While the constitutional question appears to have been consigned to the back burner for now, it’s an issue that cannot be avoided indefinitely. A recent Slugger article reflected on the question of pension provision following some future unification of north and south. The integration of State benefits and of services such as housing and health would undoubtedly be challenging, however, unifying the island’s education systems may prove the most difficult task of all.
It is worth noting the religious composition Republic of Ireland (RoI) is much more homogeneous than that of Northern Ireland (NI), although this is changing rapidly. In the 2016 Irish census, 78.3% of the population identified as Catholic, 10% fewer than 6 years earlier. At 9.8%, the next largest group had no religion a 73.6% increase in 4 years. The 2011 UK census showed that 40.8% of the population in NI identified as Catholic. The Presbyterian Church, Church of Ireland the Methodist Church comprised 37.8% and 17% stated they had no religion, with the balance made up of other religions.
Compared to other European countries, the primary school sector in the RoI is diverse in terms of school types and patronage. However, almost all are under church control, mainly the Catholic church. Most secondary pupils also attend schools owned and managed by religious groups. Secondary education is provided by three main bodies. Voluntary secondary schools educate 57% of secondary pupils and are owned and managed by religious groups or private organisations. Vocational schools cater 28% of secondary pupils and are owned and managed by Education and Training Boards. Comprehensive schools, or community schools, are run by local boards of management and attended by 15% of secondary pupils.
Church of Ireland 172
Church of Ireland 23
All figures are for 2021
Catholic schools provide religious instruction, preparation for Communion and Confirmation at primary level is provided during the school day. Multi-denominational schools such as those run by the educational charity Educate Together, on the other hand, do not teach religion but facilitate parents to organise religious instruction outside the main school programme. Inter-denominational schools provide an inter-Christian ethos.
NI also has a broad range of primary and post-primary school types:
Maintained (Catholic) 355
Controlled (State) 379
Irish medium 25
Grant maintained integrated 23
Controlled integrated 24
Post-primary (non-grammar) schools
Maintained (Catholic) 56
Controlled (State) 53
Grant maintained integrated 15
Controlled integrated 5
Irish medium 2
Catholic voluntary 29
Non-Catholic voluntary 21
All figures are for 2021-2022
Many children in NI are segregated by academic performance and even gender, but the main criterion for division is that of religion. While lauded by some as a positive example of parental choice, the New Decade New Approach (NDNA) deal which restored the Assembly in 2020 after a three-year hiatus stated that this “diversity of school types, each with its own distinctive ethos and values… is not sustainable” and highlighted the need for a “fundamental review” and “transformation” of the system. The final report of the Independent Review of Education recommended by NDNA is not expected until April 2023, however, a recent research paper from Ulster University’s UNESCO Education Centre viewed the “vested interests of the churches and the traditional political blocs” as a major obstacle to reform.
The influence of the churches is not restricted to the Catholic Maintained and Voluntary sectors. Through a historical arrangement, Controlled schools have places on their Board of Governors reserved for Transferor Representatives representing the Church of Ireland, Presbyterian Church in Ireland, and Methodist Church in Ireland. For some, this makes Controlled schools de facto Protestant institutions. By statutory requirement, “at least one half hour per day or two & a half hours per week” must be given over to Religious Education (RE). Inspection of RE in Controlled schools has traditionally been the preserve of local Protestant clergy. All but fee-paying Independent schools are state funded and must adhere to the curriculum set out by the Department of Education.
Religious segregation in NI schools also extends to staff. Until very recently, due to a unique exemption from protection by fair employment legislation, it would have been perfectly legal to place a job advert which read: ‘Teacher required – Protestants/Catholics need not apply’. Northern Ireland was perhaps the only place in Europe where this would have been conceivable. However, a more subtle form of discrimination remains, the requirement for applicants to hold the Catholic Religious Education Certificate, a qualification routinely available only to undergraduate students at St Mary’s University College, an almost exclusively Catholic institution. The three others Initial Teacher Education (ITE) institutes are Stranmillis University College which is predominantly Protestant, and Queen’s and Ulster universities. All teacher education programmes in Scotland are university-led while in England and Wales, Teach First, a school-led ITE program for graduates, is also available.
There is a growing move away from religious segregation in schools across Ireland. In the RoI the Department of Education has now reached an agreement with the Church which will see an accelerated move from Catholic to multi-denominational patronage while in NI, a private members’ Bill from Alliance Party MLA Kellie Armstrong recently passed through the Assembly. It may, however, be time to consider removing RE from the national curriculum and the representatives of churches from Boards of Governors. A growing disenchantment with the behaviour of churches across Ireland could now make this a favourable way forward.
There are international precedents for such an approach. France’s secular education system was created over a century ago and has never taught religion to pupils in state schools. However, in the wake of attacks by radical Islamists, the national education minister has introduced “secular teaching of religious facts”. Courts in the United States have gone even further in determining that public schools are an ‘arm of the state’ and therefore prevented by the Constitution from doing anything to hinder or promote religion. The secularisation of schools north and south might therefore be seen as an alignment of both education systems on the international stage and a levelling up under NDNA.
David Bell is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Archaeology and Palaeoecology at Queen’s University, Belfast. He is also a member of the Alliance Party and Humanists UK but is writing in an entirely personal capacity.