Posted: 2020-07-17

A new study reveals that the choice of local study in GCSE history is made largely on tribal lines

More than two decades after the pledge in the Good Friday Agreement to ‘facilitate and encourage integrated education’, children in Northern Ireland are still divided by religion. To be more accurate, 93% attend institutions which are religiously segregated. This was not the case in the years before partition and, when the statelet was founded in 1921, the first Education Minister tried to re-establish an integrated system, but the plan was opposed by the main churches and it was abandoned. Since then, there have been two separate education systems. The state or ‘controlled’ system is de facto Protestant and mainly attended by Protestants, and there are also a number of voluntary grammar schools attended predominantly by Protestants. Catholics attend schools which are all grant maintained as opposed to state controlled. Although they are also state financed, they are operated by the Catholic Church administered through the Council of Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS). Since 1981, when Lagan College opened its doors, a total of 65 integrated schools have been created, but they teach only 7% of the total pupils. 


It is an inherently inefficient system. A 2019 report from Ulster University's UNESCO Centre (Isolated Together: Pairs of Primary Schools Duplicating Provision) has shown that having effectively divided primary schools in close proximity causes financial inefficiencies. The authors studied 32 instances of isolated pairs of schools. In isolated pairs both Protestant and Catholic primary schools exist in close proximity but one or both may be too small to be sustainable. The report estimated that each of the 32 school pairs received an additional £2.3m each year, “compared to the average cost to support the same pupils in combined schools in each location”. In 2019 the UK parliament's Northern Ireland affairs committee found that “there was a large amount of wasted capacity in the [education] system”. The number of empty places is about one fifth of the entire number available (71,000 in 2015, according to the Audit Office).


The system is also inherently immoral. The vast majority of children are daily presented in their educational environment with separate sporting and linguistic cultures, separate conceptions of what it means to be a Christian, and separate visions of their historical past. An example of the last difference can be illustrated in the CCEA History syllabus for GCSE. One optional unit of study is ‘Northern Ireland and its Neighbours, 1920 to 1949’, while the alternative is ‘Northern Ireland and its Neighbours, 1965 to 1998’. A new study under the auspices of the Parallel Histories charity has found that the overwhelming majority of Catholic schools teach the more modern unit, which includes civil rights and the Troubles, whereas nearly half of state schools choose the earlier period which includes the unionist ascendancy and Northern Ireland’s part in the defeat of the Nazis in the Second World War. It should be obvious that the earlier period provides material that is favourable to Protestants/unionists, whereas the later period provides material that is favourable to Catholics/nationalists. In other words, the schools are generally choosing periods that bolster their own traditions and prejudices while avoiding parts of history that challenge them. They do not have to engage with the ‘other’ historical narrative. 


To suggest that these differences are insignificant and that they are largely irrelevant to the divisions in the wider community is to blind oneself to the realities of a deeply divisive educational system. Segregated education clearly fosters division and conflict. The mere fact of separate schooling is bound to encourage, or certainly not to discourage, mutual suspicion and hostility and thus greatly reduce the possibilities of social contact afterwards. 58% of young people aged 18 to 34 have few or no friends from religious groups other than their own. Segregated schools therefore serve to reinforce segregation in other areas, such as marriage, work, housing, politics, recreation, and religion itself. Segregated schooling is therefore a major obstacle to social integration in Northern Ireland.


A large body of research data suggests that separation risks maintaining ignorance and reinforcing binary perceptions of ‘us’ and ‘them’, whereas contact and collaboration creates the conditions for generating mutual respect and understanding. Studies, such as those by Claire McGlynn, have found that integrated education impacts positively on identity, out-group attitudes and forgiveness and reconciliation, including an increase in the number of intercommunity friendships amongst those attending or having attended integrated schools.  As the The Report of the Independent Review of Integrated Education (2016) states: “Individuals who have experienced positive, friendly, and co-operative contact with members of another group tend to have lower levels of prejudice, are more trusting, experience greater empathy, and are less anxious about interacting with that group”.


Why, therefore does religious segregation still exist? There is no doubt that the power of the churches is an important factor. The Catholic Church in particular has resisted all attempts at full-scale integration, maintaining that Catholic children must be educated in a Catholic ‘ethos’. It also maintains that pluralism in education is a good thing, a disingenuous argument as we have seen since the children – for whom education exists in the first place – are themselves deprived of this very diversity by being segregated. The government, for its part, has effectively enshrined segregated education through its 1992 decision to fund Catholic schools on an equal basis with ‘state’ schools. Of course, Protestant churches helped to build the present educational system in Northern Ireland and they too have opposed integration, though less vocally since the education minister has always until recently been Protestant and Bible readings are common in state schools. Individual Protestant churches have promoted their values by founding some grammar schools where they maintain a strong if discreet influence.


What of the parents themselves? After all, parental initiative has been the main factor leading to integration. And, according to all the opinion polls over the years, a clear majority support integrated schools. For example, a Sky Data poll in 2018 found that it was supported by 69% of the people. Yet we need to ask whether this preference is real or merely theoretical. Is it a case of many parents pretending to the pollsters be more tolerant than they really are? Does this shy prejudice manifest itself in a preference to send their children to schools with the same religious traditions as themselves? Studies have also shown that in practice, as well as the ethno-religious character of the school, its perceived quality of education was a key criterion of choice. This perception itself is often based on the school’s historical reputation rather than its actual current performance. In other words, the actual decision for many parents is based on religious and/or academic tradition rather than intelligent choice.


Integrated schooling is not the panacea for all ills but it is a necessary part of the jigsaw. As Mike Nesbitt has said, a single education system is the best tool available to tackle the ‘toxic legacy of sectarianism in our society’. He added:  “Mixing children from age four would provide a virtual inoculation against sectarian thoughts. As we approach Northern Ireland's centenary, I can think of no finer way to enter the next hundred years than with a commitment to educating all our children together” (Belfast Telegraph, 17th April 2018). 


The politicians have set the example. There is a single community of representation, in which sworn enemies have to work together in the Assembly and the Executive. But we also need a single community of children, who work together in a friendly atmosphere so that they may love one another and be loved by one another. For prejudice feeds on distance and is killed by closeness. The opportunity now exists for schools to transfer to integrated status, and they should seize it. The churches and many of the parents must not stand in their way.  


Brian McClinton 16th July 2020