Thursday, January 19, 2006

A Scottish school's leap of faith?

Laban Tall drew my attention to this story about St Albert's primary school in the Pollokshields area of Glasgow. The south side of Glasgow easily has the highest concentration of Muslims (and Jews also, as it happens) than anywhere else in Scotland. In the case of St Albert's, around 90% of the pupils are Muslim, not Roman Catholic - and given that religious observance plays a reasonably prominent role in the life of St Albert's, as it does in most Catholic schools, the Muslim parents have suggested the school should switch to Islam instead of Catholicism:
"This week, the Campaign for Muslim Schools (CMS) is calling for the school to change its faith in order to better represent the existing pupils... The campaigners argue that to maintain the Catholic faith rituals for such a minority is absurd, particularly when there are no denominational schools for Muslim children."
Under the present system, I can't think of a single argument against this move - or at least not one that makes any sense. Roman Catholics represent about 15% of Scotland's population - and, as it turns out more neatly than I imagined, around 15% of Scotland's schools are Roman Catholic. In contrast, Muslims - numbering around 43 000 - represent 0.83% of the population (2001 figures): according to my calculations (which I did on my phone, so don't quote me) this means there should be about 19 publicly-funded schools in Scotland. Presently there are none.

Under the present system, there's no argument against it that makes any sense - which has the effect of focusing your attention on the fact that it's the present system that doesn't make any sense. Britain is the only, as far as I'm aware, country in Europe where the state subsidises Catholic schools. Now, I dare say this has produced models of moral rectitude elsewhere in the country - but in the West of Scotland, I really don't think dividing an already small population on sectarian lines has been a particularly winning strategy. Certainly sectarianism would exist without separate schooling but could the advocates of religious segregation in education at least concede this much: hasn't exactly helped, has it?

I met a trainee teacher from Lanarkshire once who had not held a conversation with a Protestant until he was seventeen years old. Not typical I don't think but (obviously) it can happen. And it can happen only because we have state-funded religious segregation in education. Certainly there'll be opposition to this business that stems from simple prejudice, from resentment about "them" taking over "our" area. But a lot of it will be down, is down already, to people clinging on to their advantage, their position in the bureaucracy. And there'll be also opposition based on the understanding that is often, too often, spoken sotto voce in this part of the world: religious education has not, on balance, been a good thing for Scotland - and instead of extending the principle to others who have under the present system an undeniable grievance, wouldn't it be wiser to recognise that religion, like so much of what is essential to oneself, is best practiced in private?

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