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Language: English / Gàidhlig


Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 26 November 2019

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Scotland as a Science Nation, Decision Time, Catholic Schools


Catholic Schools

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-19246, in the name of Elaine Smith, on the positive contribution of Catholic schools.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises the positive contribution that Catholic schools have made to Scotland’s education system, in particular since the historic Education (Scotland) Act 1918 came into force, when the schools became part of the state education system in return for, among other things, the right to retain their Catholic ethos; acknowledges what it sees as the contribution and the positive impact that it believes that this has had on society; considers that denominational schools continue to play a vital role in Scottish education; believes that sectarianism predates the existence of Catholic schools and that they are not a cause of it and instead they contribute to an open, tolerant, diverse and inclusive education system in Central Scotland and across the country; considers that anti-Catholicism has no place in Scotland, and acknowledges the calls that it must be challenged in all its forms.


Elaine Smith (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I thank the many members who have supported my motion and those who will be contributing this evening. I declare an interest at the outset, as I attended St Patrick’s Catholic primary and secondary schools in Coatbridge; my son, Vann, was also a pupil at St Patrick’s primary and at St Ambrose high school; and I am a trained Catholic secondary school teacher.

This debate is taking place during Catholic education week 2019, the theme of which is promoting gospel values. Four values that should play a part in the life of every Catholic school are truth, love, justice and freedom. As Archbishop Tartaglia said in the Scottish Catholic Observer,

“This theme reflects the vision and aim of Catholic education: that Catholic schools, centred on the person of Jesus Christ, form young people to discover and follow the Christian vocation to live responsibly with and for others in accordance with the message of Christ and so build up and transform society for the better.”

Some of the things that make Catholic schools distinctive are that learning is shaped using Gospel values, that prayer, worship and religious celebrations are integral to the life of the school, and that Catholic schools promote social justice and serve their communities. Their vision, aims and values—to educate the whole person: body, mind and soul—are developed in partnership with parents and parishes.

Some of the questions that Catholic schools ask their pupils include:

“Are we challenged to use our talents for the service of others?”

“Do we put into practice the things we learn about the love of Jesus through our own acts of witness, in our contributions to charities?”


“Do we show love & concern for others in our school?”

State-run Catholic schools have been an integral part of our communities for more than a century. They give children not only a foundation of their faith but an understanding of the world around them. Under the historic concordat between the Catholic community and the state more than 100 years ago, 224 Catholic schools transferred into the public sector. In return, they received a guarantee of state funding, agreement to teachers requiring church approval with regard to religious belief and a statutory right to a distinctive Catholic ethos and identity.

The Catholic community paid for the land and building of over 60 per cent of the Catholic schools that we have today. Despite being in existence since 1918, faith schools have, sadly, again come under attack under the guise of ending sectarianism in Scotland. However, the issue in Scotland that needs urgently addressed is anti-Catholicism. Roman Catholics are subject to more attacks than all other religious groups combined; indeed, half of all reported religiously aggravated hate crimes are against Roman Catholics.

The recent comments by a former senior police officer, who claimed that Catholic schools should be abolished in the bid to end sectarianism, are unacceptable. That claim not only attempts to blame victims for the crimes; it flies in the face of reality. If sectarianism could be resolved simply by the removal of Catholic schools, how do we explain and resolve other forms of prejudice and religious discrimination? There are 2,000 Catholic schools in England and Wales; if Catholic schools cause sectarianism, why is it not an issue there? It is perfectly obvious that abolishing Catholic schools would not end the attacks on Catholics in Scotland.

As I said earlier, I was fortunate to have enjoyed a Catholic education and to have taught in Catholic schools. The ethos of Catholic schools is one of inclusivity and non-discrimination. Parents of other faiths and none also choose Catholic schools for their children, which shows that their appeal goes beyond the Catholic community. While I was teaching, I was aware of the exceptional academic encouragement in the schools and of pupils being inspired to lead good lives built on Christian values, personal integrity and moral courage. That is the very opposite of the hate-filled sectarian bigotry that exists in Scotland, the same bigotry that Catholics are more likely than anyone else to be a victim of. We do indeed need to end sectarianism in Scotland, but that will not be done by unwarranted attacks on the religious group most likely to be the victims of it. I certainly hope that all parliamentarians believe that anti-Catholicism has no place in Scotland and agree that it must be challenged in all its forms. That includes standing up for the right of Catholic schools to exist.

Beyond that, there are other reasons to support and celebrate our Catholic schools, such as the good work being done in central Scotland through the engagement by St Margaret’s in Airdrie with pupils in Malawi. As patron of Missio Scotland, I also commend pupils from the St John Ogilvie and Holy Cross high schools in Hamilton for their recent work in Uganda. I am sure that colleagues will want to welcome the 30-odd pupils and their teachers in the public gallery this evening. I was delighted to learn that Archbishop Cushley was going to take time to be with us this evening, but the time change for this debate means that he might not manage that. However, I hope that he might yet be able to join us. I hope that we will hear from colleagues other positive examples like those that I indicated—please join us for a cup of tea in the chamber conference room after the debate.

