PEAK Catholicism happened for me in 1975. I was 11 years of age and have often thought since that my one chance of accessing heaven without any dispute came and went during those anointed 12 months. I wouldn’t say I’d spent the year actively seeking an untimely demise but if this had occurred I’d have been a lot more sanguine about it then than at any time since. I’m likely to require snookers now.

My teacher at St Machan’s Primary in Lennoxtown, a remarkable woman called Nan McCafferty, had told us about an ancient Catholic observance called the First Friday Devotion. Basically, this entailed attending morning Mass on the first Friday of nine consecutive months. In return the devotee would receive “the grace of final repentance”. This was over and above our normal Sunday Mass attendance. It held out the hope that you wouldn’t die without receiving the sacraments and thus the road to salvation might become a little less jaggy. And so, I dutifully attended Mass at 8am on the first Friday of every month throughout that year, fully expecting to become a better person. In a life where most of the Deadly Sins proved irresistible to me I have often since wondered if my devotion throughout 1975 might be accepted as decent deposit in the final reckoning.

Kevin McKenna: Why university lecturers are seeking democratic accountability

In those days most of my friends existed inside a Catholic bubble. The parish priest was a regular visitor and, on Holy Days of Obligation we were marched over a park and through a housing scheme to attend yet another Mass. There was a saint for every affliction and statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary stood ready each May and November to be garlanded with flowers while we sang hymns from little blue books rubbed smooth by the thumbs of those who had sat in these seats over decades. Outside of school our friendships with our Protestant neighbours continued unhindered into adulthood.

We were third and fourth generation Irish and the Catholic faith of our parents and grandparents had been a rock to them. It helped them to endure widespread discrimination in the employment market and the barely-concealed contempt of Scotland’s civic institutions which viewed them as ill-educated jailbirds. Their faith was more than just Church on a Sunday and the teachings of the bible: it was something that defined their humanity; their politics; their relationships and their responsibilities to the state. The schools were sacred to them because they were extensions of the faith and, as such could be entrusted with the spiritual formation of their children. These schools also had to be very good at education. In the face of rejection by the professions and the acute hostility of the old guilds and the Scottish engineering industry they carried the hopes of thousands of families that their children might come to experience a life better than theirs.

The Catholic secondary was no less devout but significantly less cosy. This was where the business end of a Catholic education was to be found and it was where the passport out of the ghetto lay. In Scotland these schools served a dual purpose vital to the economic and civic health of the nation. They formed a bridge that allowed the Irish immigrant community to contribute to wider Scottish society while maintaining its precious faith. The excellence of Scotland’s Catholic secondary schools since their establishment 100 years ago and the sheer breadth of the education they provide have played a significant role in breaking down the fear and suspicion of the Irish.

Ten years ago the then First Minister Alex Salmond said: “Scotland’s diversity is a source of strength, not weakness. For too long, the attitude of some has been, at best, grudging acceptance of Catholic education and, at worst, outright hostility. All faith-based schools play a significant role in helping to shape, inspire and strengthen our young people to learn. It’s time to celebrate their contribution to Scottish education.” Later this year his successor Nicola Sturgeon is expected to echo those sentiments when she delivers the annual Cardinal Winning Lecture.

Kevin McKenna: Why university lecturers are seeking democratic accountability

Yet, even as the Church in Scotland celebrates the centenary of Catholic state schools provided for in the 1918 Education Act, there is a growing acknowledgment within its own community that a rational debate has to take place about their purpose in a country much changed from that which existed a century ago.

From the early 1920s onwards these schools were gradually transferred from Church ownership to state ownership. The civil servants and politicians who drew up the original legislation probably didn’t know it at the time but they were bringing forth one of the great pieces of enlightened, progressive and inclusive legislation that has ever been produced in this country. Before 1918 most Scottish schools were ‘board schools’ organised by school boards and supported by local rates. The Catholic community though insisted on establishing more than 200 voluntary schools. These received some central funding but nothing from the rates which Catholics were still paying. The Act sought to bring these schools under the umbrella of the state principally owing to concerns about an unsatisfactory two-tier system.

Both the Catholic Church and the Church of Scotland were approached to secure their agreement. The Kirk was happy to acquiesce with what was on offer, believing that, as the nation’s established church all safeguards on faith and instruction would automatically follow. The Catholic Church, though, insisted on two fundamental concessions: the absolute right of local bishops over appointments and the right to teach the Catholic faith in the way it wanted. Scotland was happy to grant this and the arrangement has been beneficial to all sides. There are now more than 365 Catholic schools in Scotland.

In the 21st century the pattern of religious observance in this country has altered drastically. Only around one quarter of Scotland’s 700,000 Catholics attend church, a picture of decline matched by the mainstream Protestant churches. If Catholic families are turning away from their own church in such numbers where is the argument for faith schools in a nation where Catholics are much more comfortable in their Scottish skin than they were 100 years ago?

Mark Cairns is headteacher at the non-denominational Cumbernauld Academy and a practising Catholic. He feels it is now time to have a mature and rational debate about the purpose of Catholic schools in 21st century Scotland. “Look, there can be no doubt that Catholic schools have contributed magnificently to Scotland’s education system and they helped form me and define me as a person. But I wonder if sometimes a sort of Catholic exceptionalism is aired by some whereby it’s claimed that Catholic schools possess some kind of moral X-factor somehow missing in the non-denominational sector. This would be at odds with the reality in schools such as Cumbernauld Academy.

