Scotland’s most senior Catholic has called on the Scottish Government to step in and reverse a controversial decision by East Dunbartonshire Council to close a primary school.
The Archbishop of Glasgow, Philip Tartaglia, has written to Education Secretary Mike Rusell in a bid to save St Joseph’s Primary School, in Milngavie.
Last month, East Dunbartonshire Council voted to merge St Joseph’s with St Andrew’s and build a new ‘shared campus’ in Bearsden — nearly two miles from its current site.
However, as a result the council will close the only Catholic primary school in the Milngavie area.
In response, beleaguered parents launched a campaign to save St Joseph’s and have also submitted their own appeal to the government.
Scottish ministers may only ‘call-in’ such decisions if there is a ‘procedural’ flaw.
Archbishop Tartaglia has since written to the Mr Russell, describing the council’s plans as ‘manifestly unjust’ and ‘discriminatory’.
He has called for the education secretary to review the council’s decision and preserve the ‘fair treatment and reasonable access to the provision of denominational education’ in Milngavie.
The Archbishop said: “It is my view that, in removing Catholic education entirely from the community of Milngavie, the council’s actions will have a discriminatory impact on the Catholic community. This view is accepted by the council in its own papers.
“While the council appears content to provide three non-denominational schools in Milngavie, and one in Baldernock, there will be no Catholic school provision if this decision stands.
“I recognise the financial challenges being faced by all Scottish councils at this time and I am fully aware that East Dunbartonshire Council is expected to manage its resources effectively and efficiently.
“I greatly regret to say that the council has proceeded with a decision which I believe to be manifestly unjust and discriminatory against Catholic children and parents in this community.”
He added: “St Joseph’s Primary School is very much regarded as being a key part of the heritage of this community.
“I note that the council duly recognised the significance of local heritage in another community — that of Bearsden — when it withdrew an earlier proposal to close Bearsden Primary school.”
East Dunbartonshire Council has claimed the merger would represent a £9m investment in Catholic education and would ease the problem of funding a school which is under capacity.
However, Archbishop Tartaglia refuted these suggestions arguing that money would be better used to upgrade the school.
He said: “The council asserts that, by providing upgraded facilities, it will provide the potential for an enhanced curriculum.
“However, if this assertion is true, this would also apply to enhanced facilities which could be provided for St Joseph’s.
“The council’s report does not address the concern highlighted by Education Scotland that the distance to the proposed new school might act ‘as a barrier to learning’.”
He added: “The council’s argument seems to be that larger schools are necessary to ensure the provision of efficient services.
“However, that argument, taken to its logical conclusion, would provide a rationale for closing all schools with fewer than 300 pupils.
“Clearly, in East Dunbartonshire, and in many council areas across Scotland, schools thrive with smaller rolls than that of St Joseph’s. Indeed, in other council areas, many smaller schools are being modernised or rebuilt completely.”
East Dunbartonshire Council has strongly denied claims of discrimination against the Catholic community in Milngavie.
Gordon Currie, Director of Education & Children’s Services, said: “Far from discriminating against Catholic education, this council is widely recognised for its investment and support of religious education in Catholic schools and remains committed to providing high quality denominational education.
“The number of children in Catholic education in Bearsden and Milngavie has fallen significantly in recent years and continues to fall. Indeed, St Joseph’s roll has dropped 23% in the last decade.
“This proposal, to provide one modern, well-equipped school to replace two very under-occupied schools, is an opportunity to deliver on our commitment and it represents a significant investment in Catholic education of almost £9m.
“The council made its decision following in-depth consultation with all stakeholders, including the Catholic Church.
“We have welcomed their input on this and other proposals and their views were carefully considered.
“The Equality Impact Assessment of the proposals shows that there would be no direct discrimination and that there is no intention to discriminate against a particular group.
“The Assessment also highlights that while there would be more travelling involved for Milngavie children there is access to the proposed new school, supported by a generous free transport policy.
“The information we provided about support for the proposals among St Andrew’s parents is accurate. The council report said that they ‘broadly supported the proposal’.
“This is based on the position given by 84 statutory respondents: 43 supported the proposal, 34 did not and seven did not say.
“We will work with the Scottish Government during their consideration period and await their findings in the near future.
“Through this Improvement Programme we have the chance to provide the young people of East Dunbartonshire with the modern, well-equipped schools they deserve while making much needed savings and efficiencies.”