Alex Massie

Who’s Afraid of Catholic Schools?

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Since it's Pope Day, let's consider this tediously-hardy perennial too. Commenting on this post, Fifer asks:

Since you've given this some thought, then, perhaps you can answer me this - why, exactly, are my taxes being used to fund an education system divided in Scotland on sectarian lines when, out of a population of 5 million, only 65,000 can be bothered turning up to see the head of their faith preach? Even Celtic can manage that turnout a few times a year.

If we really are in the dire financial straits we're told we are, perhaps it really is time to "think of the children" and educate them all as best we possibly can for the money available, rather than perpetuating massive structural inefficiencies as a sop to an increasingly irrelevant religion.

It's a question of priorities and, consequently, of values. I think school choice is a virtue in and of itself and that it should not be restricted to the wealthy (whether that's measured by school fees or higher house prices in attractive catchment areas). If Catholics wish to have their children educated in Catholic schools that's their right and no more reprehensible than a Jewish or a Church of England school. Or, for that matter, a music or sports-oriented school.

You might argue that this could have some adverse social consequences (though I'm not sure it really does) but even if it did, I'd argue that the merits of choice - that is, a form a liberty - outweigh those alleged consequences.

As for "structural inefficiencies" this too should be, in this instance, a feature not a bug. The sorry pity of education in Scotland is that no political party is in favour of increasing school choice. England's educational reforms have proved too daring for every party north of the Border. We must do things differently here even if that means doing things worse.

Nevertheless, school choice works best when there's excess capacity in the system. That means, by definition, the system will not be as lean or as efficient as it could be. This too, however, is a modest price when set beside the value of increasing provision, flexibility, specialisation and parental choice.

The "my taxes" line is also, with respect, a canard. Everyone pays taxes for things with which they don't approve. To suppose that this can be different is wishful thinking. In the case of educational diversity it is difficult to see who, besides centralising control freaks, is hurt by the existence of different types of schools that cater to different types of need, preference and even aspiration.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.