Scotland’s Catholic schools produce not only fantastic young active citizens but academic excellence. Year after year, Catholic schools secure outstanding academic results in some of the most deprived areas of our country, helping to close the attainment gap. This month, we saw Catholic school pupil Declan Shafi awarded the candidate of the year award by the Scottish Qualifications Authority. It is worth noting that all three candidates nominated for that prestigious national award were taught in Catholic schools, including St Ambrose in Coatbridge. Instead of closing our high-performing schools down, we should be focused on repeating their best practice across all our state schools. Catholic schools are a sign of an inclusive society that embraces diversity and of a country where freedom of choice and speech are part of the culture.

It is time that those with power and privilege in our society stopped attacking faith schools and started questioning why Catholics are the subject of such a volley of hatred as the country’s statistics seem to show. I care passionately about Catholic schools. I want them to be able not only to exist but to flourish in the future and I am pleased that a number of MSP colleagues support that and believe that Catholic schools are good for Scotland. I will close with the words of Archbishop Tartaglia:

“In Catholic schools, our children and young people absorb the message that God is present and active in their lives, especially in challenging or difficult times. They learn to recognise the signs of God’s love around them and realise that they are called to be instruments of God’s Grace in their families, among their friends and in the world.” [Interruption.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you. I say to those in the public gallery that they are not permitted to applaud. I understand why they applaud, but they are not permitted to do so as only MSPs can applaud in the chamber.

I have nine members down to speak in the debate, so I ask them to please keep to their allocated time. I call Richard Lyle, to be followed by Liz Smith.


Richard Lyle (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

I have been a Scottish National Party politician for some 43 years and it is a pleasure to speak in the debate. I thank Elaine Smith for bringing it to the chamber.

Last year, Catholic schools celebrated a 100-year anniversary. The Education (Scotland) Act 1918 rightly brought Roman Catholic schools into the state education system, while allowing them to retain their religious character, access by priests and the requirement that school staff be acceptable to the Catholic Church.

I have always supported the retention of the Education (Scotland) Act 1918. I support Catholic schools and the right of Catholics to be educated in them. The 1918 act was the most influential piece of legislation governing Scottish education in the 20th century, and the system that it established is still, in essence, in place today. However, it is remembered now mostly because one of its provisions set up a mechanism by which Catholic schools could transfer from the ownership of the church to that of the locally elected education authorities. Significant though that arrangement was, its importance lies in its being an instance of the 1918 act’s wider framework of promoting the liberal universalism that became Scotland’s guiding social principle in the ensuing century.

If we stand back and take the wider view, we see that the 1918 act introduced an unprecedented concordat between church and state in the provision of education. I am not sure whether it has been paralleled elsewhere, although I venture to hope that its longevity—and the way in which it has served so well the interests of all parties—augurs well for the more recent concordat, which was reached with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and today’s local authorities, and was guided through by John Swinney MSP. I remember it well, because I was the person who promoted it through COSLA when I was the SNP group leader.

The tradition of the church working with the state—with both national and local government—has been well sustained over the 10 decades since the 1918 act. The legislation may have changed its form, as have the administrative bodies and educational structures, but the strength of the relationship is undiminished. It shines through in the distinctive contribution that Catholic schools now make to Scottish education as a whole.

Today, there are 336 thriving Catholic schools in Scotland, and we celebrate the fact that Catholic schools are an integral and highly successful part of public education in Scotland. Before the 1918 act, Catholic school teachers were not paid the same as their counterparts in state schools and Catholic schools were not keeping up with educational developments. Now, Catholic schools benefit from equal state funding, thus keeping them at the same level as other schools in Scotland.

According to a story that was found via Google, a young boy who attended a Catholic voluntary school in Edinburgh in 1918—I sound like Stewart Stevenson—described the aftermath of the 1918 act by saying that it was “just like Christmas”. Catholic schools were now part of the national system.

We need to think about what is really important, and that is that all children in Scotland, regardless of their religion, should have access to the educational tools that they need to be successful and to be good citizens.

During my time as a councillor for Orbiston in the Motherwell district, and as SNP group leader on North Lanarkshire Council, I built many relationships with all my constituents, including both priests and ministers. Sadly, the religious divide is prevalent, but we are all working towards ending that. I abhor any attack on Catholic schools. People should know better than that, because Catholic schools are an integral and highly successful part of public education in Scotland. I wish the schools well and I support both the retention of the Education (Scotland) Act 1918, and the retention of Catholic schools. I thank Elaine Smith for bringing this important debate.


Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I thank Elaine Smith for bringing this debate to Parliament. It will not have escaped members’ notice at the weekend that, on the back of The Sunday Times publication of Scottish schools’ comparative results, there was much discussion about what makes a good school. Yet again, Scotland’s Catholic schools showed a very strong performance, as they always do, so it is important to reflect on what characteristics make that happen—I will return to that in a minute.

