Faith school debate in England and Wales
There is a long history of state-funded, or substantially state-funded, faith schooling in England: Church of England schools, Catholic schools and Jewish schools have existed since the 19th century. The contemporary academic and popular debate on faith schools in England and Wales was intensified in the late 20th century by the government support for the expansion and extension of faith schools (an initiative contested by some, including academics and Labour party backbenchers) and now has a broad focus to include the newer forms of faith schooling such as Muslim, Sikh and Orthodox.[i] While this increasing diversity of faith schooling in England precludes easy generalisations and simplistic categorisation, a number of key questions can be discerned in this debate.[ii] These key questions are presented as follows. Should the state fund faith schools? Are faith schools divisive? Do faith schools impede social cohesion? Are faith schools selective (on grounds other than religion)? Do faith schools preclude the growth and development of rational autonomy in children? These key questions present philosophical, educational and sociological challenges to faith schools.
These key questions can be applied to Catholic schools in England with intriguing results. The question of state funding for faith schools is an issue that applies to all forms of state-funded faith schooling (Catholic, Jewish, Sikh), and is one that increasingly derives from a secularist stance that would perceive state-funded faith schools as unwelcome because they represent an unacceptable link between the state and organised religion. This, however, is counter balanced by the perceived success of faith schools, in terms of academic results, social environment and social capital, that have led to them being promoted by the government as exemplars of successful schooling, though some would argue that this success is under researched and can be exaggerated.[iii]
The potential divisiveness of faith schools can also apply to all faith schools as they can be perceived to separate children unnecessarily on religious and, possibly, on grounds of ethnicity. Perhaps this key question has to be contextualised within the increased diversity of forms of schooling and the response is to question whether Catholic schools (and other faith schools) are perceived to be divisive or part of this diversity. The question of social cohesion may be more pertinent to some of the newer forms of faith schooling, and highlights the anxiety that perhaps some forms of faith schooling can contribute to a potential social and cultural separation of particular religious/ethnic groups that would exacerbate racial tensions that exist in some parts of England. Some members of these groups, however, feel that separate faith schooling would enable their children to be educated in a positive religious learning environment.[iv]
The question of selection other than on religious grounds is highly relevant for Catholic schools in England, as some Catholic schools have recently been accused of this practice.[v] Have some Catholic schools excluded children with Special Educational Needs or children from deprived backgrounds to maintain academic success? These types of accusation, based on slight and ambivalent empirical evidence, have been denied and discounted.[vi] Catholic schools should, however, ensure that selection procedures are transparent. The question of the preclusion of the growth of rational autonomy of the child is a question for all faith schools and has generated a series of philosophical debates concerning the concept of indoctrination. Perhaps this key question is being replaced, or augmented, by the connected discussion concerning faith schools inhibiting the rights of the child. While Catholic schools can sometimes be drawn into this debate, the debate is usually more focussed on newer faith schools and other Christian denominational schools, e.g. Emmanuel Schools Foundation, which appear to have an imbalance in the integration of educational and theological aims.[vii]
Having discussed, albeit briefly, the application of these key questions to Catholic schools in England, these key questions will now be applied to Catholic schools in Scotland. A brief sketch of the Catholic community in Scotland will set the scene for this application.
The Catholic community in Scotland
For the purposes of this article, the Catholic community will refer to all those who claim some form of family or historical allegiance, no matter how tenuous, to Catholicism. The history of the Catholic community in Scotland is one that can be recounted from different, but inter-connected and often complex, perspectives. There is a rich pre-Reformation history of the early Scottish church and medieval monasticism. The post reformation history is marked by the continued existence of small groups of indigenous Scottish Catholics, scattered throughout parts of Scotland, whose numbers were to be swelled by the waves of immigration of Irish, Italian, Lithuanians and Poles in the 19th and 20th centuries. The history can be viewed through the lenses provided by the experiences of these different national-cultural groups (it is interesting to note that the Catholic community in some areas of Scotland is changing once more in the 21st century as a result of the influx of a considerable number of Polish Catholics).[viii] The 19th and 20th century history of the Catholic community, however, is often understood primarily in terms of the socio-economic struggle of the Irish Catholics and their descendants, the largest immigrant group, to secure some form of social mobility in a Scottish society that, at times, usually times of economic crisis, could be hostile towards them. In these circumstances, Scottish society could even sanction forms of structural sectarianism towards this immigrant group which was perceived to be an economic burden on Scottish society. Sectarianism has become a popular perspective in its own right. The history can be viewed from the relationship between the 19th and 20th century Catholic Church and the Church of Scotland, a relationship that, initially, was uneasy and fraught with theological and sociological challenges, but eventually led to a strong joint commitment to ecumenism and increased solidarity in addressing public issues. The history can be understood in terms of the emergence of a variety of expressions of Catholic identity, including, as secularism of the late 20th and early 21st centuries appears to have an increasing impact on church attendances, secular forms of Catholic identity. Amid the development of these histories, and sometimes creation of self-sustaining and self-justifying mythologies, the Catholic schools in Scotland, heavily supported by the Catholic community, have played a pivotal role in the growth and the development of the Catholic community in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Faith school debate in Scotland
Although there was a variety of Church schools in Scotland in the 19th century, most had diminished or disappeared, for a variety of reasons, by the early 20th century. Catholic schools, founded to educate the large Catholic population that had grown in the 19th century as a result of (mainly Irish) immigration, were to benefit from the 1918 Education (Scotland) Act, when they became fully state-funded, and were able to retain Catholic ethos, Catholic religious instruction and the right to approve teachers.[ix] The Catholic community also considered Catholic schools to be the key to social mobility and retention of Catholic ‘culture’. By the early 21st century, the state-funded faith schools in Scotland, apart from a handful of Episcopalian schools and one Jewish primary school, are almost exclusively Catholic schools (the other state-funded schools are referred to as non-denominational schools). There are currently 56 Catholic secondary schools, 331 Catholic primary schools and 5 Catholic Special Educational Needs schools in Scotland.[x] They are concentrated in the central belt, especially the post industrial areas. Although this is the area of greatest density of Catholic population, there are also Catholic schools in Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen and in the Highlands and Borders.
