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Parochial Schools (Scotland) Bill

Volume 142: debated on Friday 13 June 1856

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Order for Committee read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the chair."

said, he must ask for some distinct intimation from the Government on the subject to which he had just alluded.

said, that the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Disraeli) seemed to think morning sittings were being commenced earlier than usual. Now, the fact was, that last Session they began on the 12th of June, and next Tuesday would be the 17th. [Mr. DISRAELI: But due notice was given.] Well, notice had been given yesterday (Thursday), and if five days were not enough for hon. Members to summon up courage to come down to the House in the morning, he did not know what period would be considered sufficient. If the arrangement preferred by the Government really encroached upon the evening which was at the disposal of the right hon. Gentleman, he would have a fair right to complain; but that was not the case.

said, he thought that, after all, as it was only two Irish questions that were to occupy them at the morning sitting on Tuesday, that there need be no fear of the Members generally being too exhausted to attend to the evening's debate.

said, he would now move as an Amendment that the House resolve itself into Committee upon the Bill on that day six months. He entertained the strongest objection to the principle of the Bill, but he had not divided against it upon the second reading, because a division at that stage would not have been conclusive of the question, by reason that many hon. Gentlemen approved as he did of some of the clauses of the Bill, and because the right hon. and learned Lord Advocate appeared willing to give a fair consideration to the suggestions which had been thrown out by hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House for the introduction of clauses which would have the effect of preserving the connection between the Church of Scotland and the schools. But no such clauses had been introduced and he was, therefore, compelled to press the Amendment of which he had given notice. The General Committee of the Assembly of the Church of Scotland had published a Minute giving their reasons for dissenting from the Bill, and he entirely concurred with them in objecting to it on the ground that it did not require schoolmasters to belong to the Church of Scotland. The whole question turned upon the maintenance of the existing relations between the Church of Scotland and the schools. He contended that the problem of the connection which ought to be maintained between religious and secular education, had been successfully solved in Scotland, and he deprecated any interference with that solution. They now knew what doctrines were taught in the school, but if the Bill were carried they would have no security as to their religious teaching. He would refer hon. Members to a Report of Mr. Horace Mann, which had been laid before Parliament, to show that many of the Presbyterians of England had become impregnated with Unitarian doctrines. Now, that was not only the case with regard to the Presbyterians of England, but also with regard to those of Ireland, and of the continent. He did not wish to question or interfere with the freedom of conscience of Unitarians and Socinians; but, at the same time, he should not like to see Socinian principles taught in the parochial schools of Scotland. The right hon. and learned Gentleman who had charge of the Bill had talked of the present measure as a concession, but the fact was that it was an adroit delusion. The original Bill had no doubt been divided in two, but not in the manner which was required. The object which he (Mr. C. Bruce) had in view in suggesting that the original Bill should be divided was, that one Bill should be directed to the improvement and maintenance of parish schools in connection with the Church of Scotland, and the other to extending the means of education where they were deficient, upon such principles as the peculiar circumstances of the case might render expedient. The present Bill, however, did not meet that object, and he believed that its effect would be to hand over to the Free Church those schools which had hitherto been part and parcel of the Established Church of Scotland, and to prevent a reunion taking place between the two great Presbyterian bodies in Scotland, whose disagreement he regarded as one of the greatest calamities which had befallen his country. His right hon. and learned Friend appeared to entertain a holy horror of all tests, and he had spoken of tests as being doomed. The right hon. and learned Lord Advocate said that there was an end to the test, and seemed to think his decision on that point could not be questioned; but he (Mr. C. Bruce), in the exercise of his right as an independent Member of that House, must question that decision, and declare his determination to support that great principle which gave the only valid security for the union of religious and secular education. In discussing the present Bill, the House could not put out of consideration the other Bill with respect to schools in boroughs, for if the principle of compulsory rating were adopted in regard to the latter it would, without doubt, re-act on the parish schools, and he therefore, most earnestly implored the House not to inflict on Scotland that which, when the noble Lord the Member for London (Lord John Russell) proposed his Resolutions, it refused to sanction for England. A desire to extend the means of education was professed by the promoters of the Bill, and yet no new school could be introduced by the proposed change. The only reason for pressing the Bill on the House was, that it was desirable to remove a grievance which those connected with the Free Church in Scotland suffered under. It was alleged to be a special hardship that that body, though substantially adhering to the doctrine and standard of the Established Church of Scotland, should, as Dissenters, be excluded from all management of the schools. But if that claim were recognised, would not an unjust distinction be established between them and all other Dissenters who did not adhere to the doctrine and standard of the Established Church of Scotland? The members of the Free Church were Dissenters, because they refused to submit to those equitable conditions which the State had thought fit to impose as a foundation for an Established Church, and he was surprised to find the present Bill supported by the Government of the noble Lord the Member for Tiverton (Viscount Palmerston), who had declared it to be the duty of the State to maintain an established religion, and that the support of the establishment should not be determined by the consideration of fluctuating majorities one way or another. He opposed the measure because he thought that it would prove ruinous and destructive to the parish schools of Scotland, because it would put an end to all valid security for religious teaching in those schools, and finally, because it would tend to introduce difference and dissension in every parish. At the same time he was ready to come to some amicable arrangement on this subject if the right hon. and learned Lord would adopt an Amendment which would prevent the teaching in the parish schools of any opinion opposed to the Scriptures or subversive of the Established Church.

