I have to admit it’s not often that I agree with Peter Robinson. However, his statement that the education system in Northern Ireland is a ‘benign form of apartheid’ is, in my view, somewhat correct. Where I might differ with Peter Robinson is in his reasons. It does seem true that a segregated education system reinforces segregation in wider society and because it is good to break down segregation in society, a reasonable place to begin is in education. Never mind Robinson’s financial reasons, our shared future is dependent on it.
The idea that I think is particularly applicable to Robinson’s statement, and our education system in general, is one which is prominent in Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. Basically the idea is that children should not be labelled according to the faith of their parents. So instead of saying ‘Catholic child’ and ‘Protestant child’ we should move towards calling them ‘children of Catholic parents’ or ‘children of Protestant parents.’ The basis of this argument is that children are not old enough to make an educated, informed and rational decision on what religion, if any, they should follow. We don’t refer to children as ‘Sinn Fein children’ or ‘DUP children’ because they are not old enough to make decisions on politics.
With this in mind, we should not have separate Catholic and state schools, but schools which teach the ethos of all traditions in society with a view to allowing to children to make an educated decision on what paths they should follow. I know this sounds like integrated education by another name and in a sense it is, but it is an integration not of ‘Catholic children’ and ‘Protestant children’ but an integration of children whose parents have different religious views. As such, the term non-denominational, which my own Grammar school operated under, is preferable as it suggests that it is education designed to present all views and allow young people to make their own decisions unfettered by history or the choices of their parents.
I myself attended a Catholic Primary school and a non-denominational Grammar school, but what mattered was not where the funding of these schools came from, nor was it from the particular flavour of religion they taught but it was the standard of education I received at these schools, which was excellent. If parents, politicians and the media were to stop labelling children according to the religious persuasions of their parents and so sent them not to a Catholic or state school but the school best suited to their children’s needs a lot of division may dissolve.
To return to my disagreement with Robinson the issue is not that we have to integrate ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ children but rather that we have to educate children from all backgrounds and allow them to make their own religious and political decisions. This is where our energies should be focused – in making sure our children have all the facts at their disposal to make rational, educated and informed decisions about the paths they should follow. It is only through the truly non-denominational education of our children that a cohesive and shared society can be achieved.