March 20 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Fight for Catholic community school

Will the local council, Government, education officials or the Church help St Joseph’s, Milngavie, asks Kevin McKenna

A PUBLIC meeting held in a church hall in Milngavie earlier this month provided a snapshot of the travails that currently afflict the Labour Party in Scotland. The meeting was called to discuss issues surrounding the proposed closure of St Joseph’s Primary in Milngavie. It was organised by the action group Keep St Joe’s in Milngavie that consists mainly of the parents of children who attend the school.

I was invited by the organisers to chair the meeting as I had written two articles for The Scottish Catholic Observer last year about this senseless decision by the ruling Labour/Lib-Dem/Conservative group on East Dunbartonshire Council. In a hall that normally holds around 100 people it was standing room only by the time the meeting got underway.

In particular, the St Joseph’s action group were keen to stage the meeting as a means of sharing with other parents, and with the community of Milngavie generally, what progress had been made in their fight. Not a single person inside that hall on this rainy midweek night lacked any understanding why the fight to keep St Joseph’s within the community it has served for 140 years. Furthermore, every one of them supported the St Joseph’s parents in their fight.

Among the political parties represented at this event of enormous local importance were the SNP and the Conservatives. Indeed the SNP had two local councillors in attendance as well as Gil Paterson, one of the MSPs for the area and John Nicholson, who is seeking to be elected for Westminster at the election on May 7. The 12-strong Labour-led group on East Dunbartonshire Council all knew about the meeting and their leaders were all invited. There will be few though, who have observed the arrogance with which this party has conducted itself in Scottish local and national politics in recent years, who will be surprised to learn that no Labour councillor attended the meeting.

You hear stories about how Labour in Scotland has alienated its own core support and in neighbourhoods where they once held sway. But when you see it close up for yourself it takes your breath away. The Labour-led group’s decision not to explain its decision to shut down St Joseph’s to those people whom it most affects came across as an act of stunning political cynicism.

Let’s consider some of the key issues at stake here. The decision to shut St Joseph’s was taken after a consultation process by East Dunbartonshire Council for its Primary School Improvement Programme. There are five primary schools in Milngavie yet St Joseph’s, the village’s only Catholic one, was chosen for the chop. That the school will be merged with St Andrew’s in Bearsden simply doesn’t cut the mustard. St Joseph’s children, alone of all the Milngavie schools, will require to be bussed out of their own community for the first time in 140 years. Thus the umbilical cord that links a Catholic primary school to the Church and to the local community will be cut.

There is no good reason for this either. Financial savings are negligible and the school roll is by no means the smallest in the area. The state of the St Joseph’s building is in good order and no major repairs are needed.  The school is also ideally set up to deliver the national Curriculum for Excellence.

Meanwhile there are several compelling reasons to keep St Joseph’s in Milngavie and if any of the ruling Labour and Lib-Dem group on East Dunbartonshire Council had deigned to attend the public meeting they would have heard all of them loud and clear.

Quite simply, St Joseph’s is the epitome of what a school serving its community ought to look like. It provides after-school clubs for its pupils as well as a breakfast club. It hosts a weekly Tuesday club for adults with special needs. If the St Joseph’s pupils are forced out of their community they will find it difficult to access the after-school clubs in the new-shared facility in Bearsden owing to transport issues. This amounts to discrimination and is detrimental to their all-round physical and mental health development.

But what do Labour care about that? In a dismissive letter to the St Joseph’s parents, the director of education refused a request to meet with them. They had wanted to discuss other options that included the parents running their own school along the lines of those which are currently revolutionising education in England. This was his reply: “There is not a mechanism in Scottish law similar to the model currently used in England to allow schools to opt out of local authority education provision or become free schools.

It is my understanding that it is not currently the intention of the Scottish Government to deviate from this position.”

If the Scottish Government were to deploy a bit of imagination and back up its honeyed words on inclusion in education it would make a special case of St Joseph’s, simply because it is a special case. In so doing they would establish a template based on the maxim that local people always know what is best in the education of their children and not the unholy alliance of teaching unions (for whom teachers’ rights must always supersede children’s rights) and time-served and blazered local panjandrums.

And what has the Scottish Catholic Education Service (SCES) been doing about this? Michael McGrath, director of SCES, met with St Joseph’s parent representatives to offer ‘advice’ on the viability of their proposal for a community-led school. This stretched my understanding of what ‘advice’ means to its outer limits. And, for reasons best known to itself, this body also declined to be represented at the St Joseph’s public meeting.

At times such as this you wonder how the late, great Cardinal Winning would have responded. I’ll hazard a guess. He would have written to each of the main party leaders in Scotland and demanded a meeting with them over the closure. He would have released a strongly-worded statement to the national press voicing his anger at this act of educational and cultural vandalism. And he would have wondered aloud why out of six schools in one community only the Catholic pupils face having their ancient attachment to their community severed in such a cavalier manner.


— Kevin McKenna is a columnist with the London-based Sunday Observer.

— The SCO has been closely following the situation at St Joseph’s Milngavie as a test case on the provision of Catholic education in Scotland. Is your area being affected by Catholic school closures or mergers?



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