, in seconding the Amendment, said, he wished it to be distinctly understood that he took no exception to that part of the Bill which was calculated to improve the position of the parochial schoolmasters of Scotland, but he greatly regretted that Her Majesty's Government had sanctioned the introduction of clauses containing the same objectionable provisions which had compelled them to abandon their Bill of last year, and even to vote against it in another place. The ostensible object of the Bill now under consideration was to improve the parish schools—but its real design was to separate them from the Established Church. The accomplished leader of the Scottish Bar had shown that it was practically unworkable, and would throw everything into confusion. It must cause discord in many parishes, and would entirely destory the uniformity of the existing system. The Bill was dexterously drawn, but on examination it would be found that it takes from the Church the substance, and leaves it only the shadow. The connection between the Church of Scotland and its schools was the foundation of the parochial system in that country, which was for ever guaranteed to it by the Treaty of Union, and the test which it sought to abolish formed the link of that connection. It was also the sole security for the maintenance of that system of religious instruction in those schools which had been of inestimable value to the people of that country. It had been argued, that as the Church of Scotland was no longer the Church of the majority, the schoolmaster ought to be selected without any regard to his religious opinions, but the parochial schools were not the only schools in Scotland. In point of fact, they did not exceed one-fifth of the whole. The Presbyterian Dissenters, the Episcopalians, and the Roman Catholics had schools of their own. The Free Church alone had upwards of 600 schools, aided by Government grants, the teachers of which were bound by a test, and he would ask hon. Members if the Church of Scotland ought to be the only Church without schools in like connection with it? The hon. Member for Edinburgh (Mr. Black) in a former debate, had thought proper to stigmatise the heritors who were the patrons of these schools as the opponents of all reform. The hon. Member no doubt would wish to see the union between Church and State dissolved. He would consider that a salutary reform. Every argument he had now—indeed, every argument which had been used in favour of this Bill, might with equal justice be applied to the overthrow of the Church, but the great body of the heritors of Scotland thought otherwise. Two years ago, in a remarkable document, they almost unanimously protested against even this first step towards the attainment of that object. They still consistently opposed the severance of these schools from the Church, and who were better entitled to express their opinions than those who, without aid from the Government, paid for their support? Under the existing system, they had been brought to a state of acknowledged perfection, and it was on the understanding that they are not to be interfered with that the heritors were prepared to submit to an increased assessment. In the present Session, many petitions of similar import had been presented from the Church courts, from county meetings, and from the rural districts. The numbers already recorded were 296, with 14,500 signatures; while in favour of the Bill there were only seventy-five, with 8,650 signatures; and it was worthy of notice that upwards of 7,000 were the signatures of inhabitants of towns to which the parochial system did not extend—who had no interest in, and were practically entirely unacquainted with those schools. Such petitions ought to carry no weight with them, and, with regard to those which came from a portion of the Free Church, they relied on securities for the maintenance of the existing system of religious instruction which the proposed Bill did not afford. Last month Her Majesty had assured the Church of her continual favour. After that declaration, and under all these circumstances, he hoped that the noble Lord at the head of the Government would consent to the withdrawal from the Bill of its obnoxious clauses, so that its proper object—in regard to which there was no difference of opinion—might be attained, and a deserving class relieved from the state of painful uncertainty in which they had been placed for the last three years.

