The recent System Three opinion poll which supported by a slim majority the retention of denominational schools goes some way to redressing the balance of the Strathclyde University survey, in which 81 per cent of respondents said Roman Catholic schools should be phased out.
“Dramatic and compelling”? I think not. You pays your money, you chooses your poll. The more interesting figure was the revelation that 96 per cent of those questioned supported the teaching of moral values. This comes as no surprise, as schools have for too long been expected to deliver what some parents have quite obviously failed to do. And whose moral values are we talking about here? Mine? Yours?
No matter, this less than amazing revelation should not be used as a smokescreen to cloud the original issue, which was, in the words of Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh, “whether or not the taxpayer should support the private religious choices of individuals in education”.
As a relatively young principal teacher, I remember going through a bundle of applications for the post of assistant principal teacher in my department, along with the headteacher. Putting one of the forms on the pile of rejections with barely a glance, he picked up the next in line. When I gave him a puzzled look he responded in a way he obviously thought explained everything: “Catholic. They wouldn’t promote one of us, so why should we promote one of them?”
Several years later, I discussed with a younger colleague his failure to secure a principal teacher post in a large Catholic school in a neighbouring authority. One of the questions asked by the headteacher ran along the lines of: “As you know, this is a Catholic school. How would you go about ensuring that the ethos of the school was maintained?” The implication being, of course, that since it was a Catholic school, the ethos, or general atmosphere of the school, was better than that of a non-denominational school – or if it wasn’t, then indeed it should be.
Witness Bishop Joseph Devine’s comments that the System Three poll was “a vindication of the faith-centred education that denominational schools can provide”. Surely he is not suggesting that non-denominational schools are failing to provide a moral framework within which young people should live their lives and develop into responsible citizens? We should at least examine the question of ethos, and whether the reality matches up to the common perception.
Ethos, as anyone will tell you, is a difficult thing to measure, dependent as it is on a great deal of subjectivity. Performance indicators do exist, and are used by Her Majesty’s inspectors. Not surprisingly, they tend to produce the most contentious area of the subsequent report. Flawed as these measures are, however, it still ought to be possible to compare the results of denominational and non-denominational schools. If the results show that the ethos in Catholic schools is in fact better, then the rest of us need to be told how and, more importantly, why.
First of all, because as taxpayers we have a right to know. Second, because the price of separating our young people from the age of five into two distinct camps, telling them that they are different, and creating divisions which in extreme cases will become the basis for ignorance, prejudice and bigotry, looks to me like too high a price to pay for something so nebulous.
Let me state this quite clearly. Like Richard Holloway, I believe in a fully integrated, state-funded, comprehensive system. I also believe it will become a reality – not as a result of political enlightenment, but rather because of hard economic facts. I do not believe that Catholic schools are in any way responsible for sectarianism and bigotry. I do believe, however, that the existence of denominational schools, of whatever kind, is an obstacle to social integration.
Recent White Paper proposals for education in England and Wales have signalled a move towards separation and division, with faith schools, an increasing private sector and calls for black-only schools from a few extremists. At the beginning of this new millennium, with the Scottish Parliament in its infancy, we have to ask whether we want to be part of that trend, or whether as an emerging nation we really are prepared to throw away the old fears, insecurities and prejudices.
This article was first published in TES on 7 June 2002.