Scotland in the 21st century is an increasingly multicultural country, with the majority of religious schools being Catholic and a growing, though smaller, number of schools serving other denominations. The Catholic Church has more than a millennium of experience in education and the holistic development of young people, as Elaine Smith described, whether that be educational, cultural, social or spiritual, has always been central to the Catholic structure of schooling, not only in Scotland but worldwide. It is therefore right and proper that we acknowledge the success of Catholic education over a long period in creating well-balanced and well-educated young people.

Diversity in education and the parental choice that comes with that are inherently good things and should be seen as such. The availability of Catholic schools is part of that mix, not least because they give our young people a wider spectrum of open and accessible schooling. Therein lies the parallel to the fact that many of those Catholic schools consistently achieve well, including within some of the more deprived areas of Scotland.

A recent study by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education makes very good reading for Catholic schools, particularly when it comes to their progress within some of the more difficult and deprived areas of Scotland. We have to ask ourselves why that is. The schools are a very important tradition, and, like other members in this chamber, I am fully supportive of the work that they do.

Children and young people obviously come from dissimilar backgrounds, faiths, cultures and communities, and are often at different places in the range of religious conviction. Although most young people in Catholic schools will be of the Catholic tradition, some will be of other denominations and religious traditions or have views that may be independent of any specific religious conviction. They come because of what Catholic schools represent and the fact that they pride themselves not just on their ethos, vision and values but on good quality education.

Catholic schools have long met academic and emotional requirements for their students, and the success of that approach should be seen in exam results, and, more importantly, in the positive destinations of the young people as they leave school and take their places in Scottish and other societies.

To those who argue that separating and encouraging fundamental lines of difference in schooling is contentious and leads to religious, ethnic and socioeconomic division, my response is that such an education may actually help young people to recognise and appreciate what lies around them. Other international religions, whether Judaism, Islam or others, are generally taught in Catholic schools from primary 3 and are further pursued in secondary 1 and 2, building on the informal experiences that those young people are likely to get before and after that time.

We have a lot to learn from the Catholic form of education, in terms of the tolerance with which their young people are imbued, and their understanding and appreciation of others’ cultural histories and divides.

That said, I wholly agree that we should do more to encourage close partnerships between denomination-based schools and, indeed, between the divisions within particular traditions that sometimes affect the criticism that we hear. We need to attend to that in our own cultural output.

I finish by paying great tribute to the Catholic schools in Scotland. They have a remarkable tradition, which we should celebrate, and we are very pleased to welcome their representatives to the chamber.


Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

I begin by congratulating Elaine Smith on obtaining the debate to mark Catholic education week and to acknowledge the positive contribution of Catholic schools in Scotland. As the motion notes and as Elaine Smith said, the schools have been an integral part of our state education system in Scotland for 101 years. Their place was enshrined in the Education (Scotland) Act 1918 and has been protected ever since.

It is right to recall the importance of that legislation and the historic concordat that it marked between the state and the Catholic community at the time. We have often debated sectarianism here and acknowledged its continuing blighting of our country. It is sometimes referred to as “Scotland’s secret shame”, but 100 years ago there was nothing secret about the prejudice and bigotry that were aimed at the Catholic—largely Irish—community in Scotland. They were open and blatant, and my church, the Church of Scotland, was, to its shame, more than complicit.

Prejudice and bigotry were not limited to the west of Scotland. My late father used to tell me about growing up in Leith in the 1930s. At that time, John Cormack and the Protestant Action Society were a significant political force there, and in what was then Edinburgh Council.

Catholic schools, therefore, were and are an important reflection of our desire for a tolerant, diverse and inclusive state education system. They are a bulwark against sectarianism and an important indication to the Catholic community that Scotland will not tolerate bigotry—a guarantee that is, as Elaine Smith pointed out, sadly still needed today.

As members have said, they are also very successful schools that provide high-quality education for 20 per cent of our children of all faiths and none. In many instances they serve communities in which children face particular barriers to education, and they deliver excellent results—academic and otherwise—even in those circumstances.

Given their ethos and values, it should be no surprise that Catholic schools are outward looking and are actively engaged in charitable work in their communities. A few days ago, I was fortunate enough to be a guest at a mass that was given by Archbishop Cushley—who is in the gallery—at St Martin’s RC church in Tranent, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that church. I heard about the work that is being done in the diocese to support refugees and asylum seekers, which encourages pupils in local Catholic schools to understand the similarities to the challenges that their own families faced a few generations ago, and to support those who are facing those challenges now.

That is a good example of how our Catholic schools are contributing to ensuring the tolerant and welcoming future that we want for our country and all its diverse communities, of whatever faith or, indeed, of none.


Joan McAlpine (South Scotland) (SNP)

I congratulate Elaine Smith on securing the debate. I was delighted to support her motion. I welcome to the gallery Archbishop Cushley and the pupils who are also there.

