Sustaining our schools… – Slugger O’Toole

David Bell is a member of the Alliance Party and Humanists UK, but writes on his own

Although the constitutional issue seems to have taken a back seat for now, it is one that cannot be avoided indefinitely. A recent article by Slugger looked at the issue of pensions following a future unification of north and south. Integrating state benefits and services such as housing and healthcare would no doubt be difficult, but unifying the island’s education systems could prove the most difficult task of all.

It should be noted that the religious composition of the Republic of Ireland (RoI) is much more homogeneous than that of Northern Ireland (NI), although this is rapidly changing. In the 2016 Irish census, 78.3% of the population identified as Catholic, down 10% from 6 years earlier. At 9.8%, the second largest group had no religion, a 73.6% increase in 4 years. The 2011 UK Census showed that 40.8% of NI’s population identified as Catholic. The Presbyterian Church, Church of Ireland and Methodist Church accounted for 37.8%, and 17% said they had no religion, with the remainder made up of other religions.

Compared to other European countries, the primary education sector in the Republic of the Island is diverse in terms of school types and attendance. However, almost all of them are under the control of the church, mainly the Catholic Church. Most secondary school students also attend schools owned and operated by religious groups. Secondary education is provided by three main bodies. Voluntary secondary schools educate 57% of secondary school students and are owned and operated by religious groups or private organizations. Vocational schools enroll 28% of secondary school students and are owned and operated by Education and Training Boards. Comprehensive schools, or community schools, are run by local management boards and attended by 15% of secondary school students.

Primary schools

Catholic 2,750

Church of Ireland 172

Multifaith 150

Interfaith 18

Presbyterian 17

Muslim 2

Methodist 1

Jew 1

Quakers 4

Post-primary schools

Catholic 344

Multifaith 210

Interfaith 151

Church of Ireland 23

Presbyterian 1

Methodist 1

Jew 1

Quakers 1

All figures are for 2021


Catholic schools provide religious education, 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 allow parents to organize religious instruction outside of the main school curriculum. Interdenominational schools offer an inter-Christian ethos.

NI also offers a wide range of primary and post-primary school types:

Primary schools

Maintained (Catholic) 355

Checked (State) 379

irish medium 25

Subsidy maintained integrated 23

Integrated controlled 24

Post-primary schools (excluding high school)

Maintained (Catholic) 56

Controlled (State) 53

Subsidy maintained integrated 15

Integrated Control 5

Irish Medium 2

Grammar schools

Catholic volunteer 29

Non-Catholic volunteer 21

Checked 16

Special 39

Independent 14

Hospital 2

All figures are for 2021-2022


Many NI children are separated by their grades and even by gender, but the main dividing line is religion. Although hailed by some as a positive example of parental choice, the New Decade New Approach (NDNA) agreement that reinstated the Assembly in 2020 after a three-year hiatus said that this “diversity of school types, each with its own distinctive ethics and values…is not sustainable” and stressed the need for a “fundamental review” and “transformation” of the system. The final report of the Independent Education Review recommended by the NDNA is not expected until April 2023, however, a recent research paper from the UNESCO Center for Education at the University of Ulster considered the “vested interests of churches and traditional political blocs” as a major obstacle to reform.

The influence of the churches is not limited to the maintained and voluntary Catholic sectors. Through a historic arrangement, the controlled schools have seats on their board reserved for grantor representatives representing the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and the Methodist Church in Ireland. For some, it makes schools controlled de facto Protestant establishments. By legal obligation, “at least half an hour a day or two and a half hours a week” must be devoted to religious education (RE). Inspection of RE in controlled schools has traditionally been the preserve of local Protestant clergy. All independent schools, except fee-paying, are publicly funded and must adhere to the curriculum set by the Department of Education.

Religious segregation in NI schools also extends to staff. Until very recently, due to a one-time exemption from protection under fair employment legislation, it would have been perfectly legal to post a job advertisement that read: “Teacher required – Protestants/Catholics do not have no need to 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 usually only available to undergraduate students at St Mary’s University College, an almost exclusively Catholic institution. The other three initial teacher education (ITE) institutes are Stranmillis University College, which is predominantly Protestant, and Queen’s and Ulster universities. All teacher education programs in Scotland are run by universities, while in England and Wales Teach First, a school-run ITE program for graduates, is also available.

There is a growing abandonment of 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 shift from Catholic patronage to multi-denominational patronage while in the NI, a private member’s bill from the Party MP for the Kellie Armstrong Alliance was recently adopted by the Assembly. However, it may be time to consider removing RE from the national curriculum and church representatives from boards. Growing disenchantment with the behavior of churches across Ireland could now make this a favorable path.

There are international precedents for such an approach. The French secular education system was created more than a century ago and never taught religion to students in public schools. However, following attacks by radical Islamists, the Minister of National Education instituted “secular teaching of religious facts”. Courts in the United States have gone even further by determining that public schools are an “arm of the state” and therefore constitutionally barred from doing anything to hinder or promote religion. The secularization of schools in the north and south could therefore be seen as an alignment of the two education systems on the international scene and an upgrade under NDNA.

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