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The Semantics of Separation

July 4, 2011

To be honest, linguistics was never the favourite part of my English degree course, but, for all that, the way in which words are used by folk has remained a fascination to me.

Take the words ‘separation’ or ‘separate’. A friend once told me that the easiest way to remember their spelling was to recall ‘There is ‘a rat’ in separate, and sometimes I think she spoke more accurately than she realised. However, in two major areas of my life – work and politics – the semantics of ‘separate’ have a resonance.

For years, for example, unionist politicians, incapable of uttering a word so positive as ‘independence’ in connection with Scottish self determination, made a point of referring to Nats as ‘separatists’ wanting a ‘separate’ Scotland. The picture they were hoping to build up was some kind of Albanian, walled up, detached nation, out of touch with the world, its citizens condemned to atrophy.

However, the semantics have changed. Now a strong Nationalist majority government are starting to clarify their ambitions for independence, the unionists are claiming that they won’t be ‘separate’ at all. They scoff at ‘independence lite’, the retention of the monarchy, and the suggestion of shared facilities, as evidence that the SNP don’t want separation after all. It’s a ‘Have you stopped beating your wife?’ moment. Condemn them for isolationism and then, when it becomes apparent that is not what they aim for, accuse them of not really wanting independence. In fact, ‘separation’ is something Scotland has endured since the Union: the absence of a voice at the UN, the EU, and an inability to make major decisions on its contribution to world affairs, makes the country just about as ‘separate’ as it could be.

Meanwhile, we move on to the concept of a ‘separate’ Scottish Labour Party……

Then, in the context of my work, because I teach in a denominational school, I am accused of ‘separating weans’ from their neighbours on grounds of religion. Denominational schools are cried ‘separate schools’ as if every other child in Scotland goes to one school and are not split up by catchment, geography and parental choice.

I understand the argument that faith and education should be separated, though, obviously, I don’t agree with it, and I’m willing to debate that at length. What does anger me are false accusations as to the aims and effect of Faith schools – from being the cause of sectarianism and bigotry to the charge that they indoctrinate their pupils. Generally, these accusations are made from ignorance – from those who have never experienced a denominational school, or who base their view on outdated experiences in the past, or who are atheists or humanists on a ‘crusade’ to banish religion from public life.

Luckily, with over 30 years of teaching behind me in both denominational and non-denominational settings. I can speak from actual experience – as well as my own beliefs. ‘Separate’ is one word that semantically cannot be used to describe Catholic schools. They are open to all who agree with their ethos -whatever their religion, or indeed if they have no religion. The Gospel values of loving your neighbour as yourself and working for the community are not the preserve of Catholic or even Christian doctrine. Indeed they serve humanist and atheistic philosophies just as well.

As a result, most Catholic schools have pupils from all religions and none, they teach about all religions, and are inclusive in every way. I would generally be unaware of the religious affiliations of the pupils in front of me in a class, and they would all be treated and taught in exactly the same way.

To claim that pupils at Catholic schools are kept apart from – or ‘separated’ from those who are not Catholic is errant nonsense. Apart from the mix within the school and attendance at local colleges and training schemes, our pupils have friends in the community where they live, at their part time work, and in all the organisations they belong to outside of school. They are not taught to feel ‘different’ and are well capable of understanding that people worship in varying ways or not at all. The base of religious teaching in Catholic schools would be in reference to the uniqueness and equality of all – irrespective of religion, race, or any other distinction. In our senior school, over forty pupils from local non-denominational schools are taught in some subjects, and a similar number of our pupils attend lessons at neighbouring schools. Pupils in Catholic schools are no more ‘separated’ than are those who go to various non-denominational schools in the same city or area. Indeed, there is a good claim to be made that denominational schools – with a wider catchment area – are more truly comprehensive and inclusive than those based on a local community catchment.

The response to these facts is often along the lines of: well if they’re so similar, why have them at all? The answer lies in the parents’ right to choose a school where the structure provided for pupils’ life choices is based on Faith rather than any other kind of philosophy – and I would claim that those with Faith have the same rights as those without. It costs no more to have Catholic schools: all those pupils would need to be provided for in any case. In a democracy we sometimes have to pay for things we may not agree with; I’m not highly delighted to see how much we pay for the 130+ members of Prince Charles’s staff, or Trident, or the Iraq war – but the government that makes these decisions has been voted in according to the terms of our democracy.

So, let’s watch out for the semantics of ‘separation’. Scotland, as a country, needs to end its ‘separation’ from the world community by gaining its own voice in international affairs; Catholic schools, far from ‘separating’ weans from others, bring faith values to a wide range of diverse young people from large communities, and teach with affirmation that to be different is not to be ‘separate’, and that to recognise diversity is a strength not a weakness.

We are all Jock Tamson’s bairns – irrespective of creed or colour or race. The values of a would be independent Scotland, or of state supported faith schools, serve only to emphasise that fact.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 10, 2011 12:16 pm

    I learned it as “never get sePARAted from your PARAchute”. Which was maybe a Catholic school thing.

    Great post on an often unpopular point of view. I’ve sent it to my mum.

  2. Mum permalink
    July 11, 2011 4:47 pm

    Mum’s read it too!As a teacher of 30 something years, I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments and let’s not forget the Act of Settlement!


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