I believe, like you, that the record of Catholic schools in Scotland is second to none. For confirmation, one only has to look at the reports by Her Majesty’s Inspectors and at what former pupils go on to achieve. So it is a pleasure to pay tribute today to your dedication, commitment, sheer hard work and contribution to such a sterling achievement. I spoke earlier of a partnership between government, Catholic schools and the Church. But of course the day-to-day provision of Catholic education in Scotland is itself a broad and highly effective partnership.
First and foremost are those of you who work in schools – head teachers and teachers, classroom assistants, other staff. Daily you stand before children and young people, as role models, in loco parentis for large parts of the day – teaching, challenging, inspiring and encouraging them to give of their best. Then there is the Catholic Education Commission, which has made a major contribution to educational developments in recent years. Not least in proposing the establishment of full-time professional support for Catholic schools in the shape of the Scottish Catholic Education Service. Even in five short years, schools have come to rely on its support for a whole range of resources, information and advice. The ‘Called to Love’ programme and ‘Values for Life’ are prime examples.
Moving on, it is no coincidence that I am delivering this lecture in a building in the heart of the Faculty of Education, at the University which trains teachers specifically for work in Catholic schools. I know there are many in this audience who would wish to join me in inviting the Dean and all of his Faculty and staff to take a very well-deserved bow. Last but by no means least, let us recognise the quality of your leadership – Cardinal O’Brien and the entire church Hierarchy. Their acute interest in and commitment to all aspects of education is an example to all.
Curriculum for Excellence
I have often said that the foundation of Scotland’s success – our great intellectual, social and economic flourishing – was our commitment to education. To free education for all. That initiative of course owed an enormous amount to the Presbyterian Church. But it quickly became the Scottish invention which made all our other inventions possible.
And of course that principle of free education is one that this Government is in the process of restoring, with the abolition of tuition fees in Scotland. We seek to build an education system that is open to all. A system that will not just benefit our economy – but will help to strengthen Scotland’s entire civic and intellectual life. That is why we place such strong emphasis on ethics and values. And it is also why Fiona Hyslop has made clear this Government’s expectation that every child should have an entitlement to be taught Scottish history – and understand Scotland’s and their place in the world.
Concerning our history, I still find it instructive to contrast Scotland’s first piece of social legislation – the Education Act – with that in England, the Poor Law. It is a striking illustration of the respective priority of Scotland – education – with that of England – bread. The 1696 Education Act ensured that Scotland was the first country anywhere to provide universal school education.
So in Scotland you were allowed to starve but had to learn to read and write. Whereas in England the poor house provided an alternative to starvation, but education was only for the privileged few. This country has been a learning nation – first, last and always. A love of learning is a liberator for children and this Government wants Scotland to be everything it can be with opportunities for all young people to flourish.
The religious education curriculum offers a valuable contribution to these challenges and our ambitions for all our young people to be successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens. Through religious education, our young people also learn respect for and an understanding of other beliefs and how to make a positive difference to themselves and the world by putting their beliefs and values into action. These opportunities will be enhanced and enriched through this Government’s curriculum reform programme – Curriculum for Excellence.
And of course we recognise the responsibility that the Catholic Education Commission takes for the faith content of the curriculum in Catholic schools. A responsibility which you exercise on behalf of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland – in close partnership with the Scottish Government, and with schools themselves. A responsibility most recently exemplified through your close involvement in the process for taking forward the draft curriculum for excellence guidance for religious education. And the questions that we face together, in setting the curriculum, are how do we encourage our young people to develop their beliefs, attitudes and moral values – and to put them into action? To help us achieve this, the curriculum should emphasise the rights and responsibilities of individuals and nations.
I can say to you today that the fostering and development of values, beliefs and attitudes will feature very clearly, and very strongly, in the draft curriculum for excellence guidance for Religious Education which will be released by Learning and Teaching Scotland in the Spring. And when we consider the ideals – the values – that we should foster in Scotland’s young people, we can think of the words inscribed on the mace of the Scottish Parliament. Words that help describe the values for our whole democracy: justice, wisdom, integrity and compassion. Values that are – and have always been – at the heart of Catholic education in Scotland.
As I said in my opening remarks, delivering a good education for all Scots is at the heart our purpose in government. So I am proud to support Catholic education in Scotland. And continuing development of faith-based education. The point is not merely that Catholic schools get good results. They do, of course, and that is vital.
What also matters is that children in Catholic schools gain a wider sense of responsibility and identity – and a desire to help improve the community in which they live.This positive legacy should not be the preserve of Catholic schools – or even religious schools – alone. Our diversity is a great source of strength and richness. All of Scotland’s schools and educators can help shape and inspire our young people to learn. To build. To hope. And to share.
Today I am proud to join with you in celebrating the particular contribution of Catholic schools to our society. To our education system. And to this country. I use the word ‘celebrate’ quite deliberately. For far too long the attitude of some has been at best, grudging acceptance of Catholic education, and at worst, outright hostility. My contention – and the central contention of this lecture – is that it is time to celebrate diversity and distinctiveness. And to openly welcome the contribution that faith based education can make to Scottish education.
From today’s perspective, we can see the Education Act of 1918 as a huge positive step in the history of this nation of Scotland. I see every reason to expect us to be celebrating its full century in another ten years’ time. I look forward to many more years of successful partnership between us. And you know that you will always have my support – and the support of my government.