In undertaking research into faith schools in Scotland, and applying the key questions to the Scottish scene, all of the key questions are necessarily re-configured to focus on Catholic schools. The first key question, should the state fund faith schools?, for example becomes, in the Scottish context, should the state fund Catholic schools in Scotland? The limiting of the debate to Catholic schools has other implications. The academic faith school debate in Scotland does not have the scope and breadth that are features of the debate in England. There is a wider range of academic engagement in the debate in England, representing a diversity of religious, ethnic and cultural perspectives, or academics sympathetic to such perspectives, prepared to critically address, and, in some cases, support the continued existence of these faith schools. The opponents of faith schools in England adopt a variety of philosophical and political stances, including a strong and well articulated Humanist and secularist opposition to faith schooling of any description. In Scotland, the small number of academics who are engaged in research on Catholic schools, almost invariably, have some form of connection or link to the Catholic community and can be accused of having an inside, and potentially biased, perspective. The limiting of the faith school debate to Catholic schools in Scotland has equally serious implications for the ways in which the views of opponents to Catholic schools can be perceived. Sometimes opponents to Catholic schools can be perceived to be opposed to Catholic schools, not because of philosophical objections to faith schools, but because of anti-Catholic attitudes. There is a suspicion in the Catholic community, possibly unfounded, that a deep rooted, yet subtle, form of anti-Catholicism remains a feature of Scottish society and life.
Catholic schools in Scotland
Returning to the key questions, it appears, on initial examination, that not all of these are applicable to Catholic schools in Scotland. The question of covert selection procedures, for example, does not appear to be an issue in Scotland. The pupil population in Scottish Catholic schools has become increasingly diverse in terms of religious and ethnic mix. A significant percentage of children from non-Catholic backgrounds, including many of other denominations and other faiths, attend Catholic schools. In recent years Catholic schools in Glasgow have welcomed children of Asylum seekers (of many different nationalities and languages). The question of the preclusion of the growth of rational autonomy in children, within the Scottish context, tends to be reduced to superficial discussions of indoctrination that are more prevalent in the letters pages and opinion pages of the newspapers than in academic debates and are not conceptually grounded in the current philosophical debates surrounding ‘indoctrination’ or the ‘rights’ of the child. [xi]
The question of state funding for Catholic schools is an interesting one in the Scottish context because Catholic schools became fully state-funded, not partially funded, as a result of the 1918 Act. There is no separate Catholic sector, because Catholic schools are part of the mainstream state provision in Scotland. Catholic schools, like the non-denominational schools, are co-educational (with one exception) and comprehensive. They are funded and managed by the local authorities and have access to all local and national support systems. Can they be conceived as an unnecessary additional expense?[xii] This is an argument that has traditionally enjoyed some popularity, but has faded as Catholic schools have shared equally in the systematic rationalisation of schooling in Scotland that has resulted in closures and mergers and even joint campuses, especially in areas such as the greater Glasgow area.[xiii] Another view is that the Catholic community is somehow privileged in Scottish society because of the existence of Catholic schools, although this demonstrates a certain ‘historical illiteracy’ because the scope of the 1918 Act extended to other denominations. Perhaps the contemporary argument in Scotland has evolved to resemble the arguments in England. The drive for the complete separation of the state and organised religion has gained increasing support, and secular agendas become articulated with more frequency and more coherence. State-funded Catholic schools are easily identified as an anachronistic and unwelcome connection between one historically contested established Church and the state. The expansion and extension of state-funded faith schooling in Scotland (e.g. the introduction of Muslim schools) would be equally unwelcome.
