Prophets of the Future 3: Sectarianism and Catholic Schools

In this series, MEduc4 students on the ‘Prophets of a Future not our Own: Catholic Schools and Contemporary Issues’ elective course reflect on how a Catholic educational perspective can enhance school’s’ approach to current challenges.

Maria Haggarty, MEduc4

Sectarianism is a contemporary phenomenon with historical roots, often linked to religious antagonism between Catholic and Protestants. However, framing the antagonism purely in terms of Catholic and Protestants narrows ‘sectarianism’ to religious bigotry, whereas contemporary sectarianism is a wider societal issue. Evidence proves sectarian prejudice and activity spills beyond Christian borders; neither one specific group, nor individual solely experience sectarianism (Scottish Government, 2015), rather it embraces a wide range of issues that some pupils may have encountered: immigration, racism, intolerance and/or prejudice (McKinney, 2018).

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The changing definition of sectarianism

The term sectarianism has therefore evolved from beyond the realm of inter-denominational struggles between Catholic and Protestants to a broader definition reflecting Scotland’s more globalised and diverse society. McKinney (2015), when developing his own definition, states sectarianism is a social challenge, one that is associated with religion or ‘quasi’ religion convictions, customs, which create a specific selfhood and exclusivity, which may lead to radical mentalities and conduct. The Morrow Report, (Scottish Government, 2015), reported when attempting to determine what sectarian was in the restricted religious sense from anti-migrant, racist, prejudiced employment, and reduced societal participation was comparable to ‘unscrambling eggs.’
In contrast to this evolving and broadening definition stands the sensationalist nature of the reporting of sectarianism within the Scottish media coupled with prominent societal figures stating Catholic schools are divisive and perpetuate sectarianism, creating a problematic discourse that Catholic schools are no longer relevant within diverse contemporary Scotland (McKinney, 2015). Those voicing such comments have not substantiated their statements with either Government statements or policies regarding sectarianism, nor with academic research. Most media reporting focuses on certain rivalries within football, which is significant in shaping wider public opinion, and/or encounters with sectarianism (Scottish Government, 2015). This has implications for teachers in the classroom: our pupils of today are the technology generation, accessing social media from an early age. Therefore, exposed to widescale rhetoric surrounding sectarianism means they may arrive in class with their own unintended misconceptions, that sectarianism purely exists within Scotland between Catholic and Protestants.

Effective pedagogies and practice

The Irish-descended Catholics and the many others who make up the population of Catholic schools and their families may have encountered hostility and prejudice first-hand, either historical hostility towards their communities, or contemporary direct experience. Thus, the encompassing themes of other world religions, prejudice, racism, and immigration, can be effectively taught through both inductive and deductive pedagogies, both of which are vital to the delivering the ‘divine pedagogy’ promoted in This is Our Faith. An inductive method is based on the personal, relatable experiences of the children in their daily lives, and attempts to identify how God is always present. A deductive method, which seems more conceptual, is found within Scripture, doctrine and liturgy which calls upon children to find applicability to them in their own lives (Coll, 2015).

Inductive approaches to anti-sectarian pedagogy

Peace – one of the seven principles of Catholic Social Teaching – is one of the fundamental teachings of Catholicism, the antithesis of sectarianism. The New Testament advocates for peace ‘How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!’ (Psalm 133:1). However, Catholic teaching does not only focus on the extrinsic concept of peace, but also in the intrinsic formation of peace within each person ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.’ (John 14:27). Evidencing that Catholic education is committed to the intrinsic nurturing of holistic individuality unique to each child and supported through collaborative learning empowers children within their own identity and freedoms (D’Souza, 2012). That reflects the aims of the RERC Principles and Practice document, Education Scotland, stating RERC develops self-reflection, perceptions, criticality, the formation of conscience and morality. McKinney’s (2015), working definition of sectarianism included the words ‘intolerant, attitudes, shared by groups that fosters an identity.’ Catholic teaching challenges these beliefs. Teaching of other faiths within RERC, stated within the Principles and Practice document Education Scotland, creates tolerance and acceptance of other ethnicities within contemporary Scotland. Promoting these beliefs and behaviours of social cohesion, is the principle of Solidarity within Catholic Social Teaching, which appears for example as a theme of the Sense over Sectarianism (SOS) programme. The learning within the programme investigates sectarianism within both historical and contemporary Scotland, allowing teachers to broaden the scope of pupil learning between Christian sectarianism to wider societal concerns of equality and relationships, with a particular focus on the inductive pedagogy principle of personal experience (Education Scotland, 2022). Using the Divided City novel, (Breslin, 2011), within my last P7 placement class, who were diverse in religion, culture, and race, created a learning environment which discussed real-life experiences, through the cross-cutting themes relating to sectarianism of prejudice, hate crime, immigration, community, social class, culture, and friendship.

Deductive approaches to anti-sectarian pedagogy

Despite Divided City fostering a pedagogically inductive approach, there are also opportunities for Catholic teachers to link the novel deductively to Scripture; by teaching and having a classroom environment built upon Scripture. A classroom culture of inclusivity, built on collaboration and acceptance facilitates children learning to ‘have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.’ (Peter 3:8). As Catholic teachers we are bound to teach through and with the Catholic Faith. However, this is not a means of indoctrination: it is a way to show the love of Jesus through our pedagogies and to practice, embrace and appreciate the rich benefits that diversity within the classroom brings (Education Scotland, 2022). Therefore, Catholic teachers through their effective pedagogies and practices shape children in the appreciation of faith, suitable to their stage of development, enables children to understand that while faith is independent of culture, it inspires all cultures (Catholic Education Resource Centre, 2006).
Teaching within Catholic schools is based on love and acceptance of others, standing as a powerful rebuke to all form of sectarianism, and it in turn challenging the sensationalist discourse which would claim that Catholic schools aid sectarianism. In an increasingly diverse and globalised world, and anti-sectarian pedagogy will do no less than prepare pupils within Catholic education for 21st century citizenship.

