BY SOPHIA FURBER
THE CATHOLIC Church has backed out of plans to create seven shared campuses for Catholic and nondenominational primary schools in Scotland.
Bishop Joseph Devine of Motherwell refused to go ahead with the £150m project in North Lanarkshire on the grounds that the identity of Catholic schools would suffer as a result of the merger.
The bishop said: “From the outset of discussions, I expressed my deepest reservations about the council’s intention to replace St Aloysius, a school of over 300 pupils, with a new building in which significant facilities would be shared with a non-denominational school.” Tensions between the Catholic Church and North Lanarkshire Council have been escalating since the authorities refused to make the changes sought by the diocese to the design of the schools, which would share resources such as a library, canteen and office accommodation.
Michael McGrath, director of the Scottish Catholic Education Service, supported the bishop’s decision.
“I share the bishop’s fears that these proposals would lead to a significant deterioration in the quality of Catholic education and in the very distinctiveness of the formation which is offered in these schools,” he said.
Jim McCabe, leader of the council, was alarmed by the response of the Church, which has thrown the plans into chaos. Mr McCabe said: “Following my last meeting with Bishop Devine and his representatives, there were real signs of a positive outcome to our discussions. I now find myself bemused and disappointed.” He added that the council remained open to negotiations with the bishop.
The bishop’s concerns at the council’s failure to promise separate entrances and reception areas for the schools — in the villages of Bargeddie, Caldercruix, Chapelhall, Glenboig, New Stevenson, Plains and Wishaw — were echoed by parents, who said that they were opposed to the plans from the outset.
One parent said that she was worried that the identity of St Aloysius would be swallowed up amid official plans to create a “huge barn” with minimal benefits for pupils. Nevertheless, the council has indicated that it intends to go ahead with the project.
Although successful shared-site schools in Scotland already exist, mixed-faith campuses in Midlothian initially came in for criticism after reports of violence between pupils and segregation.
Under the Scottish Education Act, local Catholic bishops have a say in how their schools are run, and Bishop Devine has put pressure on First Minister Jack McConnell to force the local council into a rethink.
A Church source has confirmed that the idea of taking schools out of council control was gaining support within the Scottish hierarchy. “We are at an unprecedented stage,” said Mr McGrath. “This is new territory. It should still be possible in principle to look at shared-campus arrangements, but if a ruling comes out that causes us to consider that Catholic education is in danger, then we will have to think again about how Catholic education is done in the 21st century.” The Labour Party said the dispute was a local problem confined to Lanarkshire and argued that the shared-campus model was functioning successfully in other parts of the country. A spokeswoman said: “The First Minister and the Executive have always had a very constructive relationship with the Catholic Church.” But Scottish Tories have capitalised on the tensions, claiming that their plans are more in tune with the needs of the Catholic community.