Simon Barrow

Raising questions about denominationally-based schooling

By Simon Barrow
August 10, 2013

Some thirty years ago, when I lived in a part of London with a significant Punjabi community, religious leaders on all sides were having concerns about the steady growth of publicly-funded schools selecting on grounds of religion.

Since then, faith schools have expanded significantly in England, and the issues have not gone away: fair admissions and employment, teaching a balanced curriculum on world views, appropriate assemblies, social inclusion, breaking down barriers, and so on.

Ekklesia's position has been to stand back from hardline 'pro' and 'anti' stances towards religious foundation schools and to work with an alliance of people across the spectrum for practical reform.

This is the aim of the Accord Coalition for inclusive schooling, which we helped found and which we play an active part in. Also the recent Fair Admissions initiative.

We have been encouraged by many people in northern Ireland involved in the community schools movement, including active Christians of different denominations, who, despite difficulties, are working hard to reduce religious barriers in education.

But what of Scotland, where I now live? There is a debate right now about assemblies, and the issue of denominational schools bubbles under. But it is very difficult to talk about.

As was pointed out in a recent public discussion on the issue of sectarianism, as soon as you try to speak about religion in education, the accusation of prejudice can start flying in one direction or another (perhaps several). So the temptation is not to do so.

But some thoughtful, critical voices continue to be raised. I was struck by a letter in The Scotsman newspaper this week. I suspect that the author, one Les Reid from Edinburgh, will be subject to all kinds of abuse, but the issues he points to are important ones and should not simply be swept under the carpet.

He writes: "Catholic schools (all denominational schools, in fact, but Catholic schools account for almost all) have the right to vet on religious grounds all applicants for teaching posts. The Catholic schools state clearly that they want only Catholic teachers.

"Special Catholic teaching certificates have been invented so that non-Catholic applicants can be rejected on the grounds that they do not have the necessary qualifications.

"On the other hand, the non-denominational schools are mostly Church of Scotland, but the Church does not have the kind of control there that we see in Catholic schools. There is no vetting of applicants for teaching posts on grounds of religion. The only input the Church has is through the nominees on the education committees. Those nominees are usually one Protestant and one Catholic anyway, so Church of Scotland input is diminished.

"A glaring injustice in the present arrangements is that Catholics can apply for jobs in non-denominational schools, but non-Catholics cannot apply for jobs in Catholic schools.

"Any young teacher who is not a Catholic must resent the fact that there is a sector of the state-funded education system which is closed to him or her.

"Why should the state subsidise advantages for Catholic teachers over non-Catholics? Why should the state fund a closed shop which distorts the careers of teachers?

"It is time the government looked again at the funding of denominational schools. The state took on the role of sponsor for religiously segregated education in 1918, but Scotland has changed radically since then."

It is important to stress that these questions can be raised by those of us who are equally strong in our opposition to anti-Catholic prejudice, and indeed any kind of bias and discrimination on grounds of religion (and non-religion), alongside opposition to racism, sexism, ableism and homophobia.

The issue is how we develop public schooling which enables people of all backgrounds to participate fairly in what is increasingly a mixed-belief society.

Learning about different religions and beliefs in school is vital. So is meeting those of different beliefs and social sectors (rather than just learning about them in books).

The good done in and by Catholic, other religious and non-religious schools needs to be factored into our thinking, as well as problems with denominationally oriented systems of public education. We need to develop a view which can take into account the whole picture, not simply a part of it deployed for ideological gain.

At the same time, the challenge for religious communities is how to teach, share and develop their own faith commitments without expecting the state to act in proxy as a transmitter of beliefs and values arising from one particular community or another.

For the enrichment and development of plural public education on the one hand, and healthy faith communities on the other, it is necessary that the distinction between the two - as well as their need to converse and cooperate - is understood and put into operation. That is why community schooling for all is so important.

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(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia, and a founder-member of the Accord Coalition steering group. An Episcopalian with strong Anabaptist involvements, he has also been on the staff of a Catholic tertiary institution, and worked in the ecumenical movement for many years.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.