I spoke out on this issue a couple of months ago, in response to a social media comment from Mark Millar, who is a very famous and successful film-maker from Coatbridge, which is the home town of Elaine Smith. He posted that he had heard a number of politicians saying that Catholic schools had to go, and that they were saying it privately. I do not know who they were: I have never heard any politicians say that privately. I think that the turnout for the debate from across Parliament shows that Parliament is fully in support of Catholic schools. We want to send the strong message that, by supporting Catholic schools, we are supporting a truly equal society that accepts difference and diversity.

I totally agree with Elaine Smith that suggesting that Catholic schools in any way contribute to sectarianism is tantamount to victim blaming because, even today, Catholics are still subject to far more sectarian attacks and discrimination than are people in other parts of the population.

I also back what members have said about the Education (Scotland) Act 1918. Some of the people who attack Catholic schools do so from a position of complete ignorance and really should read their history. The 1918 act put Catholic schools on the same footing as non-Catholic schools at a time when discrimination was absolutely appalling for the Irish Catholic population in Scotland, who included my grandparents and great-grandparents, who came from Ireland.

Elaine Smith

Joan McAlpine has reminded me that I should have said in my speech that, a year ago, the Scottish Catholic Education Service had a stall in Parliament to celebrate 100 years of Catholic education. I also should have welcomed Barbara Coupar, the director of the SCES to the gallery. Will the member join me in doing that?

Joan McAlpine

Yes—I am absolutely delighted to do so.

On the 1918 act, it is important to remember that Scotland has a proud tradition of education, which is rooted in the Church of Scotland and goes back many hundreds of years. The schools that grew in Scotland were parochial ones that were close to the kirk. That is to be celebrated for the Church of Scotland, but those in the large influx of Roman Catholics from Ireland did not feel that the schools that were provided through the parochial boards, and then the local education boards, would give their children the religious education that they needed. They were absolutely right. That is why it was such an advance to bring Catholic schools into the state system in 1918. Before that, Catholic schools had been underfunded, when compared with the so-called non-denominational schools.

I want to say something about the term “non-denominational schools”. I went to Catholic schools—St Ninian’s primary school in Gourock and St Columba’s high school in Greenock—and I really benefited from that education. However, I chose not to send my children to a Catholic school, but to a non-denominational school. Non-denominational schools have close links to the Church of Scotland. I was surprised that, although they teach about other religions, there are links to their local Church of Scotland churches. Therefore, it is not true to say that we have Catholic schools and non-denominational schools.

I reiterate the First Minister’s comments when she spoke on the centenary of the Education (Scotland) Act 1918. She said that the act had shaped

“modern Scotland for the better”

and that the legislation was

“a national success story”

and a

“far sighted compromise”

between church and state.

Catholic schools benefit everyone in our society. Long may that continue.


Annabelle Ewing (Cowdenbeath) (SNP)

I am also pleased to have been called to speak in this important members’ business debate, and I congratulate Elaine Smith on securing it. I, too, welcome Archbishop Cushley and all our other distinguished guests to the gallery.

I have unswerving support for faith-based education in Scotland, and hence for Catholic schools. Catholic schools have made a positive contribution to Scotland’s education system and to our wider society. I argue that they are, indeed, a “national success story”.

The background to Catholic schools becoming part of the state education system is the Education (Scotland) Act 1918, as has been mentioned. It is important to note that the legislation provided for a number of groundbreaking reforms, including the raising of the school leaving age and the amazing partnership between the Catholic church and the state, which was, as Joan McAlpine mentioned, a far-sighted development.

Under that historic concordat, Catholic schools, which were at that time set up voluntarily and were largely underfunded, were brought into the state education system and were therefore able to access state funding while retaining the right to maintain their Catholic ethos. I believe that that was a game changer for young Catholics. As facilities in their schools improved significantly, so did—which is important—their prospects. The legislation also served to signify a different relationship between the Catholic community and the state.

Professor Sir Tom Devine, when giving the 2017 Cardinal Winning lecture on the 1918 act, stated that it

“enabled the growth of a large Catholic professional class, fully integrated into the mainstream of Scottish society.”

The legislation reflected, in Scotland, a new level of trust, through which Catholic schools considered that they could play a full role in the development and wealth of the nation.

Over the years, we have seen the distinctive contribution that Catholic schools have made, with a high level of achievement and attainment. That reflects the truism that diversity is a source of strength that should be celebrated, because it enriches and shapes our society for the better. Indeed, we have seen children come through Scotland’s Catholic schools with a strong moral foundation, a sense of personal responsibility, an understanding of the common good and a strong commitment, as has been noted, to charitable causes at home and abroad. That must all be to the good, and it fits well with the importance that we place on free education for all. We should recall that universal school education was introduced in Scotland in 1696, with a school and schoolmaster for every parish.

I am proud, as the MSP for Cowdenbeath, to say that there are many excellent Catholic primary schools in my constituency: St Brides RC primary school in Cowdenbeath, St John’s RC primary school in Rosyth, St Joseph’s RC primary school in Kelty, St Kenneth’s RC primary school in Ballingry, St Ninian’s RC primary school in Cardenden and St Patrick’s RC primary school in Lochgelly. The teachers and staff in all those schools are to be congratulated for all their work in helping young people to be the best that they can be. I also take this opportunity to commend the teachers and staff in all the schools in my constituency, who do so much to improve the life chances of young people in Fife.

