Commissioned by the New Statesman

The Scottish Executive’s ‘one Scotland, many cultures’ policy is one of several strategies to try and accommodate religion in an increasingly secular Scotland and the debate on faith schools and sectarianism is at the forefront.  

Sectarianism has been rife in Scotland throughout the 1900s, but it has been largely overshadowed by events in Northern Ireland. However, the attacks on the twin towers and the subsequent invasion of Iraq has brought a fresh focus on the divisive quality of religion in the 21st century, and since then, Scots have been more and more apprehensive on where and when religion and the state should be allowed to mix. The former education minister Sam Galbraith, was the latest addition to a growing list of high profile figures calling for the abolishment of faith schools. On Boxing Day last year Galbraith said faith schools “entrench a religious divide in society”.

MSPs have been avoiding the faith schools hot potato ever since they were given the responsibility to deal with it and there has been a considerable amount of passing the buck between education authorities and the government. But a landmark pilot scheme introduced by the Executive and Midlothian Council three years ago to reform schooling north of the border may now hold the answer. In 2004, non-denominational Dalkeith High School was joined with St David’s Roman Catholic School in an attempt to deliver a higher standard of education at a lower cost. ‘Shared campus’ offers schools much better facilities than they could afford on their own and even though the drive is economical, politicians concede that these campuses may help heal the sectarianism that is commonplace in some parts of Scotland. 

Despite the apparent win-win situation, the amalgamation of the schools was met with fierce criticism from both the religious and secular communities. The Catholic Church was furious that it would “dilute the ethos of Catholic education” and that parents had the legal right to send their children to a school “in line with their religious beliefs”.

On the other hand the secular community, although pleased with the decision to join the schools, was disappointed that the children would initially be kept apart in the playground and in the dining halls and would not be encouraged to mix. However, Midlothian Council, the authority responsible for building schools in the area, claims there were “never any intentions on keeping the children segregated” and that “barriers” were a pure fabrication by headline hungry newspapers. Children were simply asked to stay with their own school friends until they had become “familiar with their new surroundings”.   

Donald McKay, Director of Education for the council said: “These schools have their own identity and we have no agenda to dilute their ethos. There are opportunities for placements and shared classes between the two high schools, which provide a good way for people to come together and understand each other”.

Early skirmishes between students as well as rocks being pelted at school buses also prompted sceptics to remind the Executive that sectarianism was around in Scotland since the reformation, well before faith schools, Celtic, and Rangers and that shared campus would not get to the root of the problem. But Midlothian Council has always maintained that these teething problems were due to “territorial issues” and had nothing to do with sectarianism.  

After a shaky start, the school settled down, the “barriers” were removed and the £33 million required to build the campus was deemed to have been a good investment and the campus in turn was hailed as a great success. Children from both schools, as well as a third special needs school also sharing the campus now had access to an athletics track, an all weather pitch, a cricket ground, a gym hall, recording studios and a theatre. And because the facilities are also open to the community, the school could receive lottery funding, further boosting its financial stability. This is a long way from the deprived schools Dalkeith and St David’s were in the nineties.

On the back of Dalkeith’s success, Midlothian Council plans to build another shared campus site, this time combining non-denominational Loanhead Primary to St Margaret’s Roman Catholic Primary.  The Executive will be keen to encourage education authorities around Scotland to follow suit, but they will have to remain cautious when pushing such a grand design on Catholic schools. The Kirch in Scotland is still extremely powerful as demonstrated by their outright refusal to accept the recently passed laws allowing for gay adoption – the Executive were powerless to confront them.

Perhaps a more challenging issue for the Executive in the run up to the elections is the call for a state funded Islamic school. St Albert’s Roman Catholic Primary, in Pollockshields, has a 90% Muslim student intake. Pleas were made by the Muslim community to ‘convert’ the school but these were turned down. Despite receiving over 150 letters from Muslim parents in the area, Glasgow City Council, responsible for schools in South Glasgow, said there was no evidence supporting the need for an Islamic school. However, a memo obtained by Scotland on Sunday under the Freedom of Information Act showed that the council, Scotland’s largest education authority, had no intention of funding a Muslim school in any event. The memo which carried the initials of Ronnie O’Connor, Glasgow’s Director of Education, referred to concerns of social isolation of Muslim children, too much time devoted to Islamic studies as well as the poor treatment of girls. If these concerns had a backbone, shared campus could be one way of dealing with them. 

Faith schools are losing public support in Scotland. A survey carried out by the National Centre for Social Research in 2002 showed that 81% of Scots believed separate Catholic schooling should be phased out, a rise of 5% since 1992. Among the Catholic community, 59% believed it should be ended, a rise of 12%. The Executive is tentatively taking steps to conciliate Scotland’s secular future with its religious past, but the state’s position on faith schools is considerably compromised due to traditional ties to the church and fear of descent. Shared campus could provide a bridge between the times, but as of yet, no mainstream political party has dared to show its hand.