A FORMER minister's claims that Catholic schools are the root cause of sectarianism was branded as "ignorance and bigotry" by politicians last night as the row over denominational schools re-emerged at a time of religious celebration.
Sam Galbraith, the former education minister, has called for state-funded faith schools to be abolished. He said they "entrench a religious divide in society" and called for state funding to be pulled, unless it is demonstrated it is wanted by a consultation process with local parents.
Mr Galbraith has support from a number of leading political and religious figures. Lord Moonie, the former defence minister and Kirkcaldy MP, said religion should have no role in the education of children, while Alan McDonald, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, said faith schools belonged to another time.
Yesterday, the Educational Institute of Scotland union said it would back the abolition of faith schools when the religious organisations themselves support that. However, the Catholic Church said comments such as Mr Galbraith's risked "fanning the flames of religious hatred". Michael McMahon, Labour MSP for Hamilton North and Bellshill, said yesterday the associating faith schools with sectarianism demonstrated a high level of ignorance.
He said: "Sectarianism has existed in Scotland since the Reformation and antagonisms existed before Catholic schools and before Celtic and Rangers. If we are going to tackle sectarianism, then the last thing we should be targeting is the symptoms. If you want the root cause, you have to look far beyond Catholic schools."
He questioned why Catholic schools do not cause sectarianism in other countries, adding:
"A lot of people who are not religious send their children to Catholic schools for the high standards and ethos. For anyone to accuse Catholic schools of generating prejudice just shows the ignorance and bigotry of those comments."
Fiona Hyslop, the education spokeswoman for the SNP, also said it was wrong to blame the education system for adult problems.
She said: "Christmas is supposed to be the season of peace and goodwill to all men and it reflects badly on Sam Galbraith to attack the Catholic church deliberately at this time. The SNP will support Catholic schools as long as people send their children to them."
The debate has regularly arisen in Scotland, but no mainstream political party has ever called for the abolition of Catholic schools. However, Robin Harper, a former teacher and co-convener of the Scottish Green Party, said it was not fair that the state funds a particular religion. He said: "I do not see it as the cause of sectarianism, but I would certainly say it does not help having young people going to Catholic state schools and I wish the Catholic Church would recognise that.
He went on: "It is very easy for children to develop a tribal attitude to people who are not part of their group. You see it even between neighbouring schools and if you add religion, then it become much more difficult to deal with.
"And if Protestant children grow up never actually knowing a Catholic child, or a Catholic child grows up not knowing Protestant children ... it just makes it easier for the two sides to mistrust the other side and create their own myths."
No-one from the Scottish Executive was available for comment.