To conclude, I quote the First Minister at last year’s Cardinal Winning lecture:

“The Scottish Government is an unequivocal supporter of Catholic schools. We value the contribution that Catholic schools make to modern Scotland. We want that contribution to continue in the years ahead.”

I am proud to endorse those sentiments and to pledge to my constituents that I will always support the role of Catholic schools in our country.


Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

I join in offering my congratulations to Elaine Smith for securing today’s debate and for the content of her speech. I also welcome all the visitors to the public gallery.

It is important that we have an opportunity to debate in Parliament the value of Catholic education from an informed viewpoint. As others have noted, the Education (Scotland) Act 1918 enshrined Catholic schools in the public sector, guaranteeing them funding from the state while allowing them to retain their distinct ethos, identity and culture. They have grown in number from 224 schools at the commencement of the 1918 act to 366 schools today.

Let me take a leaf from Annabelle Ewing’s book and mention the schools in my area. I have one Catholic secondary school in my constituency, Our Lady and St Patrick’s high school, with feeder primaries at St Joseph’s in Helensburgh, St Martin’s in Renton, St Mary’s in Alexandria, St Kessog’s in Balloch, St Michael’s and St Patrick’s primaries in Dumbarton and St Peter’s in Bellsmyre. All of them are excellent schools, with excellent and hard-working staff who work closely with their non-denominational counterparts in the area. My experience of visiting them is that those schools are attended by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. There are children there from Muslim backgrounds, from Chinese backgrounds and from families that are not religious at all. That is because they believe in and value the ethos of the school.

At Our Lady and St Patrick’s, for example, extensive volunteering, charitable work and service in the community are a substantial and significant part of school life. The ethos and culture of caring for others is embedded in much of what the school does and helps to shape the young people’s sense of civic duty. That goes hand in hand with excellence in academic attainment. Despite drawing from a significantly deprived catchment area, the school outperforms every other school in my constituency, which is quite an achievement.

Of course, nothing ever stands still, and Catholic education has evolved. Now, almost half of the local Catholic primary schools in my area share campuses with non-denominational primary schools. Although a lot of their joint activity works well, the schools retain their distinct identities.

The Catholic education that I have witnessed is very good: it is all about inclusion, tolerance and co-operation and not segregation or separation. To those who think, or infer, that Catholic schools contribute to sectarianism, I say that that is extremely lazy thinking, which runs contrary to the evidence that we see in our own local communities. Elaine Smith was right to say that Catholic schools in England do not seem to have such a problem.

Nor do I think that being a fan of one or other of the major football teams makes someone sectarian. In my local area, there is a passionate Celtic-supporting minister of the kirk. Of course, he has good taste. There are tribal loyalties and keen rivalry, but the majority of people are there for the football and nothing else.

Sectarianism existed long before the Education (Scotland) Act 1918. Its roots are deep seated and will be addressed only by education that is designed to change society’s attitude. We should be encouraged by a TNS-BMRB survey that was done a few years ago, which said that more than 90 per cent of Scots recognised the negative impacts of sectarianism and wanted to see action to address it. That is important. Work done by groups such as Nil by Mouth and the sense over sectarianism programme, which is essential to breaking the cycle of bigotry that remains, will land on people who want change. We need to see sustained, long-term support for such activity coming directly from the Government.

In this Catholic education week, let us celebrate the contribution that Catholic schools make to our local communities and to civic society across Scotland, and let us ensure their continuation for decades to come.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Before I call Fulton MacGregor, I advise members that, given the number of members who still wish to speak in the debate, I am minded to accept a motion without notice, under rule 8.14.3, to extend the debate by up to 30 minutes. I invite Elaine Smith to move such a motion.

Motion moved,

That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[Elaine Smith]

Motion agreed to.


Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

I put on record my thanks to Elaine Smith. I know that she has taken forward this issue passionately over the years. Like everybody else, I agree entirely with the motion. Catholic schools make a positive contribution to Scotland and are an integral part of the fabric of our constituencies and our nation.

I attended Coatbridge high school, which is a non-denominational school, but, as is normal in central Scotland, many of my friends and family attended Catholic schools. Our friendships were based on geography and shared interests, not on whether we went to Coatbridge high or St Pat’s, which were the two main schools that served the area that I lived in.

Many people whom I know send their children to Catholic schools. As other members have said, some of those people went to non-denominational schools and, as Joan McAlpine demonstrated, the reverse can also happen. The education that is provided in Catholic schools has always been considered to be positive and inclusive and to in no way disadvantage pupils.

As an MSP, I am lucky enough to go around all the schools in my constituency, and I pay tribute to the teaching staff and pupils at each and every one of them. I witness at first hand the work that they do. There are too many schools to mention, but I will quickly talk about the two Catholic secondary schools in my constituency.

