GMTV presenter Lorraine Kelly has said she believes that education for all, rather than schools divided on religious lines, in what Scotland needs to overcome sectarianism and to build lasting community.
Her comments come at the end of a week of debate following the launch of Accord, a coalition of religious and non-religious opinion which wants to see all publicly funded schools welcoming children from all backgrounds, and which believes the discriminatory exemptions granted to state-funded religious schools should be ended.
Speaking of her own upbringing in Glasgow, as the daughter of a Catholic mother and a Protestant father, Ms Kelly said: “I firmly believe that all children should be educated together and if they do have special religious needs these can easily be met with different morning assemblies.”
She added: “To split kids up from their pals at five years old only leads to conflict and suspicion. It gives bigots a chance to pollute the minds of impressionable youngsters and, until that stops, you will never stamp out the scandal of sectarianism and the deep divisions between all religions.”
Ms Kelly said that a compromise favoured by ministers and councillors of creating more shared campus schools would be a step in the right direction, but that fully integrated schooling represents the best solution. Her views are shared by some well-known politicians and academics, including Lord Steel, the former Liberal Democrat leader. But Alex Salmond’s SNP has defended current arrangements.
Accord’s call for a new debate on provisions inclusive schooling and the special provisions for faith schools has been welcomed by editorials in the evangelical Church of England Newspaper, the liberal Guardian, and the more conservative Economist.
But it was attacked by the Faith Schools Providers’ Group, the Catholic Education Service and the Jewish Chronicle before it was even launched on Monday 1 September, and has also been criticised by the National Secular Society because it seeks reform rather than abolition.
This did not stop the Catholic Herald from claiming that Accord “aims to abolish religious schools” – something the coalition points out is “blatantly untrue”.
Commented Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, one of the founders of Accord: “Overall the response to Accord’s call for a fresh kind of debate on inclusive schooling and the problems of discrimination has been very positive, with some perhaps unexpected voices recognising the importance of the issues.”
“It is sad to see that some people immediately tried to dismiss or discredit Accord, or to sidestep the points it is making. This is a sign of nervousness. There are those who would rather have a polarised argument, because that is what makes them feel secure and ‘drums up the troops’. But we believe that the future is with positive debate and community-wide schooling.”
Opening a new academy school in Bristol sponsored by the Oasis Christian trust last week, the Rev Steve Chalke said that its values were not to require explicit faith but to be “person-centred, inclusive, service-minded” and to promote personal and social transformation.
Citing the Oasis example in an article for the Guardian newspaper today, commentator Madeleine Bunting, who backs religious schools but acknowledges the case for reform added: “My support for faith schools is not unqualified, and this is where the Oasis academies are so intriguing. They do not discriminate on grounds of religious faith in staff employment or pupil admission. * Chalke does not believe a school should be a holy huddle of the faithful. This radical innovation is what makes other faith schools very uneasy.”
She adds: “The Catholic hierarchy successfully fought off quotas of non-believers recently; it is still locked in its ghetto history of tightly-knit migrant communities in hostile host societies. It has used employment discrimination and tight admissions as barricades to defend against ‘dilution’ of the ethos.”
Accord, which has signed up both clergy and secular academics, and whose members include the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the Hindu Academy and the British Humanist Association, alongside others, says it believes that there is a large “middle ground” in the debate which is waiting to be persuaded that full inclusion is the way forward.
* Oasis academies do reserve the power to choose a headteacher on religious grounds, however.