Catholic schools in the North threatened by an unusual coalition

Recent comments by Michael D. Higgins lamenting the “segregated” nature of Northern Ireland’s generated much publicity.

Powerful forces are pushing for an end to Catholic education in the Six Counties, where roughly 40% of schools are Catholic maintained, forces which make for a remarkably strange coalition. 

After all, the very affluent socialist Higgins is not the first to make this demand. In 2010, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party Peter Robinson – who had for decades served as deputy to Ian Paisley – called for an end to funding for such schools.

Labelling the North’s system as “a benign form of apartheid,” Robinson’s language was couched in similar terms to those employed by modern-day progressives, stating that he objected to “the state providing and funding church schools.” Similar statements have been made in recent times by Arlene Foster and others.

The use of historically loaded terms such as ‘segregation’ and ‘apartheid’ masks the reality of what such a move would entail.

There are no barriers to Catholic schools in the North or elsewhere, and indeed, more than 50% of the students classified as ‘newcomers’ to Northern Ireland currently attend Catholic schools.

Moreover, in a system divided between controlled schools run by the state and Catholic schools, ‘integration’ would effectively mean the ending of Catholic education entirely.

Catholics need to look deeper at what is at stake, while also considering the motivations of their opponents, particularly as the North provides a perfect case study for how Catholic schools really compare.

Year after year, they have dominated league tables. In 2014, analysis by the unionist Belfast Telegraph showed that every one of the top five schools in the North was a Catholic grammar school, and that eight of the top 10 schools were Catholic grammars.

In 2018, an Irish News league table showed that Catholic schools occupied nine of the top 10 spots, with the same feat being recorded in another performance guide the following year.

An enormous gap in academic performance by Catholic and Protestant students now exists, one which Queen’s University researchers have attributed to the existence of “well-established, collaborative learning communities, with Catholic maintained schools at the hub.”

Given the economic disadvantages which Northern Catholics historically endured, this is remarkable, and cannot be attributed to Catholic schools catering to better-off students: in fact, a report prepared for the Northern Ireland Assembly noted that Catholic schools educated far more free-school-meal children than other schools.

Indeed, the economic and social progress which Catholics have made thanks to their schooling likely accounts for some of the opposition.

Recently, we have seen examples of this, with one unionist politician expressing concern about nationalists dominating many professions,[11] while another worried aloud about Catholic academics outnumbering Protestants in Queen’s University.

Northern Catholics understand this, which explains the strong reaction over a decade ago to the DUP leader’s call for an end to Catholic education.

On that occasion, the prominent Sinn Féin politician John O’Dowd pulled no punches in An Phoblacht, calling it a “sectarian attack on Catholic schools, teachers, parents and children in the language of inclusivity,” and adding that the DUP “do not seek an integrated education system; they seek the end of the Catholic education sector.”

Much has changed since. A party which then pledged to “defend the rights of parents and children to educational choice” is noticeably more reticent, and Sinn Féin’s enthusiasm for abortion-on-demand as mandated by Westminster shows how it has been transformed.

Woke progressives and Orange reactionaries make for strange bedfellows, but an intense dislike of Catholicism is enough to unite them, and their attack on the religious rights of Catholic families should be seen for what it is.

It deserves our attention in the South too, as the Northern experience contradicts so much of what is increasingly said about Catholic schools.

There was no ‘handover’ of schools to Catholics anywhere in Ireland, which is particularly obvious in the North, where Catholic education survived in spite of a hostile Stormont government.

Northern Catholic schools are more socially inclusive, and when placed in competition with the sort of State system which left-wing politicians espouse, they have consistently outperformed their rivals.

Above all else, they have served another, higher purpose, which is shown by the fact that Northern Catholics are more likely to practice their Faith than their Southern counterparts.

Across every part of Ireland, people should understand the precious value of a Catholic education. They should also understand why that right is being attacked, and by whom.

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