As folk will know, St Ambrose high school was in the news a lot over the summer. While the Deputy First Minister is in the chamber, I will take the opportunity to thank him again for his intervention and for bringing some clarity to an issue that has been of some concern to local people. However, at no point was the concern to do with pupils or teaching staff. Indeed, pupils at St Ambrose achieve and attain very well in very difficult circumstances. Elaine Smith mentioned one such pupil.

Today, I was able to pick out two recent motions that I have lodged. One was on St Ambrose and mental health, which recognised pupils who participated in the Scottish mental health arts festival that was held in Lanarkshire. More recently, I lodged a motion in 2019 on the Crown Office national public speaking competition, the two winners of which were from St Ambrose. Just this week, as was shown in the local advertiser, St Ambrose pupils were critical in setting up a food pantry near Blairgrove. The pupils have done absolutely fantastic work in supporting inclusiveness and a community spirit.

In the same vein, St Andrew’s high school, which is nearby, has also made the news recently by supporting the hospice and the Conforti food bank in Coatbridge. In addition, 2019 was a very successful year for St Andrew’s, with many pupils winning bronze Duke of Edinburgh certificates. Overall, we can see that those schools are achieving.

I agree whole-heartedly with the sentiment of the second part of Elaine Smith’s motion, which is about sectarianism. In fact, I find it ludicrous that people think that removing Catholic schools will help to tackle sectarianism. Sectarianism predates Catholic schools. Anti-Catholicism is the problem, so how would removing Catholic schools help with that? Although removing such schools might sound like a coherent argument in some circumstances, it is not backed up by evidence and is argued through the prism of a west of Scotland—or at least a central Scotland—psyche. Elaine Smith made that point very well.

Catholic schools are not the cause of sectarianism in Scotland; it is as simple as that. We must all work together to stamp out all forms of hate, and I know that the Scottish Government is committed to doing that. What annoys me most is that we are still having these conversations, particularly in working-class post-industrial areas. Coatbridge high and St Andrew’s both cover central Coatbridge, and they face the same primary issue: poverty. The division that we must address is wealth disparity and deprivation. Those are the biggest issues that our education system face. Better academic results and outcomes are achieved by pupils from wealthier areas and by those who can afford private education. That cannot be right, and that is where the debate needs to be. Talking about whether we should have denominational schools is just a smokescreen to that real debate.

Again, I thank Elaine Smith not only for securing the debate but for her dedication to this issue over the years.


John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

I thank Elaine Smith for lodging the motion, which I fully support.

Since the 1500s, following the reformation in Europe, we have had the major split between Protestant and Catholic churches. For most of that time, most people in Europe—including in the UK and Scotland—have considered themselves to be Christian, even though sometimes their personal level of faith may have been minimal. Quite frankly, both sides have behaved shamefully at times—each has discriminated against the other, and people were killed because they were on the wrong side of the divide. Scotland was no exception. Both sides behaved badly, to say the least, when they were in power.

Schools were largely set up by the churches and Scotland became one of the most literate countries in Europe. However, time moved on and the state accepted responsibility for schools. Discrimination against Catholics, especially Irish Catholics, continued. Understandably, Catholics wanted to keep their own schools when the state got more involved.

We then move on to the present day. Scotland is overwhelmingly secular and those with a live personal faith are probably in a relatively small minority, although we still see cultural and traditional faith resurfacing at funerals, weddings and remembrance events, and when major tragedies occur.

As I see it, we have Catholic schools and secular schools, with some Catholic schools having a large proportion of non-Catholic pupils—perhaps because their families prefer a more openly Christian ethos and feel that there is a stronger value system in a Catholic school.

The SNP policy has been that the state would fund particular schools if there was sufficient demand from parents. Potentially, that could mean a wide range of types of schools, including Steiner, Muslim and Jewish schools or those of other Christian denominations being state funded, although so far that has not really happened to any great extent.

I would certainly argue that such a range of schools fits with our desire to treat all young people equally. Equality does not need to mean a uniform greyness but can be multicoloured and multifaceted.

Freedom of religion or belief surely means equal treatment and respect, whether people have faith or not. Some would argue that faith must be both personal and private. I absolutely agree that it is personal, but it is not private. Just as our secular and humanist friends have every right to argue for their place in the public square and in education, so people who choose to follow a particular faith path have every right to be in the public square and in education.

That raises the question of the place of families and parents in education. Should the state—in practice, that means the Government or the council—have total control over schools and what young people learn or should parents and families have a degree of control, too? Have we got the balance right between the state and the family? That is particularly an issue with current subjects such as same-sex relationships and transgender issues. Some parents and others feel that the state is too dominant in promoting what may be the majority view in Parliament but is not always accepted by the wider public. Can we allow room for diversity?

It is perhaps unfortunate that we really have only two streams of schools in the state sector, which has, perhaps inevitably, put the focus on the Catholic sector. As many others have said in the debate, Catholic schools are wrongly seen in some quarters as contributing to sectarianism. However, as Elaine Smith hinted at, when we put black and white young people in the same school, we do not solve racism—we still have it, unfortunately—so it is pretty obvious that the school is not the source of such deep-seated problems.

