Does denominational school provision in Scotland match religious affiliation?

The usual rules of such questions apply; the answer is, of course, no.

I’d better begin, by stating yet again that my beef is not against any particular church, or Christianity, or religion per se; this post drills a bit deeper into the information I’ve dug out since being asked to speak at a school debate on the motion “This house would abolish state-funded faith schools”.

It is a common trope of the proponents of state-funded faith schools that they meet the needs and desires of faithful parents to provide a confessional education for their children, but not out of their own pockets, rather the state’s.

In preparing for the debate at George Heriot’s School yesterday, I took a look at the Scottish Government’s own statistics on schools as at September 2016 [link, xls]. I’ve abstracted from that data the following data on the number of school places by denominational or non-denominational status for each local authority area in Scotland.

Local Authority Non-denominational Episcopalian Jewish Roman Catholic Total
Aberdeen City 23,302 788 24,090
Aberdeenshire 38,100 38,100
Angus 15,932 163 16,095
Argyll & Bute 10,645 508 11,153
Clackmannanshire 6,854 256 7,110
Dumfries & Galloway 18,855 1,147 20,002
Dundee City 14,598 4,733 19,332
East Ayrshire 15,478 1,617 17,095
East Dunbartonshire 14,024 3,609 17,633
East Lothian 14,282 708 14,990
East Renfrewshire 12,273 170 5,563 18,006
Edinburgh City 44,819 6,827 51,646
Eilean Siar 3,673 3,673
Falkirk 19,947 3,322 23,269
Fife 47,761 4,817 52,578
Glasgow City 42,394 29,353 71,747
Highland 32,781 52 278 33,112
Inverclyde 5,940 4,701 10,641
Midlothian 11,645 1,573 13,218
Moray 12,339 415 12,754
North Ayrshire 16,323 3,294 19,617
North Lanarkshire 30,772 21,456 52,228
Orkney Islands 2,949 2,949
Perth & Kinross 17,693 54 1,591 19,338
Renfrewshire 18,278 6,634 24,912
Scottish Borders 15,293 204 15,497
Shetland Islands 3,538 3,538
South Ayrshire 13,621 1,403 15,024
South Lanarkshire 35,243 11,783 47,026
Stirling 11,683 74 1,581 13,338
West Dunbartonshire 7,640 5,713 13,353
West Lothian 22,667 6,060 28,727
Total 601,344 180 170 130,098 731,791

Comparing the 2011 Scottish census data for Roman Catholic affiliation, again by local authority area, with the Roman Catholic share of school places, gives the following table:

Local authority Roman Catholic population (2011 census) RC denominational school places (2016) Over/ underprovision % Total school roll Over/ underprovision (places)
Aberdeen City 8.90% 3.27% -5.63% 24,090 -1356
Aberdeenshire 4.80% 0.00% -4.80% 38,100 -1829
Angus 6.70% 1.01% -5.69% 16,095 -916
Argyll and Bute 11.30% 4.56% -6.74% 11,153 -752
Clackmannanshire 9.40% 3.60% -5.80% 7,110 -412
Dumfries & Galloway 6.50% 5.73% -0.77% 20,002 -154
Dundee City 18.30% 24.48% 6.18% 19,332 1195
East Ayrshire 10% 9.46% -0.54% 17,095 -92
East Dunbartonshire 22.30% 20.47% -1.83% 17,633 -323
East Lothian 9.70% 4.72% -4.98% 14,990 -746
East Renfrewshire 22.20% 30.90% 8.70% 18,006 1567
Edinburgh City 12.10% 13.22% 1.12% 51,646 578
Eilean Siar 12.30% 0.00% -12.30% 3,673 -452
Falkirk 12.30% 14.28% 1.98% 23,269 461
Fife 8.50% 9.16% 0.66% 52,578 347
Glasgow City 27.30% 40.91% 13.61% 71,747 9765
Highland 7.60% 0.84% -6.76% 33,112 -2238
Inverclyde 37% 44.18% 7.18% 10,641 764
Midlothian 9.80% 11.90% 2.10% 13,218 278
Moray 6.60% 3.25% -3.35% 12,754 -427
North Ayrshire 14.70% 16.79% 2.09% 19,617 410
North Lanarkshire 34.60% 41.08% 6.48% 52,228 3384
Orkney Islands 2.80% 0.00% -2.80% 2,949 -83
Perth & Kinross 8.90% 8.23% -0.67% 19,338 -130
Renfrewshire 22.70% 26.63% 3.93% 24,912 979
Scottish Borders 6.30% 1.31% -4.99% 15,497 -773
Shetland Islands 4.10% 0.00% -4.10% 3,538 -145
South Ayrshire 9.90% 9.34% -0.56% 15,024 -84
South Lanarkshire 22.20% 25.06% 2.86% 47,026 1345
Stirling 12.30% 11.86% -0.44% 13,338 -59
West Dunbartonshire 33.10% 42.78% 9.68% 13,353 1293
West Lothian 16.10% 21.10% 5.00% 28,727 1436

