2003, Barbara Service, then-head teacher of Fox Covert RC Primary School in north-west Edinburgh described how her school faced the challenge of sharing a campus with non-denominational Fox Covert Primary School. She told how pupils worked together, shared the playground, joined together for parties, wore the same uniform, took part in sporting activities together and that staff mixed at break time and shared social activities. The result, according to Barbara Service, has been co-operation and liaison, showing respect and tolerance for other faiths and traditions. So it can be done.
What are the lessons here? If we could start with a clean slate in setting up an educational system, my preference would be for state education and religion to be separated from each other and all children taught in the same environment.Catholic and non-denominational schools sharing a joint campus but behaving as grudging neighbours, snarling over the fence at each other, is not a recipe for peace, harmony and understanding. I don't see how religious faith can be diminished by schools sharing sports facilities, having joint classes in subjects such as the sciences in which religious differences are non-existent, wearing the same uniform and having joint out-of-school activities.
Unless both sides agree to break down boundaries in this way where boundaries need not exist, as Barbara Service shows us can happen, it is better to build such schools far from each other. Out of sight, out of mind is hardly a motto to usher in a new age of tolerance and understanding between fellow Scots, but it is better than the war zone that exists on some joint school campuses today.
Catholic schools in Scotland were not absorbed into the state system until 1918. There are legal provisions to ensure the Catholic spirit of schools is maintained, with the local diocese having to approve applicants for certain posts.
The Pope defended the system, insisting it helps combat sectarianism, and First Minister Alex Salmond has called on Scotland to celebrate Catholic schools rather than "grudgingly accept" their contribution.
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