Let me move on to discuss Catholic education directly. I want to look first at the origins of the current framework – the 1918 Act. And of course I want to go on to consider the modern place and relevance of Catholic education and values in Scotland. So first let us look at the background to the Education (Scotland) Act 1918 – whose 90th anniversary falls this year.
In addition to the Act’s provisions on Catholic education, it was a piece of far-reaching legislation that contained several radical changes. For instance it introduced new, county-based education authorities – the precursors of what we have today; the school leaving age was raised from 14 to 15; and there were further restrictions on under-15 year olds being employed in factories, mines and quarries – nowadays we’re trying to expand work experience opportunities!. Most of these matters have been overtaken by further changes in the administration of education, or by subsequent education or employment law.
But the provisions on Catholic education remain – enshrined in our modern education system. And that is what we are celebrating today – the fact that Catholic schools are an integral and highly successful part of public education in Scotland.
The Education Bill then before Parliament sought to address what had become a two tier system of education. In 1917, the bulk of Scottish schools were “board schools” – run by the school boards. And they benefited from financial support from the local rates. Although board schools were subject to a ‘conscience clause’ by which parents could opt their children out of any religious education, the Catholic community and parents chose to establish more than 200 ‘voluntary schools’. Prior to the Education Act these schools received some central funding, but no assistance from the rates – which of course Catholic parents still had to pay.
What did such inequalities of funding mean in practice? A graphic picture was painted during a Commons “Supply Day Debate” on Scottish finances in August 1917. We are indebted to figures provided by Mr Boland – the MP for South Kerry. Which in itself is a reminder of the certainty of political change.
I know there are some local Headteachers here so let me give you the Glasgow figures. The salary for a “board school” Headteacher was £366 (that’s per annum, not per week). Meanwhile for a Headteacher in a voluntary Catholic school, the figure was £181. A child at a Glasgow board school had £3 and 16 shillings per annum spent on their education. A child at a Catholic school, less than half of that. At the end of that Commons debate Robert Munro, the Secretary for Scotland (the post wasn’t elevated to Secretary of State until some years later) asked whether Scotland’s Catholic community was: “willing to bring schools under public control, subject to suitable safeguards both in the matter of the choice of teachers and religious instruction, and so enjoy the benefit of rate aid?” If so, Munro went on to say, “the position of the schools would in every particular, immediately improve.” He wasn’t wrong!
The politics of the Education Bill
Just four months later, Robert Munro was seeking Cabinet approval for his new Bill.
Allow me a moment’s indulgence to share with you the once “secret” War Cabinet Agenda for Friday 7th December 1917. Fifteen minutes was allowed for discussion of each of the following items – Censorship of Leaflets; Aircraft Warfare; Statements of the Political, Naval and Military Situations; the Position of Holland; Supplies to Russia; Drilling in Ireland (it doesn’t say what for); the Rank and Titles of Officers of the Air Force; the Education (Scotland) Bill; and the Payment of Conscientious Objectors retained in the Post Office. Alas our old files only contain an extract of the minutes concerning education: “The War Cabinet approved the Bill”.
Thanks to the good sense of MPs – and perhaps some divine intervention – the reforms on Catholic education sailed through all the Parliamentary stages with minimal adverse comment or amendment. Of course, the Education Bill was far from a one man show. Robert Munro enjoyed strong support – notably from three of his predecessors: Tom McKinnon-Wood, Harold Tennant, and Lord Balfour of Burleigh.
Also supporting the Bill were the then Lord Advocate, “Mr” Clyde – Lord Advocates in those days sat in the Commons. And Sir George Younger, the namesake of a future Secretary of State for Scotland. There is evidence that the reforms enjoyed a great deal of public support – notably from the majority of Scotland’s bishops. And the august body of the Glasgow and West of Scotland Catholic Teachers’ Association.
What can we detect of the politics of the change? It is always difficult, when looking so far back, to discern the precise will of Parliament. But let me suggest two inferences we might draw. First, there were far-sighted politicians who took an inclusive view of all the respective interests of the Scottish community. Second, and equally important, that political establishment was faced with the determination of the Catholic community to secure a system in which the Catholic faith and tradition permeated the whole of a child’s life, at school as well as at home.
What was the immediate impact of the new legislation? One senior civil servant – still serving today, though in legal services rather than education – the recalls his father – who was aged just eight in 1918 and attending a Catholic voluntary school in Edinburgh – telling him that it was “just like Christmas; desks, books, pens and pencils arrived”. I daren’t think what the facilities were like beforehand!
Standing back and taking the wider view, what the 1918 Act introduced was an unprecedented concordat between church and state in the provision of education. I’m not sure that it has been paralleled elsewhere. Although I would venture to hope that its longevity – and the way in which it has so well served the interests of all parties – augurs well for another more recent ‘concordat’. One which the Scottish Government has reached with COSLA and today’s local authorities. The tradition of church working together with state (both local and national government) has been well sustained over the nine decades since that 1918 Act.
The legislation may have changed its form – and so have the administrative bodies and educational structures. But the strength of the relationship is undiminished. It shines through in the distinctive contribution which Catholic schools now make to Scottish education as a whole. And in how effective Catholic schools are in delivering some of the highest levels of achievement and attainment.