Some Thoughts on Catholic Schools and Education in Scotland

There has been an ongoing discussion in the comments here about Catholic education, and issues arising from faith schools. I thought that it would be useful to write a few thoughts about this myself for two reasons. Firstly I can state my case clearly. Secondly this will provide a forum for readers and commenters on this issue, if of course anyone still has something to add to the debate!


Last night I had the pleasure of attending the Welcome Mass for first year pupils at my children’s High School. The hall was full; the children and the adults sang out, although thankfully more in tune than I was; and Father O’Brien spoke to the children about how wonderful they were and what possibilities awaited them as they moved through the school.

Many teachers turned out, whether to participate in the service, to lead the singing, play piano, or to organise the tea and biscuits afterwards. Many pupils from sixth year in the school came out on a Thursday evening in full uniform to help and to be there as an example for the new pupils. Other pupils came along, where they had siblings amongst the first year pupils. The commitment of teachers and pupils to the spirit of Catholic education is vital.

After the Mass, during which the first year pupils prayed the “Our Father” in sign language, we heard from the head teacher, telling the children about the adventure which awaits them as they move through the school. We had also heard from the head of the lower school, who talked about having a diverse group of children, coming from eleven different primary schools, joining together to make one unified first year group.

Finally, we gathered for the aforementioned tea and biscuits; new first years spent time with friends they had not met until three weeks ago when term started; older pupils chatted with each other and with the youngsters. Parents got to meet parents with whom they will share their children’s passage through secondary education over the next six years.

Being the celebration of the Mass, not all of the non-Catholic children attended, although some did. However this week has seen all of the first year pupils “on retreat” learning about initiatives like Mary’s Meals, feeding the hungry round the world.

Last night was a fine example of what Catholic education brings.

That is not to say, of course, that such an atmosphere might not exist at non-denominational schools; I am sure there are many where it does. However it is clear that there is an ethos within the Catholic education system in Scotland which is about much more than even the vital task of training children for exams.

Over the years I have attended many events at the schools, both secondary and primary, where, for example, the pupils have marked the Holocaust in drama, poetry and song, much of which created by the pupils themselves; where Diwali has been celebrated in dance as part of a project teaching the children about India; where other faiths have been discussed and praised for the good they have done. There is a breadth of education, especially regarding religion and other cultures, which belies the attacks by the critics, who use what are offensive terms like “apartheid” redolent of South Africa, and “segregation” as if we were back in the Seep South of the United States in the years up to the 1960’s.

As the Scottish Catholic Education Service puts it, rather more formally than I did:-

Catholic schools are encouraged to show excellence in their work in ways which demonstrate a distinctive Gospel understanding of “excellence”.  This is based on a Christian anthropology which regards each person as being uniquely gifted with talents and capacities which should be developed to their full potential.  Success is not measured merely in terms of academic attainment but in signs of personal development and actions which show a commitment to meeting the needs of others.

The Charter for Catholic Schools has been developed to define the key characteristics of excellence which should be found in every Catholic school in Scotland. 

The Scottish Government too recognises the importance of Catholic schools, saying:-

The curriculum in Roman Catholic schools will build on the openness of Catholic schools to other young people regardless of denominations and faiths.


This statement goes a long way towards answering the critics who condemn the “segregation” and even “Apartheid” of the Catholic system. The history of the separate system of education for Catholic children makes clear why it exists even now. It was never about taking Catholic children away from their peers; instead it arose because the state made little or no proper provision, so the Church took up the task. Indeed, at the time Catholic education commenced, there was not much of as state to do the job instead!

Catholic education has been provided in Scotland for many centuries.  Its foundations were in the monasteries which first provided education in the middle ages and which heralded the foundation by Papal authority of three of the ancient Scottish universities at St. Andrews in 1413, Glasgow in 1451, and Aberdeen in 1495.

