Two education systems divided by a common century…

The unification of Ireland, or is it the reunification, seems to be all over the media at the moment. While seemingly irreconcilable differences on what to call the day after Christmas Day seem to be intractable, in some quarters a United Ireland seems to be viewed as inevitable and impending. However, a recent poll in the south suggested that, while the people there wanted it, they were not happy about changing anything to accommodate their northern neighbours, even relatively simple things like the national anthem or the national flag. Writing in the Irish Times, Fintan O’Toole compared this to a potential marriage where one side – and it had to be the man, didn’t it – was happy about the benefits of married life but was not really up for the responsibilities. Marriage is a great institution, it is said, but who wants to live in an institution? Nonetheless, marriages happen. Even those Unionist politicians with the shrewdness to see unification as unavoidable in the long term do not want to be seen to be planning for it, seeing that as electoral suicide. The dilemma is, if/when it becomes imminent, and Unionist politicians have not engaged, will they have lost much of their bargaining strength?

So, if this is inevitable, what are the challenges going to be? Apart from recalcitrant Unionist voters ill-prepared for the inescapable by their reluctant politicians, there are other issues. Just as wildlife in Australasia evolved jumping marsupials and peculiarly cuddly koalas, having been separated by diverging tectonic plates from other parts of Asia, so the services and structures on each side of the border across Ireland have diverged over the last century. This barrier across the island has proven to be relatively impermeable to the movement of ideas, presumably because each jurisdiction did not want to be seen to be emulating the other. The result is that systems, such as health and social care and education, have evolved very differently in the 100 years since they were divided. A recent paper by Ulster University, part of a series about education in Northern Ireland, looked at the differences and similarities in schools on either side of that border, partly to see whether the task of having a single education system on the island was achievable.

A century ago, the school system was the same across Ireland. There was free primary education for all, delivered in a series of National Schools across the island established in 1831 in an audacious and world-leading plan to deliver weapons of mass instruction to all, regardless of wealth or position. Intended to be non-denominational, by the 1900s most had already come under Catholic or Protestant control as the churches wielded their considerable power. Most of the population did not stay at school after primary school. There were also grammar schools, if you were rich enough to afford them, but most of these were divided by religion as well, having been formed by religious orders or churches.

Then came partition. This changed much, but schooling still remained much the same for a little while. Teachers in Catholic schools in Northern Ireland were briefly paid by Michael Collins as hopes held sway for a time that the fledgling Northern Ireland would crumble. However, with reluctance, the Catholic minority came to recognise that partition was not to be short-lived. A Unionist peer, charged with developing a new system of education for NI, proposed a system of education in the fledgling state which was secular and open to all. Of course, no churches were in favour of that. It took over a decade before the Protestant church authorities ceded some control of their schools to the state, although they retained considerable influence within them – this became the Controlled sector. The Catholic church, understandably wary about passing control of the education of their flock to ‘a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant People’ as the Prime Minister later characterised it, retained school control in what came to be the Catholic Maintained sector. Another sector has emerged which does not cater just for one community, Integrated schools, which, while not under the control of churches, also has a Christian ethos.

South of the border, churches largely continued with their control over schools as well. Even now, over 90% of primary schools in the Republic are run by the Catholic Church, with many of the remainder run by the Protestant churches. While just over half of post-primary schools are under the direct patronage of the Catholic Church, even those schools established by the Irish state – publicly managed Education and Training Board schools – often have religious representatives on their Boards of Management. There is a steadily growing unaligned movement – Educate Together – whose schools have no church involvement but, with only 34,000 pupils out of a total school enrolment close to a million, it remains a small sector.

Another parallel is that both systems are significantly underfunded. It is reported that Ireland would have to spend £1.7 billion each year just to reach the average for high income countries. The UK spends more on education per pupil than Ireland, but Northern Ireland has the lowest education spending of any of the UK regions, a figure which has fallen by 11% since 2009/10. Also, despite relatively recent efforts to bring communities together and, in the case of Ireland, to break links between church authorities and public education, the systems are both still dominated by church influence. Given that schools are similarly divided along religious lines on both sides of the border, and equally underfunded, any reunification of education ought to be relatively straightforward; can’t we just revert to a divided pre-1921 system of all-Ireland education provision?

There are however some significant differences in schooling in the North and South. Significantly, Northern Ireland still employs academic selection (incidentally, this is something which many Unionist politicians seem determined to die in a ditch for, despite the welter of evidence suggesting that it serves society as a whole badly, and particularly needy communities even worse). Ireland does not have academic selection, but it is not much different however, when you think of the entrance examinations to the more exclusive Dublin schools. Social class, at least in Dublin and other large cities in Ireland, still seems to open or close access to some schools, depending on where you are coming from, in much the same way as academic selection does in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland has a well-recorded long tail of underachievement and a high proportion of young people leave school with no qualifications. In 2017, 16.6% of Northern Ireland residents of working age had not a single educational qualification, more than twice the proportion recorded in the south. The Republic also seem to be able to keep young people at school for longer than in Northern Ireland, where a lot of children leave school before the minimum leaving age, and many more when they get to that point. However, it is notable that there is a high drop-out rate in Higher Education in the south.

There are some things that we can look at in southern schools with some envy. The Transition Year – a year taken just after the Junior Certificate with a strong focus on active citizenship and the development of social skills – is becoming ever more popular, and seems to really deliver in the personal development of young people. Another success appears to be the Delivering Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) programme which targets disadvantage. There are other aspects of the southern system which we might be advised to avoid – the Leaving Certificate has long been criticised as an assessment process based on factual recall which is unlikely to be the best way of judging the capability of young people, and which distorts teaching at the end of secondary schooling. Those in the rest of the island may be envious of our skills-based curriculum, especially evident in primary schools and in the first three years of secondary school, and they may also desire the ICT provision in our schools.

It is clear that we have done things differently across the island in the last century. If we were to imagine a United Ireland tomorrow, the systems of education would take considerable work to realign. Remember that it took more than a decade to get agreement to change the curriculum in Northern Ireland. And how long did it take for the Education and Skills Authority to not happen? In the South, they have been arguing about changing the Leaving Cert since Methuselah was a boy. All of these are minor changes compared to bringing two education systems together. But, if we want to do it and if it is inevitable, then we should start talking about it now and, in the meantime, we can start by learning from and copying the best of both systems.

Dr Stephen Roulston is a Lecturer in the School of Education, Ulster University. You can follow him on Twitter.

All papers produced by the Transforming Education Project are available to view. View Documents Here…