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Lib Dems in Scotland get cold feet over religious education

A headline last week in The Scottish Catholic Observer read ‘Lib Dems to consider adopting policy to end Catholic education in Scotland’ – and in the report a church spokesperson was quoted as saying ‘This deeply illiberal motion shows contempt for religious freedom and discriminates against parents who choose to send their children to Catholic schools.’

Sadly, the motion was kicked into the long grass after a heated debate, and Alex Cole-Hamilton, above, the Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh West, this week told the Observer:

We’re going to take the ­abolition off the table for future ­conferences, and in future I genuinely can’t see another assault on the ­existence of Catholic schools in ­Scotland. It was clear from the ­reaction of the room that there was opposition to the original motion.

The motion called for the Scottish Government to:

• Pursue a single ­secular model of state-funded ­education

• Remove religious belief as a placing criteria for Scottish state-funded schools

• Remove faith as a criteria for selecting or recommending teachers for employment or ­promotion

• Remove the non-elected church ­positions from local authority ­education boards and replace them with elected positions open to residents residing in the local ­authority.

Cole-Hamilton went on to say:

There is a recognition that Catholic schools are very good, and they are sought out by many other faiths, especially the ­Muslim and Sikh populations, because often people of other faiths look for grounding and spiritual learning environments for their children.

Cole-Hamilton said that although he is not Catholic himself, he believes that eliminating Catholic schools from the country would go against the Liberal ­Democrats’ principals.

A secular model of ­education is actually contrary to our values, and without doubt there is anxiety within our party that we need to look at in terms of ­inclusion of areas in education. The most important thing about liberalism is pluralism.

Cole-Hamilton was one of several party members who fought the corner of faith schools in Scotland.

The church spokesperson added:

Strangely, whilst specifically targeting Catholics and Catholicism, a minority population in Scotland, the motion fails to use the word ‘Catholic’ at all.

Katy Gordon, a Scottish ­Liberal Democrat activist, echoed his words, telling the conference that it is:

Liberal to believe in pluralism, and that parents should have the choice to send their children to a Catholic school if they wish to do so.

Lib Dem councillor Eileen McCartin also stood in favour of Catholic schools, having previously said that she would argue for them at the conference.

The motion was put forward by Yvonne Finlayson, candidate for Motherwell & Wishaw – and was welcomed by the National Secular Society.

Alastair Lichten, Education and Schools Officer at the NSS, said:

The Scottish Liberal Democrats are proposing a fair and inclusive approach to education, an approach that the NSS has advocated for years.

Faith schools in Scotland fuel sectarianism, segregation and discriminate against children, families and teachers of no faith and minority faiths. The proposals moved by the Scottish Lib Dems will enhance freedom of belief, restore equality and democracy to the education system, and help to build a more cohesive Scottish society.

The issue is expected to be debated again at the party’s Spring Conference next year.

The Scottish Lib Dems currently have five MSPs and and four MPs. The party was in government in Scotland in a coalition with the Labour Party from 1999-2007, and formed a coalition with the Conservative Party in the UK Government from 2010-2015.