Catholic schools have existed in Scotland for as long as Catholic communities have been established in various parts of the country. Most Catholic schools were founded as Parish schools, funded by the local parish and often housed in the local parish premises.  A number of religious congregations founded schools to provide the benefits of Catholic education, often for the poorest communities.

Today Catholic schools in Scotland are public schools – designated as “denominational schools” because they were, from the 1920s onwards, gradually transferred from Church ownership to State ownership. The 1918 Education Act in Scotland guaranteed the following rights to the Catholic community:

  • Catholic schools were to be funded by the State and open to inspection by Her Majesty’s Inspectors;
  • as public schools, Catholic schools were to be open to all, but were expected to retain their own ethos and identity in order to serve the needs of the Catholic community;
  • any teacher appointed to any post was required to be approved by the Church with respect to their “religious belief and character”;
  • the local education authority was to appoint, with the approval of the Church, a Supervisor for Religious Education in Catholic schools.

Catholic schools today do not exist as an accident of history, the result of a concordat between Church and State in 1918.  They exist – indeed they thrive – because so many parents actively choose Catholic education for their children – approximately 120,000 of them.

The Catholic school is supported in its mission by the active partnership of the home, the school and the parish. Together, they provide support for the faith community, helping to form and develop in all a mature Christian conscience, in addressing the increasingly secular influences of popular culture.

Today, Catholic schools at primary and secondary level continue this fine tradition of Catholic education as a service not just to the Catholic community but to the wider Scottish society.

Catholic schools generally have significant numbers of non-Catholic pupils there, and this is not because of children being forced there because of catchment areas, but rather because parents recognise that there are advantages in the Catholic system. Indeed I have heard it cogently argued, though at too great length even for this piece, that what should be abolished, in the interests of higher standards of education and morality are not Catholic schools, but non-Catholic!

Catholic schools, much to the surprise of those who see them as a breeding ground for antagonism towards others, are actually arenas of great tolerance to all, respecting the fact that not everyone professes the Catholic faith. However the principles outlined in the Charter above will generally meet the requirements of parents of children of other faiths, and indeed of none.


Maeve McCormack is the policy and briefing manager for the Catholic Education Service for England and Wales. Last year she wrote the following in the Guardian regarding Catholic schools, primarily in England and Wales:-

It is a key part of the church’s mission to offer good quality education as part of our contribution to society as a whole. Catholic schools are always happy to welcome children from all backgrounds whose parents seek a Catholic education for them.

The Catholic church was the original provider of education in this country. From the Middle Ages onwards, the church took responsibility for teaching children. Central to this work has always been our dedication to providing education for the poorest in society. Following Catholic emancipation in the 19th century, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales prioritised the building of schools before the building of churches. Then, as now, the church’s commitment to education was strong.

We consider education to be crucially important as a means of forming the whole person intellectually, morally and socially and we want to help to give children as good a start in life as we can. Catholic schools strive to offer children a well-rounded education, providing them with a moral basis from which they are free to make their own decisions. The immeasurable benefit of a Catholic education is that students are encouraged to engage with the wider community and to make a positive contribution to society as a whole.

The current government, like previous governments, recognises the value that a Catholic education offers young people.

Catholic schools are inclusive. Our schools are more ethnically diverse than schools nationally (26% of students in Catholic secondary schools come from ethnic groups other than the “White British” category, compared to only 21% of students in secondary schools nationally). Recently published data also showed that Catholic schools have a higher proportion of students from the most deprived areas compared to schools nationally.

Central to this is the Catholic ethos and distinctive nature of our schools. Interestingly, in England around a quarter of pupils in Catholic schools are not Catholics and in Wales the figure is a third. As Baroness Warsi recognised in a recent speech, the provision of education is a major part of the Catholic church’s contribution to British society, part of a centuries-old tradition. We are proud to offer a well-rounded, high-quality education to almost 800,000 pupils and students in England and Wales: Catholics, members of other faiths and none.

Much the same can be said of the system in Scotland.


