The issue of denominational schools never seems to be far from public debate, and has now fetured twice in news headlines in the last week or so.
First, Sheriff Richard Davidson at Dundee took it on himself to raise the subject in dealing with a case brought under the Scottish Government's anti-sectarianism legislation, in which he acquitted the accused after ruling certain evidence inadmissible. Reported as describing the Act as "mince", he went on, quite gratuitously it seems to me, to suggest that the real cause of sectarianism in Scotland is the existence of separate Catholic schools.
Then yesterday, the atheist author Professor A C Grayling, in a visit to the Scottish Parliament, is quoted as saying: "The argument against faith-based schools can be summed up in two words – Northern Ireland. Or perhaps one word – Glasgow."
The sheriff's comments were surely out of order, in relating to a matter not before him and also as displaying personal opinions – indeed prejudices – on a subject potentially relevant to cases that might fall within his jurisdiction, for example on appeal under the Education (Scotland) Acts. The Crown is understood to be intending to appeal his substantive decision, and it will be interesting to see whether the appeal court thinks fit to comment on his remarks generally. It is to be hoped in any event that he will decline jurisdiction in any case that comes before him concerning a denominational school.
One cannot describe Professor Grayling as out of order in the same way, but the simplistic argument that separate schools are at the root of sectarian divisions, which is often heard, is as unfounded as it is superficial. There are, of course, denominational schools right across the UK, and not just in those areas here sectarianism is a particular problem. (The argument also overlooks the fact that, if my children's school is anything to go by, a large number of non-Catholic families now choose to send their children to Catholic schools, perhaps even resulting in a majority of the pupils coming from such families.)
As for the merits of the argument, consider also this. We have, and have always had, racially integrated schools, but racist attitudes persist. So why blame sectarianism on denominational schools?