The well-meaning legislators who enacted the 1918 Education Act no doubt had the best of intentions. A “land fit for heroes” was being fashioned in the aftermath of the First World War, and the woeful state of Roman Catholic education in Scotland stood in need of some generous new thinking. Separated from state schooling at the insistence of the church hierarchy, teaching was desperately underfunded and often poorly done in dilapidated premises.

The Education Act changed all that, creating a fully-funded Roman Catholic sector within the existing state system. There was vocal opposition to the use of taxpayers’ money to underwrite a religious ideology that refused to countenance its children being educated alongside what were insultingly labelled “non-Catholics”. It was a divisiveness that smacked of prejudice and arrogance, and critics argued against incorporating it into the state system. But dissent was out of step with an optimistic post-war mood and the Act was duly passed. Scotland’s state-funded segregated schools had arrived.

All of us have since lived with its effects, having grown up in a society of “them and us” where children learn they are somehow “different” at the age of five. Now this institutionalised educational apartheid has reached its 100th birthday, a milestone marked last month by an approving speech from the First Minister at a gathering of Roman Catholic prelates and academics. Despite this public show of bonhomie, there’s no shortage of politicians who privately disapprove of segregated schooling but lack the courage to do anything about it. And how awkward that Sturgeon’s careful words were uttered without a blush by someone whose moral values on many issues are out of step with the Catholic teaching ethos she claims to admire so much.

The educational divide that spawned many a memorable snowball fight between “them and us” was also responsible for outright bigotry when youngsters arrived in the workplace. “What school did you go to?” became a notorious employment discrimination. It was a prejudice keenly resented by Roman Catholics unable to accept that their own insistence on separate schools was feeding the monster.

“Kafflik schools”, so the dark suspicion goes, are mysterious, smelly establishments where a good education comes a poor second to being force fed popish propaganda. In truth they’re nothing of the sort. Many have an enviable academic record. And as for the much vaunted “Catholic ethos”, it often amounts to little more than a cross on the wall and a bit of extra effort when the bishop shows up. The teachers are trained to the same standards as in other schools, are subject to the same regular inspections and are concerned above all else with educating the kids in their care.

In fact, these days they are so indistinguishable from nondenominational schools that many parents of other faiths and none happily send their children there. Which begs the question: how can you justify segregated schools when they no longer have an obvious purpose? Especially when they undeniably contribute to a climate of “them and us” in Scottish society, and when they are a drain on education funds, requiring the duplication of buildings, staff and resources.

Also when they operate a blatantly discriminatory Catholics only need apply promotion policy for teachers. Now there’s a “What school did you go to?” disgrace that even the teachers’ own unions won’t face up to!


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