Faith Schools and State Education: Church-State Relations and the Development of the 5-14 Religious Education Program in Scotland

Article excerpt

Public policy questions such as public funding for Catholic schools, the extent of government involvement in private education, and church-state relations in general are not unique to the United States. This article discusses Catholic education in Scotland, with a view to explaining the ongoing need for cooperation and goodwill in church-state relations concerning schools.


The status of faith schools situated within secular, state-funded educational systems continues to excite strong and contrasting opinions from a wide range of social, religious, and cultural commentators throughout the United Kingdom and beyond (Judge, 2001). While much recent work has been done on the philosophical and ideological controversies surrounding faith-based schools and the legitimacy of their claims on state sponsorship (Conroy, 2003), much less attention has been paid to the institutional relationships on which the links between state authorities and religious organizations responsible for the promotion and protection of faith-based schools actually depend. Neglect of this area of study impedes a full understanding of the processes of policy formation by which a range of religious bodies--most especially the Christian churches--arrive at meaningful and enduring accommodations with secular authorities in order to safeguard the interests of their schools within non-religious educational systems.

This paper is not concerned with the political or philosophical controversies surrounding faith-based or denominational education in the United Kingdom, which are well-rehearsed elsewhere (Gardner, Cairns, & Lawton, 2003). It aims, instead, to examine in some detail one particular episode in the recent history of educational policy formation in Scotland in which the supposedly distinctive needs of faith-based schools assumed central importance. This episode is part of a longer history of Church-state relations in Scottish Catholic education. It is important to emphasize that, historically, Scottish education has enjoyed a distinctive identity within the British state, quite separate from the educational systems of the rest of the United Kingdom. Between 1872 and 1998, oversight of Scottish education resided with the Scottish Office, an executive arm of the United Kingdom government presided over by the Secretary of State for Scotland, a full member of the British Cabinet. Within the Scottish Office, the Education Department (SOED) assumed responsibility for educational policy, quality, and standards, inspection of schools, regulation of the curriculum, and initial teacher education. These arrangements, subject only to minor amendment such as changes to nomenclature, remained relatively stable throughout the 20th century, adjusting successfully to major innovations in access, certification, and curriculum reform. All major changes in educational policy and practice in the period of its jurisdiction were managed and implemented through the SOED, making it in effect the key decision-making authority with which all other stakeholders in Scottish education--including the Catholic Church--were required to deal.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the schools provided by the Catholic Church in Scotland were very poorly resourced. Serving an impoverished and mostly Irish-descendant population, the majority of staff were underpaid and not qualified to teach. In 1872, the schools had been invited to transfer from Church control to state control, with individual schools retaining the right to determine their religious nature if they so wished. This was unacceptable to the Catholic Church. The Church believed that the conditions on offer did not safeguard the denominational character of its schools. The Church fully appreciated that its schools were of a low standard materially and academically, yet it balanced this with the fact that Catholic children were guaranteed the faith dimension of education about which the community felt so strongly. …