Amendment proposed, to leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "this House will, upon this day six months, resolve itself into the said Committee," instead thereof.

said, he should support the Bill, believing that on the whole it would strengthen the hands of the clergy of the Church of Scotland in the matter of education. It would raise the standard of the schoolmasters, and would make a better provision for their remuneration for the future. The temporary Act under which the schoolmasters had been paid having now expired, it was absolutely necessary that some measure should be passed by which those most deserving persons should be prevented from being thrown back on their old salaries, which it was acknowledged on all hands were perfectly inadequate to support them in their station. It would be very much to be regretted if they were left in doubt for another year, as to what their fate was to be. He considered that the best results in the improvement of education in Scotland might be expected from the appointment of district inspectors. If the schoolmasters were to be placed under inspectors, he hoped that they would be eligible for the rewards which were offered by the Committee of Privy Council. He did not deny for a moment that the Church of Scotland had up to the present time had the entire management and control of the parochial schools; but he did not see how the proposed Bill would separate the schools from the Established Church. He believed that the severance of the schools from a Church which for 200 years had conducted the education of the people with success would be a national misfortune and a great injustice to that venerable Church. There could be no security for the religious character of the masters to be appointed, unless the body who appointed them were of a definite religious persuasion; and upon that he owned that he thought that the Bill was defective. He, therefore, hoped, that some measure would be adopted to secure that the schoolmasters should not lead away youth from the Church to which they belonged; and, for that purpose, it was his intention to propose a test by which the schoolmaster should declare that he would never endeavour, directly or indirectly, to teach or inculcate any opinions opposed to the Divine authority of the Holy Scriptures, or to the Westminster Confession of Faith, as ratified by law in the year 1690; and that he would not exercise the functions of the said office to the prejudice or subversion of the Church of Scotland as by law established, or the doctrines and privileges thereof. He trusted that the right hon. and learned Lord Advocate would assent to that test; and that, so doing, he might succeed in carrying a measure which was so anxiously looked for by the friends of education in Scotland, and which he had no doubt was calculated to effect much good.

said, he was at a loss to know whether the speech of his hon. Friend who had just sat down was in favour of, or in opposition to the Bill before the House. It must be admitted that the Established Church of Scotland was the trustee of those schools. In that capacity she had, for upwards of 200 years, discharged her trust well and faithfully; and he contended, therefore, that any measure which was calculated to deprive her of the superintendence which she had hitherto exercised, and for which she had shown herself so fit, ought not to be encouraged. It was admitted by every one that it was necessary to improve the position of the schoolmasters. But that the Government might have easily effected three years ago, when they first mooted the subject, had they been content with that; instead of which, however, they had made it the pretext for a vital change in the position of the Church of Scotland with regard to the schools. That was an illustration of the mania for "comprehensive systems," which spoilt so much of our legislation. It was said that the present system of education in Scotland was unjust to the teachers belonging to Dissenting denominations. Now, he must deny the accuracy of that statement; but, admitting the fact to be so, what they had to consider was, not the creation of situations for schoolmasters, but the provision of instruction for the young. The time had arrived when the vexed question of education in Scotland should be settled one way or the other. Large concessions had been made with that view by the friends of the Established Church, but he was sorry to say they had not been met in a corresponding spirit by the other side. No adequate provision was made in the Bill for religious instruction in the schools; and, as matters now stood, if he and those with whom he acted agreed to abandon the connection between the school and the Church, there would be no security for the religious character of the teacher. He could not approve the negative test proposed by the hon. Member who spoke last, and should prefer that which required the schoolmaster to profess his belief in the Confession of Faith.

said, he was not opposed to the Bill as a whole, but he would suggest the omission of the 10th clause, which virtually placed the appointment of the schoolmaster in the hands of the inspector. The heritors had hitherto discharged that duty satisfactorily.

Question put, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."

The House divided:—Ayes 126; Noes 90: Majority 36.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Bill considered in Committee.

House resumed.

Committee report progress; to sit again on Thursday next, at Twelve o'clock.

The House adjourned at a quarter after Two o'clock, till Monday next.