Despite not being a Catholic, I welcome the motion and I welcome Catholic schools. I think that we should be considering whether there is demand for other types of schools as well.


Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

I, too, thank Elaine Smith for bringing her motion to the chamber for debate. I am proud to be allowed to speak in the debate, just I was proud to be invited a short time ago to contribute to some videos around the celebration of 100 years of Catholic education.

What has not been discussed in the debate so far is what education means to the Catholic church. It is interesting that today’s time for reflection from the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund was delivered by a Jesuit brother, as the Jesuit brothers are of course a teaching order. I am the niece of a Marist brother, and education as a way out of poverty and a way of emancipating people not just in Scotland but throughout the world has been key to my understanding of the Catholic church’s relationship with education.

Elaine Smith mentioned that the Catholic church funded the building of the schools. It is interesting that, in a lot of cases, it built schools in communities before churches, because education was so key to the Catholic church’s relationship with the community and its understanding of how it wanted its children to be raised and educated.

I attended Catholic schools—St Aidan’s primary and secondary schools in Wishaw—as did my son, which gives me the unique opportunity to welcome Archbishop Cushley, who is a former chaplain of St Aidan’s and is in the public gallery tonight. I know that he has very fond memories of his time at St Aidan’s, as do I.

My son’s experience of the school was different from mine. I was not aware of many people of other religions when I was at school, but many of my son’s friends are Muslims who attended St Aidan’s. My son was able to take part in the Pope Benedict Caritas award, which is a medal that is given to young people who demonstrate their faith by contributing through loving charitable service to their local community. The Caritas award represents 400,000 hours of volunteering by young people from Catholic schools who have supported their local communities.

In my son’s time at the school, St Aidan’s was involved in the Mark Scott leadership awards. Mark Scott was a young man who was killed in a sectarian attack, and his family set up the leadership awards to bring groups of young children from different religious backgrounds and different schools together in projects that benefit the community. I have seen many examples from the Mark Scott leadership awards that involve people working with housing associations, with older people, in nurseries and with younger children in the area to break down the barriers that unfortunately still exist.

During the centenary of the first world war, St Aidan’s, Coltness, Clyde Valley and Calderhead high schools in my area came together to tell the story of Willie Angus, who showed great valour in the first world war and was a Victoria Cross recipient. He was also a very talented football player and was signed to Celtic Football Club. The young people produced a film about him and, to promote the film, they also produced a stage play with musical interludes. They all got together to tell a story about compassion and the futility of war, and how the war had affected communities.

That is an example of the Catholic school being part of the community, and it shows the richness and diversity that make us stronger as communities because we have Catholic education alongside other education in our country. I am very proud to support the motion.


The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

I congratulate Elaine Smith on securing this important debate and I thank her for giving me and other members from across the political spectrum an opportunity to express clearly and firmly our support for Catholic schools and Catholic education in Scotland. I take the opportunity to state that position clearly on behalf of the Scottish Government.

It is a timely debate, as it takes place during Catholic education week, which is a week in which we acknowledge the significant contribution to our education that is made by the Catholic schools of Scotland.

Elaine Smith began her contribution by making a necessary declaration of interest due to her associations with the Catholic education system, and I feel obliged to do likewise. My youngest son, Matthew, is wonderfully educated at St Stephen’s Roman Catholic primary school in Blairgowrie. As Jackie Baillie mentioned, the school is part of a shared campus in which the identity, values and the expressed faith of St Stephen’s primary school are in no way inhibited by the fact that it shares facilities with an outstanding school along the corridor—Newhill primary school—thereby demonstrating how we can modernise our education estate but fundamentally maintain the quality and strength of our education system.

I join others in extending a warm welcome to the representatives of some of our Roman Catholic schools—St Thomas of Aquin’s RC high school, St Augustine’s RC high school and Holyrood high school, in the city of Edinburgh; to Barbara Cooper of the Scottish Catholic Education Service who, along with her colleagues, makes an outstanding contribution to the formulation of education policy and direction in Scotland; and to His Grace Archbishop Cushley, who is a very welcome presence at our debate.

As members have said, last year marked the 100th anniversary of the Education (Scotland) Act 1918 and the integration of Catholic schools into the state education system. I was delighted to host a reception for pupils, teachers, the papal nuncio to Great Britain and Scotland’s bishops in the great hall at Edinburgh castle to mark the occasion, at which the First Minister had the privilege of delivering the Cardinal Winning lecture. At such events and on many other occasions, the First Minister and I have been absolutely clear on the value that we place on Catholic education and on the important role that Catholic schools have in building the society that we live in today.

The Education (Scotland) Act 1918 was important as it addressed a key inequality at that time. Between 1872 and 1918, the Roman Catholic community maintained its own schools at a time when parents, as ratepayers, also contributed to the running of other schools. That almost inevitably meant that Roman Catholic schools, which educated one seventh of Scotland’s schoolchildren, were significantly underresourced. In turn, that meant that Catholic children were deprived of the educational opportunities that other children could take for granted. That changed with the Education (Scotland) Act 1918.