Prophets of the Future: Catholic schools and Sectarianism

In this series, 4th year primary Catholic Teaching Certificate students share the findings of their studies on an elective course entitled Prophets of a Future not our Own: Catholic Schools and Contemporary Issues.

Aimee McCallum, MEduc4 student

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‘All Catholic education is Christocentric’ according to Keiran and Hession (2005: 123), thus the common aim within Catholic education is for all members of the community to demonstrate a likeness to Christ.

The ‘Charter for Catholic Schools in Scotland commits all Catholic schools to honour Jesus Christ through ‘a commitment to communicate Catholic social teaching and thereby to promote social justice and opportunity for all’, and to live guided by Gospel values. Despite the centenary year of Catholic education in Scotland, 2018, focusing on the positive contribution Catholic education has had on Scotland, critics such as Tom Woods, Professor Grayling and Sheriff Richard Davidson have claimed that Catholic schools are responsible for sectarianism in Scotland. However, what evidence do critics have? Headlines such as ‘if we want to end sectarianism, we must abolish Catholic schools’ (Goring, 2019), make bold claims, but where is the evidence of Catholic schools are promoting sectarianism? If Catholic schools are to promote and live by Gospel values, there is no place for the promotion of sectarianism despite critics such as the former Deputy Chief Constable of Police Scotland, Tom Wood (2019), claiming Catholic schools foster and promote sectarianism.

What is the social concept of ‘sectarianism’, and do Catholic schools create division along sectarian lines?


Stephen McKinney (2015) has highlighted there are multiple understandings of ‘sectarian’ and ‘sectarianism’, however both refer to a distinction between sects, whereby each sect is exclusive and holds a distinctive ideology shared amongst its members. Although a sect can exist within art, politics, or science, in Scotland sectarianism refers to hostility between Roman Catholics and Protestants. In attempts to tackle sectarianism in Scotland, the Scottish Government commissioned an Advisory Group to move forward from sectarianism as a society, defining sectarianism in Scotland as:

‘a mixture of perceptions, attitudes, actions and structures that involved overlooking, excluding, discriminating against or being abusive or violent towards others on the basis of their perceived Christian denominational background. This perception is always mixed with other factors such as, but not confined to, politics, football allegiance and national identity’ (Morrow et al, 2015: 5).

This working definition highlights that prejudices and stereotypes have allowed sectarianism to manifest across generations, creating a persisting issue which cannot be solved in isolation as intolerances are translated into actions at micro, meso and macro level.

Therefore, it can be argued a sect involves an exclusive understanding of religious beliefs to cultivate a shared identity, however, the connection to religion is often questionable despite claims that sects are founded in historical religious roots. McKinney argues against the validity of these claims labelling them as ‘selective, self-serving or semi-mythical’, thus highlighting sectarianism is often a front for the justification of the marginalisation, alienation and demonisation of groups stigmatised as the ‘other’.  This ultimately highlights that sectarianism, although closely connected to religion and football, is a social problem resulting in extremist behaviours that unfortunately permeates Scottish society.

To address this social problem, Fuller and Myers (2003) advocate increased awareness, policy determination and reform. As social problems are complex, there may be various causes and effects which require a multitude of solutions, therefore, by increasing public awareness, engaging in discussions to find a means to an end and reform by creating legalisation to combat the issue, in theory, attitudinal changes can occur.

Catholic Schools: Good for Scotland?

Reports by the Scottish Government (2005 and 2015) have clearly indicated that Catholic schools should not be held accountable for causing sectarianism, and there is no evidence to support claims of Catholic schools being a contributor. Similarly, Catholic schools are situated globally and educate without accusations of cultivating sectarian beliefs and attitudes, instead reflecting their specific social, cultural, local and national contexts (Flint, 2012). Thus, highlighting sectarianism as a social problem caused by Catholic schools can be a reminder of a lost Protestant culture in Scotland (Flint, 2012).

Charting a way forward

Nevertheless, as sectarianism is a social problem there will undoubtedly be individuals (including those associated with Catholic schools) who demonstrate sectarian beliefs and actions (McKinney and Conroy, 2014). If the person is an educator, the General Teaching Council for Scotland and SCES would investigate as this publicly contradicts the Charter for Catholic Schools in Scotland. Similarly, if this was a pupil, individual schools would handle the situation appropriately. However, various measures can be taken to raise awareness of sectarianism to avoid reaching this stage, and there are various projects which aim to tackle sectarianism in Scotland through government funding. Using resources devised by these projects, including a programme with focus on educational, sporting and cultural activities, can raise awareness and ultimately allow learners to question social problems, thus enabling them to be ‘effective contributors’ as they are equipped with the knowledge and understanding to question social injustice in society.

Education is the most important tool in raising awareness of sectarianism, therefore, all schools in Scotland, denominational or non-denominational, have a responsibility to educate young people on the injustice of sectarianism, by providing a curriculum where the topic of sectarianism is integrated, to create a more harmonious future where the dignity of each person is respected.