I want to add a note of caution about religious affiliation as recorded by the census. Census returns are completed by the “head of the household” and are likely to attribute to children the religious beliefs of the parents, potentially over-representing religious belief across the whole population. This is why census data is popular with religious apologists, because it provides the highest numbers when compared with other surveys of religious belief when individuals are canvassed.

Charted, sorted by the proportion of Roman Catholic denominational school places by local authority, this data shows:

RC Denominational School Provision Against Religious Affiliationby Scottish Local Authority Area

There are a number of interesting observations that fall out from this analysis.

  1. The distribution and density of Roman Catholic denominational schools represents the historic settlement of Irish Catholics migrating to Scotland over the last couple of centuries. In fact, I count my ancestors in this number.
  2. Assuming that the proportion of denominational provision hasn’t really changed in those local authorities since Roman Catholic schools started to receive state funding 100 years ago, there appears to have been no attempt on the part of the Church nor the local education committees to ensure that denominational provision met local demographics.
  3. Again assuming that the proportion of denominational provision matched the proportion of the population of the same confession, it would seem clear that the number of confessing Roman Catholics has declined significantly in the last 100 years. If I can track down some historic census data, I’ll add that in.
  4. This results in over-provision of denominational places in the West of Scotland (with the exception of the expanding and affluent East Dunbartonshire) and an under-provision in many other parts of Scotland, particularly the north-east.
  5. There are no Roman Catholic denominational schools on any off-shore island in Scotland with the exception of the Isle of Bute, which lies just off Argyll in the Firth of Clyde and bumps into the mainland in a heavy swell.

If the Roman Catholic church were genuine about providing choice to its congregants, would we not expect them to be seeking to establish new denominational schools, particularly in places like Aberdeen and the Isle of Barra? Why are the islands altogether not worthy of the same parental choice as the West of Scotland?

Why are local education committees content to continue with significant over-provision of denominational schools in places such as Glasgow, West Dunbartonshire, East Renfrewshire and Inverclyde?

Ultimately, many of the arguments that proponents make for the continuation of denominational or faith schools in receipt of state funding come down to retaining embedded privilege. A good school will be a good school without giving one religion priority. Surely good Catholic teachers will still be good Catholics – and good teachers – in non-denominational schools? And perhaps less time will be wasted, as it was with my own schooling, in telling children to make space on their chairs for their guardian angels.


This house would abolish state-funded faith schools

George Heriot’s School in Edinburgh have a school debating society which, from time to time, invites guest speakers to debate a motion. The Scottish Secular Society were asked to put up a speaker to propose the motion, “This house would abolish state-funded faith schools“, and I offered to act as proposer. The speaker for the opposition was Barbara Coupar, from the Scottish Catholic Education Service.

The opposition to the motion was based on arguments of the democratic will of the people; parental choice; faith schools providing diversity; a fear of doctrinaire and monolithic secularism; the gifting to the state of the church’s school assets for the public good etc..

I met some wonderful, articulate, thoughtful and passionate young people who gave the speakers a testing examination before decisively supporting the proposition. To be honest, it was such fun having the conversation with tomorrow’s citizens that I wouldn’t have minded had the vote gone the other way; but I’m so glad it didn’t.

