Analysis: What might Scottish school ‘de-segregation’ actually look like

Ben Wray

Beyond the refusal of Scottish society to admit to its anti-Catholic bigotry, the Catholic schools ‘debate’ loses sight of the place of religious life in education, David Jamieson finds

SCOTLAND’S most monotonous ‘debate’ is back with a vengeance.

In response to the latest moral panic about loyalist and republican marches in Glasgow, former leading Lothian and Borders Police officer Tom Wood has called for the ‘de-segregation’ of Scottish schools.

As always with such comments, the small number of Catholic schools are singled out, and the much larger number of Protestant schools are ignored.

Indeed, as a society we don’t acknowledge the existence of these schools – we call them ‘non-denominational’ state schools.

Let’s be clear, this is primarily about the continued failure of official Scottish society to acknowledge its long standing anti-Catholic bigotry and anti-Irish racism.

Scotland’s Catholic schools unite a phalanx of prejudices against them; the traditionally anti-Catholic, the miserly blamer of minority groups for the failure of ‘integration’ (or, perhaps, assimilation) and the modern atheism-monger for whom religious observance is both uncouth and regressive.

CommonSpace has covered the failure of Scottish society to discuss anti-Irish racism and anti-Catholic bigotry – often referred to euphemistically as ‘sectarianism’ – on numerous occasions.

So instead of rehashing these arguments, let’s instead ask what a ‘de-segregated’ school system might actually look like.

Protestant ‘non-denominational’ schools

The debate about ‘religious’ or ‘denominational’ schools in Scotland is almost always about the minority of Catholic schools, and sometimes about the tiny number of small educational institutions for other faiths.

It is not a debate about the large majority of state schools in Scotland (nor for that matter private schools) which are referred to as ‘non-denominational’ and which are typically linked to the local Church of Scotland, which sends ministers and other resources to provide religious education at these schools.

Catholic schools are often more involved in community faith life than these ‘non-denominational’ Protestant schools. But that doesn’t change the fact that they are seen as void of religious intrusion because they belong to the ‘majority’ faith (the majority of Scots belong to no church).

At the ‘non-denominational’ state school I attended, not just Church of Scotland ministers but American Evangelists gave sermons and lectures in religious doctrine. Indeed, my non-denominational state primary school took us on a holiday retreat to an Evangelist resort. At that school too, we regularly heard sermons, sang hymns, said prayer, went to church and received religious education all within the Protestant idiom.

To be educated about other religions, and find out about non-religious philosophical and moral thought beyond standard grade, I had to leave mathematics to one of a handful of pupils taking Religious, Moral and Philosophical Education.

Assimilation and counter-assimilation

One of the more irritating factors in the contemporary ‘debate’ about Catholic schools is the aforementioned modern convergence between traditional anti-Catholicism and modern non-religious sentiment, mainly among the liberal middle classes.

This is a phenomenon by no means restricted to Scottish schools. During the ‘war on terror’, demands by the conservative right and liberal intelligentsia alike for Muslims to abandon practice x,y and z and to integrate into the dominant cultural life became routine.

The response of members of that minority community was predictable – further marginalisation pushed some closer toward traditional or conservative practice.

For example, across the west, more Muslim women began to adopt headscarves and veils as a symbol of defiance against Islamophobia.

This is a widely observed phenomenon; the state on behalf of the dominant community demands assimilation to its culture, minority cultures respond by divergence. As a general rule, ‘bans’ lead to a backlash.

So let’s put the idea of the abolition of Catholic eduction to bed. It isn’t going to happen, not least because a significant minority of the population won’t let it happen.

Learning to accept religious life

The first step towards a ‘de-segregated’ education system is the acceptance of religious pluralism, and a pluralism of thought more generally.

It is sometimes imagined that once radical demands for the separation of church and state in Western societies was designed to make room for rationalism or atheism. In fact, it was a move broadly intended to create the space for religious dissent and toleration in societies badly disrupted by schisms like the Reformation.

Secular institutions are not ones without religion. For schools not to be governed within distinct denominations, is not to have schools without denominations.

Since scientific, political and cultural life largely took place under the rubric of religion for thousands of years, to cauterise it off from wider study makes little sense, and simply deprives children of access to their own civilisation.

The religious studies class which children are often encouraged not to take in Scotland is where they will learn about Paul, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and the Bible. It is also where they will learn about the great critics of religion like Friedrich Nietzche and Karl Marx.

Protestant state schools should therefore become truly pluralist. That must mean new provision for worship, religious study and observance. We aren’t talking about kids spending hours learning the Torah by heart – but introductory studies and the ability to be part of a faith community in and out of school if they wish.

For the majority of children who do not hold religious beliefs, they could spend this provision learning religious thought, or moral, political and philosophical thought outside of the ambit of religion. This would create schools where children experience contact with diverse cultures, creeds and ideas, early and often.

This would involve hard work, imaginative thinking and considerable expenditure. It would involve viewing schools as community and intellectual spaces and not just factories. And this is one reason why the ‘ban Catholic schools’ lobby will always be given a ready platform.

Those who constantly demonstrate their frustration at ‘sectarianism’ and its durability better be prepared for radical changes. Who knows, maybe such truly non-denominational schools could also teach children what the papers will not about Scotland’s long history of anti-Catholic bigotry and anti-Irish racism.

Michael Gaida