The Government is committed to tackling today’s inequalities, and Catholic schools play a key role in that. Our Catholic schools contribute to all Scotland’s communities. Like non-denominational schools, they serve some of our most deprived communities and provide an important route out of poverty through the high-quality, values-based education that they provide.

The Government has made closing the attainment gap between children in affluent areas and children in poorer areas its defining aim. We are not doing that just because of the harm that inequality causes to individuals across the country, but because inequality is bad for the country as a whole. We all suffer when individuals, through no fault of their own, face barriers to fulfilling their potential. It means that they are less able to contribute their efforts, talents, and ideas to wider society.

Annabelle Ewing referred to the comments of Professor Sir Tom Devine, who talked about the effect of the 1918 act in creating growth in the large Catholic professional class, thus contributing to the mainstream of Scottish society.

During the debate, members talked about the high quality of Catholic education. When I was dealing with the issues at St Ambrose high school in Fulton MacGregor’s constituency during the summer, I was struck to see that one of the desperate aspirations of parents in that community was to make sure that their children were in no way deprived of the high quality education that St Ambrose high school offered their children. I was pleased that we were able to address the issues and enable the children to return to that high quality education.

Catholic schools also provide other opportunities for young people to thrive, and Clare Adamson referred to the Caritas awards. I had the privilege of attending the Caritas awards ceremony in Glasgow earlier this year. The event, involving more than 3,000 pupils, showcased the charitable and community activities that hundreds of pupils who attend Catholic schools take part in. The Caritas awards are an outstanding example of the service of young people in our country, and they are an example of the broad range of awards that young people are now achieving as part of their education. However, the Caritas awards are uniquely provided by the Catholic education system.

I was delighted to see a number of representatives of St John’s academy in Perth, the Catholic secondary school that serves my constituency, receiving the Caritas awards, as well as seeing examples of how the young people live out the aspirations of the Caritas awards through the recent work of that academy in supporting an orphanage in Romania with the devoted service of many of the senior pupils of the school.

Elaine Smith’s motion refutes the concern that is sometimes raised that Catholic schools are, in some way, a source of sectarianism in our society. I agree entirely with Elaine Smith, as did the independent advisory group on tackling sectarianism in Scotland, that there is absolutely no substance to the suggestion that denominational schools cause sectarianism. The independent advisory group concluded:

“We do not believe that sectarianism stems from, or is the responsibility of, denominational schooling, or, specifically, Catholic schools, nor that sectarianism would be eradicated by closing such institutions”.

Such a powerful and informed contribution from the independent advisory group should put to rest some of the regrettable rhetoric that we have heard on the subject.

I want to emphasise a key characteristic of the contribution of the Catholic education system to Scottish education as a whole: the importance of the values-based education that lies at the heart of Catholic schools, which makes a vital contribution to building a diverse, tolerant and loving society. Elaine Smith quoted Archbishop Tartaglia’s explanation of the gospel values of truth, love, justice and freedom, which are promoted in Catholic education. If ever four values were the antithesis of sectarianism, I advance that truth, love, justice and freedom are those four values.

Those values have underpinned Catholic education in Scotland for so many years, and it is fascinating to note that when the national debate on the formulation of curriculum for excellence took place, one of the conclusions of the process was the importance of anchoring values at the heart of our curriculum. Therefore, curriculum for excellence was developed with a reliance on the clear, strong values of wisdom, justice, compassion and integrity, which, as members of this Parliament know, are the values that are engraved on the mace that sits in front of the Presiding Officer. The Catholic education system’s embracing of firm gospel values has therefore served the Scottish education system as a whole well; values are anchored in our education system through their inclusion at the heart of curriculum for excellence.

The Catholic Education Service website gives us a strong insight into the aims and approaches of Catholic education in Scotland and demonstrates the importance that our Catholic schools attach to a reliance on religious learning that helps young people to

“nurture respect for other Christian traditions and world faiths, experience opportunities for spiritual growth”,


“acquire the skills of reflection, discernment and moral decision-making”

that they need. In the complex world of the 21st century, a reliance on those essential characteristics of religious learning serves young people in our Catholic schools well.

I welcome this opportunity to make clear this Government’s support for Catholic schools and our commitment to tackling sectarianism. Joan McAlpine mentioned Mark Millar’s comment about private conversations in which politicians questioned the future of Roman Catholic schools. I say openly and on the record that I have never heard such a conversation take place. Perhaps the demonstration of cross-party support for Catholic education that we have seen tonight will put to rest comments of that nature.

It is vital that our support for Catholic education is expressed without equivocation; I do that positively and enthusiastically in the Parliament this evening. The Scottish Government remains an unequivocal supporter of Catholic education. We value the contribution that Catholic schools and faith schools make and we are determined to ensure that the tradition is maintained in Scotland as a vital element of the Scottish education system.

Meeting closed at 17:09.