The full text of my opening speech and closing remarks are set out below the fold. I’ve also included links to some source materials. In another post I’ll provide some more data on the scale of provision of denominational school places in Scotland.

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More people getting suckered by neo-Nazis on Facebook

I’ve previously commented on the trend for fascist groups to exploit people’s genuine patriotism by getting likes for Facebook posts. Today I came across another example:

Lancaster flypast over poppies

Taken from Facebook group “I Am Proud To Wear My Poppy”

Perhaps I’m just a little bit too skeptical when I see pages and groups like this and can’t resist the urge to look under the bonnet and see what’s driving them. This one’s not difficult, nearly everything on their page is a repost from another Facebook group called “Knights Templar International”. And what do they like on Facebook?

What sort of groups does "Knights Templar International" like?

What sort of groups does “Knights Templar International” like?

Okay, after I stopped laughing I checked out some more of their likes:

More lovely people liked by those cuddly Knights Templar International

More lovely people liked by those cuddly Knights Templar International

I think you get the picture. But I was still curious: surely a group with the name Knights Templar International would be a fine, upstanding group of lads and lassies and no doubt their website was a little more measured and temperate in tone? Er, no. This splash screen is the first thing you see when you go there, buckle up:

Now there's a lovely inclusive welcome.

Now there’s a lovely inclusive welcome.

The opt-out-of-the-poll option is charmingly, “I wish to remain silent”. A short read will tell you that this is a patriarchal, right-wing xtian fundamentalist group with links to the Russian right wing. Women are welcome to join, but essentially only as camp followers. The group’s officers have wonderfully wizardly titles such as The Grand Master, The Grand Seneshal and The Grand Scrivener. In case you’re wondering, the last is the title given to the webmaster. You can join as an Associate and after as little as six months without having blotted your copybook you can apply to become a genuine Knight Templar, getting your cape, sword, gloves, Templar jewel, etc. for the price of your application fee. These people are more than just a little up themselves, but no less dangerous for all that.

So the moral of the tale remains the same: be careful what you like and promote on Facebook unless you really want to be counted amongst their kind.

Monmouth in London, Scotland and a Polish Army Brown Bear

I was down in London on Wednesday evening so decided, for the first time since I left school thirty-cough years ago, to drop in on an old school reunion in town. The school I attended was Monmouth School in Wales, part of the Haberdasher’s group of schools. It was a boys-only day and boarding school with its sister Monmouth School for Girls at the top of the hill on the Hereford road. For the last couple of years, the schools have held an informal weekly drinks reception in a pub near Covent Garden on the first Wednesday of the month.

There were no direct contemporaries of mine, and no-one I knew directly from either school, but some of the ladies I spoke to did recall some of my friends from the girls’ school. However, they were boarders and the day-girls tended not to socialise with the boarders, who had a fairly rough reputation, as I recall. Whatever their reputation from their rivals as children, they were interesting and pleasant company as adults.

The odd think about this sort of occasion is that, although you don’t know anyone and would otherwise have no reason to go up to them and enter into conversation, this is not only possible but a reasonable thing to do. I had conversations with one young man who had become an accountant although his passion was and remained classics. With another seemingly scarcely out of the egg who was a management consultant and seemed very competent at what he did. With a charming lady in her eighties who was still turning out for the sociality.

Some of the conversations were about what was on my mind, the whole public school privilege thing and whether, as future parents, some of these young men would send their children to public school or even board them. The answers I got were thoughtful and demonstrated the genuine conflict that parents have about “the best thing to do”. One man send that he found Monmouth a caring environment that enabled people to grow without too much pressure and, as a boarder, he’d had a good experience.

