The fourth ‘R’ – the role of religion in the segregation of schools…

Standing shoulder to shoulder at a recent ecumenical event to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland, men of the cloth from the Catholic Church and three Protestant denominations declared that: “the churches could have done more to deepen our understanding of each other and to bring healing and peace to our divided and wounded communities.” Few of those who live on this troubled and contested island would argue with that brave and bold confession, but, in this age of the soundbite and the grandstanding apology, the clerics’ statement is worthy of further examination.

A hundred years ago the government in the newly created Northern Ireland began the process of reorganising the provision of education within their new borders. The architect of this new system was a prominent Unionist peer, Lord Londonderry. His vision was of a single system that would be open to pupils of all denominations; religious instruction would not be permitted during school hours and school authorities were to be prohibited from taking religion into account in the appointment of teachers. In order for this to be realised, the Church authorities on both sides would be required to hand over the schools that were under their management. The proposed model, however, met with opposition on both sides. The Catholic Bishops saw the new system as threatening to both their faith and their Irish cultural identity. The Protestant Churches were insistent that, if they were to be expected to surrender the ownership of their schools, then they would need to retain significant management control.  Both sides demanded the right to provide religious instruction and to appoint teachers who would uphold their interpretations of Christian faith.

Significant revisions and amendments were made and, by 1930, the vision of a common, non-denominational system had been abandoned. Almost all of those schools that had previously been managed by Protestant denominations came under the control of the Ministry of Education (Controlled schools). Catholic schools (and a very small number of other schools) remained at arms-length but, in return for state funding for teachers’ salaries and a contribution to basic running costs, accepted a management structure that included a minority representation from state education officials (Maintained schools).

Thus, in spite of Londonderry’s aspirations, the Churches ensured that the structure of the educational system would be segregated along the national-political-religious axis between Protestants and Catholics. It could reasonably be argued that, in acting to protect their own interests, the Churches actively contributed to the creation of a climate within which mutual animosity could flourish. Could this be what they meant when they spoke of failing to “bring healing and peace”?

Today 93% of pupils attend schools aligned with either British identity and Protestant faith or Catholicism and Irish identity. According to the Department of Education’s 2020-21 school census, only around 7% of the pupils that attend mainstream Controlled schools are Catholic and less than 2% of those in their Maintained equivalents are Protestant; many schools do not have a single pupil from ‘the other side’. These schools are still managed by Boards that contain a high proportion of Governors that have been specifically appointed to maintain the schools’ religious identity. Church influence has therefore helped to ensure that is fully possible for a child to pass through an entire cycle of education from three to eighteen without having ever had any meaningful engagement with a pupil from outside their own community.

The endemic structural division of education is backed up by the existence of two teaching colleges for prospective primary school teachers – one attended predominantly by Protestants, the other almost exclusively by Catholics. Boards of Governors can quite legally use a candidate’s religion (or lack of) as a criterion when appointing teachers – a scenario that would be unthinkable in any other workplace. Consequently, pupils are generally taught by teachers who share their community background. The plumber who comes to fix the school toilet is likely to have spent significant time learning their trade in a mixed class at Regional (Technical) College, whereas the teacher who is leading a cross-community Shared Education programme may have passed through school and teacher education without ever having sat next to a student with different faith and cultural identity.

Maintaining this depth of separation is a financially costly business. A multitude of state-funded bodies oversee the administration of a bewilderingly complex system. It has been estimated that maintaining the segregation of education costs the public purse something around one million pounds every week. Could this be what the Churches meant when they spoke of their “failings”?

Earlier this month the teaching Union NASUWT tabled a motion at the Irish Congress of Trades Unions’ conference calling for a repeal of the law that enables religious discrimination in the appointment of teachers – a small step towards the creation of a more forward-looking and inclusive system of education. Notwithstanding the collective, conciliatory utterings in Armagh Cathedral, the responses by the Churches’ educational representatives (CCMS and TRC) to the unions’ call for religious discrimination to be outlawed in schools was equivocal. They spoke of “considering their position” but stressed any possible legal change should not comprise their unique (i.e. segregated) identities. Last week they seemed once again to sing from the same hymn sheet when they lambasted the proposed Integrated Education Bill.

Would it not be wonderful if the Catholic, Presbyterian, Anglican and Methodist churches were to bring their collective wisdom to bear, to learn from their past shortcomings and to look towards ways in which they could act collectively to “deepen understanding” among future generations? Sadly, recent evidence would suggest that they are instead actively protecting factional, denominational interests and, in so doing, preserving the barriers in education that help maintain separation between “divided and wounded communities”.

Dr Matthew Milliken is a Researcher at the UNESCO Centre, Ulster University. You can follow him on twitter.