Does the system of Catholic schools promote sectarianism and bigotry, as is charged by critics? I do not believe so. There are always disputes between pupils of different schools – but this can be between schools and pupils of the same denomination, just a different blazer colour.

Do pupils from Catholic and non-denominational schools clash because of deep theological disputes about transubstantiation? Do pupils from the Catholic school taunt their non-denominational brethren over belief in pre-destination?


Instead the vast majority of religious bigotry in Scotland, and predominantly in the West of Scotland, is connected with the “religion” of football. The two temples of Celtic Park and Ibrox attract their congregation every two weeks, where the traditional “hymns” are sung.

It is of interest that the perception amongst some Rangers fans seems to be that all Celtic supporters are Catholics, and amongst some Celtic fans that all Rangers followers are Protestants. Whilst that historical backcloth can be draped over both teams, time moves on.

I would suggest though that most of the so-called inter-Christian violence and strife in Scotland is actually trouble between the two parts of what used to be called the “Old Firm”.

How many of those who attend each ground “religiously” also attend church or chapel? I suspect that most, on either side, of the ones who sing the loudest about the “enemy” are not sitting in their pew on a Sunday morning!

And whilst I do not claim to have carried out a detailed scientific survey, from reading contributions on the internet, those who frequent Rangers websites seem far more inclined to raise the issue of religion in a negative, disparaging and often insulting way about their perceived opponents, than other teams in reverse. I am sure that the percentage of non-Catholic Celtic supporters is much higher than that of Catholic Rangers fans.

This, when coupled with the overwhelming preponderance of Orange marches in the West of Scotland, over marches of any other type, suggests that the issues of sectarianism and bigotry, far from being fuelled by the education system, are in fact simply a function of people claiming labels for themselves and, as one vigorous Rangers supporting website states “Defending Our Traditions”.

Is this a blanket condemnation of the Orange Order and everyone in it? Of course not.

The Order in Scotland states:-

The purpose of the Orange Order can be summarised as:

To Maintain intact the Protestant Constitution and Christian heritage of the United Kingdom.

To cultivate Christian character, promote brotherly love and fellowship.

To expose and resist by all lawful means every system opposed to the mental, political and spiritual freedom of the individual.

The Protestant ethic is one of tolerance of other faiths and ideals. It is this tolerance and liberty that the Orange Order promotes and defends.

I suspect that these attributes and aims might not be at the forefront of the minds of all of those who profess to follow Orangeism, which is not to say that there are no members of the Order who do loyally follow the tenets of Orangeism.

Am I blaming all bigotry and sectarianism in Scotland on Rangers Football Club? Of course not.

Am I blaming all bigotry and sectarianism in Scotland on the various Protestant churches in the country? That would be wrong, and an insult.

Am I attributing the responsibility for bigotry and sectarianism directed from nominal Christians to other nominal Christians in Scotland on football? Let’s say that the people responsible have attached themselves to football as the most suitable and convenient way for them to give vent to their “traditional” frustrations.


To recap therefore.

Catholic Education in Scotland has a long and proud history. Catholic education, of course, is a joint effort, coming first from the parents in the home, and supported by the Church and the school.

The Catholic school system in Scotland is not an exclusive Catholic-only club, and the ethos attracts people of all faiths and none.

Generally the Catholic schools do a great job in educating the moral, as well as the intellectual, part of the child. Helping others and acts of charity form a large part of the personality of a Catholic school. The role of them is to send out people to spread the good news, both by word and especially by action.

Does this make Catholic education perfect? No. No system of education is perfect, but I have been happy and indeed proud to entrust my children to the Catholic education system.

Would I object if there were proposals to create the homogenised education system which critics of educational “apartheid” want to see? Of course.

Maybe some of the critics could attend events at Catholic schools, and meet the children and teachers and see in the flesh what goes on. Witness the culture. Observe the good emanating from the schools.

Then come back and try to argue that these schools are hotbeds of sectarianism and bigotry. I think it would be very hard to do so convincingly.

Posted by Paul McConville


Filed under Catholic Education

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