St Thomas's Square by Moonlight - Otto Maciag Monmouthshire Museums Service via BBC

St Thomas’s Square by Moonlight – Otto Maciag
Monmouthshire Museums Service via BBC

I also came into conversation with a man somewhat older than me, who was an artist. His inspiration at school had been the same teacher who taught me art, or rather presided over the art lessons at which I was present. This teacher was Otto Maciag, a Hungarian-born Pole who after service with the Free Polish Army in the Second World War, became a refugee and settled in Monmouth where he joined the school as art teacher. As boys, we always knew that he had seen service and was disrupted from his homeland, but he always seemed settled and happy in his new life. My correspondent, who as a gifted pupil spent much time in one-to-one classes with Otto, told me that there were a number of occasions when he would find Otto quietly weeping. He was a kind and gentle man and one of several Poles settled in the Ross and Monmouth areas after the war.

The 11th November is Polish Independence Day, celebrating the liberation of the country from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. In 2011 the BBC published an article about Otto’s family which I commend you should read here.

image: A Brown Bear standing on its hind legs holding a large artillery shell.

Wojtek – ceramic plaque by Otto Maciag
Imperial War Museum

Now to the bear. One tale that Otto did tell us was of Wojtek, the bear that served in the Polish artillery during the Second World War. Otto was also a ceramicist and he made a plaque of Wojtek which is now in the Imperial War Museum. The following information is taken from the Imperial War Museum’s website:

Wojtek, a Syrian brown bear, was the mascot of the 22nd Polish Artillery Support Company (22 Kompania Zaopartrywania Artylerii) of the Second Polish Corps. Found in Persian mountains in 1942, he travelled with the unit throughout the Middle East and Italy. He is reported to have helped move artillery ammunition at Monte Cassino, as depicted in the plaque. After the war he was kept at Edinburgh Zoo and was made a life member of the Scottish Polish Society. Wojtek died in 1963.

The Wojtek Memorial Trust have a complete history of the bear, which starts here. And today, in Edinburgh, a new sculpture of Vojtek by Alan Heriot will be unveiled in Princes Street Gardens. The BBC article is here.

Wojtek was one of the stories I learned as child. Another was of the endurance and kindness of the Polish people. And another less obvious one, which resonates all the more right now, is the genuine human potential of people forced to flee their homelands by war and their desperate need to find shelter, a welcome and a future.

Sitting down with Tories – a reflection on privilege

Recently I had the occasion to be at a large family gathering in the pleasant and leafy hinterlands west of London.

What characterised everyone was that they were all nice, decent people who were interesting to talk to and interested to meet this strange creature from Scotland where, don’t-you-know, people seem to be unaccountably restless under the British Crown. And this led to talk of why people could possibly contemplate independence and then, inevitably, to other political questions. And it turns out that many of these lovely people are Tories.

It was a conversation with – let’s call him Geoffrey – that set me thinking a bit about how we all look at the world. Geoffrey had spent his adult life in the army and was now long retired. One thing he said struck me, “I’d always vote for a party that supported the armed forces”. And this from a man over whose entire service career the armed forces have been in a continuous state of contraction and reconfiguration. And spoken only five years since a Tory government scrapped Nimrod, the Harrier fighter and the seaborne air defence capability of the UK. And that’s not to mention compulsory redundancies in the services and closing all but one RAF base in Scotland.

Nimrods being scrapped - BBC

Nimrods being scrapped – BBC

So, is that what “supporting the armed services” means? I begin to think it’s not, because it patently can’t be. We have the smallest military, albeit with things that make more powerful bangs, than at any time in our modern history. We have less capacity to project and sustain power across the globe than ever before and we cannot support our forces in more than one theatre at once. Rather, I think that supporting the armed services in this sense means the will to use them aggressively, because there’s very little else left it can mean.

And I think this gets closer to the point and closer to the thinking that binds together the conservatism that being a Tory means and the incredulity that there are people in Scotland who are so pissed off with Westminster austerity that they’d much rather be poor under an independent but accessible Scottish government than a remote and – to them foreign – Westminster government which seemed not to give a shit about the condition of ordinary folk. For many people in England, these are unthinkable thoughts, as is the idea that the Tories have not been supporters of the armed services since they won the 2010 general election. It’s the inability to get into other people’s heads and consider that there are many ways of looking at the world – or even reality – and, necessarily, having diverse and opposing conclusions about it.

