Does Scotland Still Need Denominational Schools?

Some years ago, when I was Head Teacher of the Senior School at an Edinburgh independent school, I invited the new Head of a nearby school for lunch. We had a very interesting chat, not least at the point where we each explained the basis for the selection of the pupils who came to our schools. The slightly odd thing was that he was describing the process of selection of pupils into his (very good) state Catholic secondary. One of the many ways in which independent schools are knocked is that many – not all – of them are selective. Yes, the angry reader bellows – ‘selective by income’ – but actually, certainly in the case of my old school, with its foundation and generous bursaries, it’s often more a matter of selection by academic aptitude, with other factors – talents, pastoral need, disciplinary record – also in the mix. Now, I am very happy to debate the rights and wrongs of this – and will do so in a minute – but if that’s wrong isn’t it also wrong to allow some young people into some schools simply on the basis of their (well, their parents’) religion? And just to say – these are state schools, paid for by the general taxpayer.

The inequity of this has been a blind spot for Scottish politicians ever since the authorities in Scotland took over responsibility for Catholic education (virtually every ‘denominational’ school in Scotland is a Catholic school) by means of the Education (Scotland) Act of 1918, which was reinforced in the act of 1980. It’s simply been too edgy a subject for a party in power to tackle, even if there was will to do so, first for the Labour Party, and then more recently for the SNP. So here we are, a century later, in a very different time with regard to religion, still in a situation where we separate children on the basis of religion, even when we know that the vast majority of young people are not churchgoers. Leave aside the issue – though it’s a big one – of whether we should be exposing any of our children to the practice of religion in our schools – and just think about it. In a small nation, which still has large pockets of religious intolerance, across a narrow sea from a country where separate schooling has nurtured a bitter historical religious divide, do we actually need to still have separate denominational schools?

The Church, and the many people who, regardless of their faith, applaud separate Catholic schooling, might scoff at the idea that someone who worked in independent education should seem intent on taking away what limited rights anybody has to select a school for their child. Actually, though, there’s no inconsistency in my position. When I sweep to power (‘Vote Wyllie! The last vote you’ll ever need to cast!’ Kidding) I would want to see lots of different kinds of schools available for the education of Scottish schoolchildren: vocational schools, STEM schools, schools for children with aptitude in sport and music and drama or creative writing, schools for children who have difficulty with schooling, whether academic or pastoral or behavioural, and schools for children of all backgrounds who are academically gifted. Indeed, it’s not too far-fetched to say that such a variety of educational opportunity afforded by the state might mean that independent education just withers away while at the same time closing the poverty-related attainment gap. Of course, with the current educational regime and its policy of ‘mainstreaming’ (ie send everyone to the same school regardless of ability, and leave it to Heads, teachers and teaching assistants to sort it all out) there’s no chance of any of this. If it did happen – in some dream world of the future – would separate denominational schools even make the cut?  Do we really think that we need to keep building dual schools in order to provide what is in essence a very very similar education, just with a different religious ethos? 

When I talk about this, it seems most people agree with my position. Sometimes I am presented with the argument that Catholic schools are ‘better’. This, of course, involves judgement as to what a ‘better’ school is. Better results? Better behaviour? Better capacity to produce good citizens? Better community feel? Well, it’s difficult to know, but it’s an odd argument anyway, that the nation should knowingly pay for some pupils to go to ‘better’ schools that others, who are not allowed into them. Plus, of course, there’s the proven fact that separating people – particularly children – and putting them into different groups produces prejudice against the ‘outgroup’. On a taxi tour of the Troubles in Belfast the driver, formerly a member of a paramilitary group, said that his proudest achievement in life had been managing to get his kids into a school which welcomes all religions. 

Fifty- five years, when I was a wee boy, I wrote my first ever letter to a newspaper – this very one – and asked whether, really and truly, the general population of Scotland, regardless of their religion or lack of it, really thought that having separate schools on the basis of parental faith was a good idea. I still don’t know the answer – here today, if we didn’t have separate Catholic education, would we invent it? Maybe we should wait and see what the census tells us about religious faith in this country and then take stock.



  1. As a Christian, who went to said independent private school, I hold the position that there should be no separation based on faith. I think it important that all faiths are able to interact without prejudice and bigotry.

    Yet it is also important that the school environment allows room for faith. If, as you suggest (which I disagree with) faith is now a minority matter, we should seek to guard and protect children of faith from bullying, ridicule and intolerance – something as a Christian in my teenage years that I could honestly say wasn’t always provided.

    I have three children who are Christian’s, they will attend a non-faith based school, and I hope that they will be allowed to thrive in both faith and education


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