“I know there are brilliant Catholic schools but everything that makes them great can also be found in a good non-denominational school. At Cumbernauld Academy we have a strong pattern of pastoral support based on fundamental core values of decency, respect for others and honesty. We have a mission to reach out to disadvantaged communities at home and overseas. Crucially, the spiritual needs of all children – no matter their faith background – are met. I don’t know of any non-denominational school where this is not the case.”

Cairns also points to an area where there might be a clash between Catholic moral teaching and the needs of LGBT children. His school has just been awarded LGBT Youth Scotland’s Silver LGBT Charter which recognises an assortment of best practices.

“As a practising Catholic I fully understand the church’s teaching and tradition on some of these issues. But here my primary responsibility is to the care and wellbeing of all my pupils. Though I know that the pastoral care in Catholic schools is excellent I also wonder if there is the potential for a conflict of interests in this area.”

At St Ninian’s Secondary in Kirkintilloch, a few miles north of Glasgow, the head Paul McLaughlin is conducting me on a mini-tour of his 700-pupil school as it gets back to normal following the ravages of the Beast from the East. This is where I spent four happy years in the late 1970s and though a smart new-build now rests on the site of the old school, which had stood here since 1874, a familiar sense of warmth and contentment washes over me and for a moment I am slightly overcome. The day I walked out of here I left behind my last few genuinely carefree moments but it was a place where I’d been encouraged to think clearly and to believe that anything was possible.

Kevin McKenna: Why university lecturers are seeking democratic accountability

McLaughlin is at ease with the pupils and them with him. We walk through the games hall and encounter a group of boisterous first year boys larking about with a football. He loves the fact that they don’t feel the need to stand to attention and salute him.

Later, in his office, he outlines the philosophy and values of St Ninian’s in the 21st century. He points out that, never having taught in a non-denominational school, he can’t comment on what goes on in them but refutes any suggestion of Catholic exceptionalism. “What there is in this school and others I’ve been at is perhaps a sense of us all being in this together and of facing in the same direction; a sense of community where everyone feels they belong and where they feel valued as individuals.

“As well as our traditional feeder schools we have a non-denominational primary school where the parents of their primary seven pupils, almost without exception, want to send their children here. Now obviously they’re not sending them here because we’re a Catholic school or because they are guaranteed to get great academic results but because they recognise that this is a school founded on care and compassion for others and doing things the right way.

“But let’s be honest here; we’re just down the road from Lenzie Academy, [one of the top-rated schools for academic achievement in the country], so for these parents to be so keen to send their children here tells you that they think we’ve got something; that they like what we’re about and that they believe we have a North Star in terms of the values that guide us.”

As an illustration he offers the story of a second year pupil who took her own life a couple of years back and of much-loved teacher who died recently at the age of 50. “I would not have liked to have gone through that in a school which didn’t possess the same values we have here,” he says. “And anyway,” he adds, “even if you don’t buy into this why would anyone want to close down schools which have shown a standard of continuing excellence based on care and compassion for the whole person and for others and which have worked for the great benefit of this country.”

He gently refutes the notion that the pastoral care of LGBT children might be compromised in a Catholic school. “At St Ninian’s we don’t see LGBT children or Asian children or children with learning difficulties or mental health issues. We only see the whole child and want to establish a framework where they will all be cared for and all their needs met. In our Religious Education classes our students are encouraged to question belief at all times.

“But let’s also be clear about something: our parents have repeatedly told us that while of course they would be concerned if our academic standards slipped they would be much more concerned if they felt that our Catholic identity was slipping.”

Monica Kierney, the head girl at St Ninian’s, is passionate about how Catholic education has helped shape her outlook on the world beyond. “I think Catholic social teaching has never been more relevant to society than it is today,” she says. “It encourages me and my friends to work for a fairer world as well as urging us to be the best that we can be. It has given me opportunities to think of others and to help them by following the example of Jesus. As I move on from school I can only speak of the positive value my Catholic education has given to me in preparing for the future.”

The term ‘post-Christian society’ is still loosely conferred on a modern Scotland where there are many more philosophical and behavioural attractions competing with religious faith for our hearts and minds. In the 2011 census though, 53.8% of Scots identified as Christian. Yet, how many more, while professing no religious conviction had their values and ethics shaped, at least in part, by faith?

Dr Roisin Coll, Director of the St Andrew’s Foundation for Catholic Teacher Education at the University of Glasgow, has no doubts about the value of Catholic education in seeking ways to combat unfairness and social inequality. “In Scotland there exists a synergy of school, community and government key to combating disadvantage and the social mobility of the Catholic community. Many Catholics have their historical roots in famine and disadvantage and this has helped mould our response today to those who feel alienated or excluded.

“Catholic schools ‘get it’ since we understand this narrative and we understand the commandment ‘love thy neighbour’ which means we have to do something about it; to respond; to make a difference. Catholic education seeks to make a difference whether it is in the lives of people confronting hardship and poverty in their own community or people confronting dislocation, asylum and violence from refugee communities. Catholic education has embedded a sense of solidarity with disadvantaged communities because that is part of our own narrative, our memory.”

Visiting St Ninian’s this week rekindled memories and stirred echoes of half a lifetime ago. I was cared for here by men and women who were dedicated to helping me and my friends make something of ourselves. These people, grounded in the faith and wisdom of ages, also instilled in me the political values and social perspectives which have helped form me. Without this faith I am nothing and Scotland is utterly reduced.