Over the last few years, as my journey into humanism begins, I’ve learned a lot about the difference between having privilege and not having it. And I’ll be clear: I’m a white, middle-aged, cis-het male and with a public school education. That puts me clearly into the privileged bracket. It’s very easy for me to walk into a room and rely upon my phenotype, apparent gender and accent to get me through social encounters and to blend in with other, apparently privileged, people, but I know that for the vast majority of even my country-folk, this isn’t the case.

I can’t, and don’t presume to, speak for people without privilege. They have their own spokespeople and dynamic and capable campaigners. But I can try to be an ally and can challenge my own privilege and thinking and reflect upon other peoples’. Perhaps next time I’ll be bold enough to break the social conventions of the company of Tories and challenge the Geoffreys outright.

The cyclist in the fog – a metaphor for victim-blaming

Biking in the fog – Alex Abboud Creative Commons


When I was in Ireland recently, I heard about a cyclist who had been killed the day before when struck by a vehicle. The person who told me the story went on to tell me that: they shouldn’t have been cycling in the fog; they probably didn’t have lights and they almost certainly had earphones in so they couldn’t have heard the oncoming vehicle. The same person went on to tell me about the time he’d nearly struck a 14-year-old schoolgirl who’d got off the bus and walked out in front of him; the schoolgirl was looking at her phone so obviously wasn’t paying sufficient attention to the traffic.

It struck me that the only facts the narrator knew about the dead cyclist were that (a) it was a foggy day and (b) the cyclist had been struck by a vehicle. Everything else was speculation and the construction of some sort of narrative. What sort of narrative was being constructed and why was one necessary beyond the bare facts? Partly because we tell stories to each other and passing on bare information without adding a personal perspective seems inadequate in our social discourse. And partly because, in telling a story like this, we are inviting the other person to enter into the narrator’s construction of the story and support their interpretations of the events as described.

It seems to me that there were a number of interesting elements added to this story. Firstly, the cyclist shouldn’t have been out in the fog, but people need to travel for their own purposes and can choose the mode of transport they wish. Secondly, assuming that the cyclist wasn’t well lit and therefore the driver might not have been able to see him in time. Thirdly, and for me most tellingly, that the cyclist probably had earphones in and was unable to take avoiding action. All of these added elements are essentially laying blame on the victim and seeking to excuse the fault of the driver. This version of the story discounts the cyclist’s right to share the road and for other road-users to look out for them. This also acts to justify the narrator’s own position in case he is ever in a similar situation.

I agree that there are a whole load of other factors about which we know nothing. Was the driver speeding? Did the cyclist join the road without making proper observations? Was either party intoxicated? But these are testable objective facts, not speculations added to sparse information.

Both these stories are about victim-blaming. It’s not the driver’s fault because, because …. Yet any driver in is charge of a couple of tonnes of metal travelling at speed. The driver is the person who’ll walk away from either collision with zero harm because of crumple zones, seat belts and air bags; the cyclist or pedestrian has no such protection and will be lucky to survive without life-long injuries. These are not symmetrical outcomes.

Victim-blaming happens all the time and will keep on happening until society really gets its head around what equality means. Equal access to the roads means that cyclists have the same rights to careful regard as any other road user. Children are going to be careless and drivers must expect them to walk out from behind buses and slow down or stop accordingly – indeed, in some countries, but regrettably not Ireland nor the UK, it is an offence to pass a stopped school bus for this very reason.

Victim-blaming is also about othering; putting the victim into an out-group who should not be afforded the same rights, privileges and protections as “people like us”. This helps to develop a meta-narrative that actually justifies victimhood and excuses personal or societal culpability for the protection and dignity of all people. Essentially, by blaming the people we run over in our entitlement, we preserve power and privilege and obstruct the building of a better society.

There are many cyclists in our own thinking and world-view. Refugees, the victims of rapists, LGBTQ+ people and those in receipt of welfare benefits to name but a few. In fact, it’s always the powerless who we put up on two wheels in the fog and then casually drive over, making excuses for their invisibility.