By Tommy Sheppard MP
I’ve been denounced – again!
This time I appear to have incurred the wrath of the Catholic Church in Scotland’s hierarchy. A front page report in yesterday’s Scottish Catholic Observer claims I have a “plan” to outlaw Catholic schools and that my views are “chillingly intolerant”.
Sadly due to the deterioration of Scottish journalism once great newspapers like The Scotsman have simply rehashed the story without even the pretence of checking fact or context.
So, now there’s a real danger that people who don’t know me will search online and see a raft of stories suggesting that I’m anti-Catholic. That concerns me. I’m not. So let’s set the story straight.
As on many occasions a newspaper report is not the whole truth. The story in Friday’s Scottish Catholic Observer is one such example.
It is a report on comments I made at a fringe meeting at an SNP conference almost exactly a year ago. You might wonder, as do I, why the paper has waited until now to publish this story. Not only have my remarks been taken out of context but they have been melded in the article with comments from others who do not actually refer to what I said.
I am a humanist and a member of Humanist Society Scotland. As a result I believe in certain things. I believe all human beings should be treated with fairness and respect.
I believe in equality and that the earth’s resources should be a common treasury for all. I believe women have the right to control their own bodies and people can love whoever they want. And I believe in the fundamental right of all people to have and to practise whatever faith they believe in. I work for a tolerant society in which diverse views are respected and included. “Chillingly intolerant”?
I have no problem with any religion wishing to use its own resources to supplement children’s education with religious instruction in that faith if that is what parents wish.
I do, however, believe in a separation between church and state and that public administration should always be secular in nature. This is what I would like to see in an ideal world. It is not, of course, the situation we have today where religion and politics mix at many levels in the UK and in Scotland. And to be absolutely clear this is not about Catholics, I have no more or less antipathy towards Catholicism than any other religion.
Catholic schools exist and form an important part of our education system. If, though, they are to be funded from the taxes we all pay for public education then there must be an expectation that they will provide an inclusive and comprehensive service to the whole community. So I draw a difference between the overall character and ethos of a school which might well be determined in large part by its relationship to a religious faith, and the content of the teaching it provides which should not, I believe, be conditioned by religious belief, particularly in sciences and humanities.
I have a number of very good catholic schools in my constituency which I have visited and I believe that they make this distinction well. They do excellent work and I have no intention of doing anything other than commending them for it. I’d be lying if I said I saw this situation was ideal according to my belief system, but it is certainly one I can live with and one I have no ‘plan’ to try and change.
However, at the meeting which is reported in the SCO I was not discussing the existence or otherwise of Catholic schools but the involvement of unelected church appointees in education committees which decide education policy for everyone.
This is set out in the 1973 Local Government (Scotland) Act brought in by Ted Heath’s conservative government which requires each local authority education committee to appoint three religious members (one Church or Scotland, one Catholic and one other). It is an anachronism that will have to be addressed at some point.
As a democrat I believe that whilst public policymakers should consult widely with everyone affected by their decisions, they themselves should be elected by and accountable to the electorate. It is certainly very hard to justify why some faiths and not others should have a vote on committees which decide everyone’s education. The specific campaign is called Enlighten Up and I’d encourage everyone to support it.
Reproduced with kind permission of Tommy Sheppard MP.