Religious Diversity Stagnant in NI Schools Since Good Friday Agreement…

Tony Gallagher is an Honorary Professor at Queen’s University. You can follow him on Twitter…

The Independent Review of Education suggested that education has a ‘vital role to play in promoting cohesion in a post-conflict society’ and that more needed to be done ‘to educate young people together’. Its recommendations included the creation of more integrated or jointly managed schools, the latter referring to schools managed by the Catholic and one or more of the Protestant Churches; strengthening the model of shared education school partnerships and more collaboration in the system generally; and that all schools should take steps ‘to ensure a greater mix of religious background’ among their students.

This last measure is something all the Churches have had as an aspiration. The Protestant Churches, which hold places as of right on the Governing Boards of most local authority schools, have always emphasised that their schools were open to everyone. After the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement the Catholic Church adopted the same position and said it welcomed children from all faiths or none to their schools.

I recently published a Discussion Paper which examined if there had been a growth in the religious diversity of individual primary, secondary and grammar schools since the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. The main conclusion was that the aspiration had, largely, not been matched by achievement.

In schools overall since 1998 there has been a fall in students identified as Protestant (from 43% to 31%) and an increase in those identifying as ‘Other’ (from 7% to 18%) – this is a ‘catch-all’ category including those with no religion, small Christian groups, and all non-Christian faiths. The proportion of students identifying as Catholic has remained virtually unchanged, at 51%.

The changes are particularly evident in ‘Protestant’ schools where a rise in the proportion of ‘Other’ students has been matched by a fall in the proportion of Protestant students. These schools have seen a rise in the proportion of Catholic students overall, but it is mainly concentrated in the small number of schools where there already had been a noticeable number of Catholics.

By contrast, in Catholic schools there was little evidence of change. A small number of these schools saw a reduction in the proportion of students identifying as Catholic, but this was usually matched by an increase in the proportion identifying as Other. Even fewer Catholic schools have attracted noticeable numbers of Protestant students, in 1998 or at present.

The pattern for Integrated schools was a little more complex. The proportion of students identifying as Protestant or Catholic had gone down in most schools, and the proportion identifying as Other had gone up. In some cases this meant the proportion of Protestant or of Catholic students has fallen below levels previously set as a minimum. This implies the possibility that as the number of Integrated schools increases there may be more without the type of balanced enrolment the sector has always identified as desirable.

The data suggest challenges for all school sectors in developing, or maintaining, more diverse enrolments. The challenge is most evident for Catholic schools, but remains significant for schools traditionally linked to the Protestant Churches. Declaring an aspiration to widen the basis of their enrolment is clearly insufficient and will need to be reinforced by changing the schools in ways which tangibly make them more welcoming. Are they prepared to take on that challenge?

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