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Education in Northern Ireland: segregation, division and sectarianism?

Updated Wednesday, 3rd July 2013
Is education in Northern Ireland a vehicle for social cohesion or for perpetuating community divisions?

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Children jumping The unveiled and direct attacks this week between the DUP leader and First Minister Peter Robinson and a senior Catholic bishop, Donal McKeown, have once again raised the thorny and entangled issue of the role of education in Northern Ireland as either a vehicle for social cohesion or one of perpetuating community divisions.

The DUP’s position, according to Bishop McKeown, is that it is the Catholic schools who are at fault and the largest obstacle to a more integrated or shared education system, a view he claims is perceived as ‘nakedly sectarian’ by the Catholic community.

In response, the First Minster replied that the Bishop had ‘somewhat lost the plot’ and the phrase used by Robinson in 2010 to describe the separate schools system, 'benign apartheid', has entered the debate again.

This exchange is unusual in that both the Bishop and First Minster have for once eschewed the usually carefully nuanced and diplomatic public use of language on these sensitive debates and engaged in a high profile row conducted through the media.

It is an issue which goes to heart of the multiple number of entangled reasons why Northern Ireland continues to be a deeply divided society 15 years after the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.

Northern Ireland, with only a population of 1.8 million has a complex and fragmented school structure but Government figures show that 93% of children in primary (4-11) and post-primary (11-18) schools attend either Catholic schools or schools that are mainly attended by Protestant children

In response to this separation the integrated schools movement arose from a parent led group in the 1970s who drove the creation of the first integrated school in 1981 and has now grown to 62 schools educating some 7% of the school age population.

They proactively seek to create a balance of 40% of Catholics and Protestants, and 20% of those from other faiths and none - so to be a genuinely shared space for children to actively learn about and engage with each other’s religious backgrounds.

Despite huge public support however, and with a few honourable exceptions, integrated schools previously attracted little support from both sides of the political divide.

In terms of the current exchange the DUP would appear to have moved from being opposed to integrated education to now being supportive of it.

The concern of the integrated movement however, is that the grounds of the debate have moved in this exchange from the pure integrated model they developed to a weakened version of ‘shared education’ which requires no structural changes but rather promotes more meaningful cooperation and interaction between schools across the divide, sharing resources as much as sharing hearts and minds - albeit with the focus also being on increased contact.

The integrated sector argue that repeated attitudinal studies have shown that the public are extremely supportive of integrated schools, and see them as very important to peace and reconciliation and promoting mutual respect and understanding.

On their part the trustees of Catholic schools feel unfairly criticised.

They argue that separate school systems simply reflect the divisions in society, and do not cause them.

Catholic parents vote with their feet, and their demand for a Catholic faith–based education sees no sign of diminishing.

If parental choice and demand was the rallying cry from the parents calling for integrated schools, then that parental demand and choice for Catholic parents to send their children to Catholic schools is equally valid.

Indeed evidence is cited to suggest that children who have been to a single identity school can be more secure in terms of their national or religious identity, and may be even more open to ‘others’ on an equal basis.

Catholic schools are not only schools for Catholics they maintain, they have developed a more inclusive curriculum in response to the increasingly ethnic and multi faith (non-Christian) profile of Northern Ireland.

The ethos of a Catholic school is very highly valued by parents inside and outside of Northern Ireland, including parents of other faiths.

Hence accusations that they are the main obstacle to greater social cohesion and that they perpetuate social divisions and work against integration in Northern Ireland hurt deeply.

But as the DUP and most parties in the Assembly have embraced the language of a shared future, and see the economic benefits of reduced duplication involved with parallel education sectors, as the largest provider the Catholic hierarchy can be seen as vulnerable to the old accusations that by persisting with their own schools they are guilty of maintaining unnecessary separation.

And amidst these arguments over a divided or shared education system, let us not forget  the other great elephant in the room; class.

Northern Ireland still has the 11 plus, academic selection for entrance to post-primary education, and on the whole pupils from more affluent socio-economic backgrounds go on to grammar schools, and those from less privileged backgrounds, go to non-grammars.

Here class trumps religion, as parents from both Catholic and Protestant middle classes are equally determined to preserve this situation given the excellent results grammar schools on both sides have at GCSE and A level providing successful entry into University.


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