The question of divisiveness becomes more problematic in Scotland because it becomes focussed on the divisiveness of Catholic schools and not on a variety of faith schools. Perhaps this question should be contextualised within the wider diversity of schooling in Scotland? As the Scottish Executive reveals plans for greater diversity in state schooling (e.g. science academies), where are Catholic schools located in the public perception – as a part of this diversity or as divisive? This public perception of the desirability of the separation of children into denominational and non-denominational schools can become influenced by a common conception, or rather misconception, that Catholic schools are somehow linked to sectarianism, and thus impede social cohesion. This is another view that is probably voiced more in the letters pages of the newspapers, as there is no empirical evidence to support this claim and the anti-sectarian campaign mounted by the Scottish Executive rather pointedly focuses on other areas of public life (e.g. football and Marches and Parades).[xiv] The view of the Catholic educational community would be that any form of sectarian activity or attitude would clearly be antithetical to the Christian rationale of a Catholic school, as developed in Catholic school mission statements and The Scottish Catholic Education Service (SCES) Charter for Catholic Schools in Scotland.[xv] It can be added that any support or promotion of sectarianism in a state-funded non-denominational school would be equally antithetical to the (inclusive) rationale of such a school.
Catholic schools in Scotland, like the Catholic schools in England, appear to be successful in academic terms, social environment and social capital.[xvi] They are inclusive of other denominations and other faiths and are popular with non-Catholic parents, though these parents may have mixed motives for this choice. The Christian vision of education and the values that underpin Catholic schooling are, arguably, more richly articulated and disseminated more widely than they have been previously as a result of the introduction of SCES in 2003. Perhaps one of the main challenges for Catholic schools, amid the secularist aspirations of the 21st century, is the constant presentation and re-iteration of this vision and these values, both in the internal and external forums, to instil confidence that this highly successful form of faith schooling makes an invaluable contribution to Scottish education and to Scottish society.
This article was originally presented as a ‘short paper’ at the 2006 Annual Conference of the Catholic Theological Association of Great Britain.
[i] See Gardner, R., Cairns, J. and Lawton, D. (2005) Faith schools, Consensus or Conflict? London: Routledge Falmer; Parker-Jenkins, M, Hartas, D. and Irving B.A. (2005) In Good Faith, Schools, Religion and Public Funding. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing and Johnson, H. (Ed), (2006) Reflecting on Faith Schools. London, Routledge.
[ii] McKinney, S.J. (2006) ‘Faith based schools: challenging assumptions and stereotypes’ in Journal of Moral Education. Volume 35, Number 1, March 2006. pp. 105-115.
[iii] See, for example, Schagen, I. and Schagen, I. (2005) ‘The impact of faith schools on pupil performance’ in Gardner, R., Cairns, J. and Lawton, D. (2005) Faith schools, Consensus or Conflict? London: Routledge Falmer. pp. 202-212.
[iv] Parker-Jenkins et al., (2005) pp. 140-142.
[v] Recent accusations have been published in the Times Educational Supplement. See Paton, G. ‘Poor lose in race for faith school’, 24 March, 2006 and Paton, G. ‘Faith schools take fewer difficult pupils’, 11 November, 2005.
[vi] See Arthur, J. (2005) ‘Measuring Catholic school performance: an international perspective’ in Gardner, R., Cairns, J. and Lawton, D. (2005) Faith schools, Consensus or Conflict? London: Routledge Falmer. p. 148; Parker-Jenkins et al., (2005) p. 26.
[vii] See McKinney (2006) p.110.
[viii] ‘Church gives its thanks as 50,000 Poles help fill pews’, The Scotsman, Wednesday 8 November, 2006. available at: http://news.scotsman.com/scotland.cfm?id=1652102006&bad=154509
‘Poles help fill pews at Cathedral’, The Evening News, Tuesday 20 February, 2007. available at:
[ix] The history of the establishment and development of post-reformation Catholic schooling is summarised, in scholarly fashion, by T.A. Fitzpatrick (1999, 2003) in his chapter ‘Catholic Education in Scotland’ in the two editions of Bryce, T.G.K. & Humes, W.M. (Eds) (1999, 2003) Scottish Education. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
[x] These figures are taken from the Scottish Catholic Education Service (SCES) website. There are also 3 privately funded Catholic Schools. Information available at: http://www.sces.uk.com/Facts_Figures/Default.asp
[xi] A recent contribution, laden with anecdote, to the discussion is the opinion column written by Cameron Harrison ‘Catholic schools are better, and that’s the blunt truth’ in the Herald, Monday 15 January, 2007.
[xii] The classic expression of this argument and counter argument is found in Kenneth, Br. (1972) Catholic Schools in Scotland 1872 to 1972. Glasgow