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Catholic Church opposes religiously mixed schools in Northern Ireland

Sectarian violence Northern Ireland is best stopped by integrating the schools, not by building walls to separate the warring sides. Keith Porteous Wood discusses recent research that shows the benefits from the religiously mixed (“integrated”) schools that now make up only 3% of the total. Unfortunately, the transformation of Catholic schools into integrated ones is being opposed by the Church.

The Catholic Church is trying to block the transformation of Catholic schools into integrated ones. This is despite the fact that Integrated schools are not non-denominational, but could perhaps be described as bi-denominational, with ties to both Catholic and Protestant churches. [1]

While there is only one faith system in the North – the Catholic sector – state schools are perceived to be Protestant. Transformation is the process by which existing schools can vote by parental ballot to join the integrated sector. They must work towards having a mix of students from both Catholic and Protestant faiths. To date, only schools in the non-Catholic state-controlled sector have transformed. Catholic education heads say the process is not viable for their own institutions.... [2]

The Catholic Church continues to oppose integrated schools, despite the demonstrated success of religious integration in the police. 

Northern Ireland’s police force has been radically transformed over the past decade in a major success for the peace process. A policy of favoring Catholic recruits helped to turn the force from 8 percent Catholic in 2001 to 30 percent Catholic today. [3] 

However, although the Catholic Church is dragging its feet, the young people born after the peace agreement appear increasingly to be integrating themselves. A survey of North Ireland teens shows that they decide whether someone is like ‘us’ or ‘them’ no longer just according to religious labels, but now take more account of human qualities. [4]

Speech by Keith Porteous Wood at the European Commission, Brussels, 15 October 2010

I am ashamed that there is any region in the European Union where employment discrimination cannot be banned outright, but must yield to the greater social need for affirmative action. Sadly, it is part of my own country, Northern Ireland, which is the only place in the entire EU where it has proved impossible to implement the 2000 Employment Directive. Specifically, it has been found necessary to specially exclude the police and teachers of Northern Ireland from these guidelines. [5] Instead, Catholic teachers must be preferentially hired to encourage these people whom the Protestant militia have called “legitimate targets” [6] and the Catholic police, also at special risk, [7] must be increased to build Catholic trust in what was once an overwhelmingly Protestant police force.

Few realise that walls up to 8 metres high are still needed to separate Catholic and Protestant areas in order to minimise sectarian violence in city areas. Depressingly, the walls look set to remain; the local residents oppose their removal.

Even worse, it is the younger people in Northern Ireland who are even more determined than their elders to retain the state-funded sectarian schooling that reinforces these divisions. Some pupils leave school without having held a single conversation with someone from the other camp. [...]

We must not forget that while member states are becoming much more diverse, studies alert us that the young in some minority communities are more separatist than their parents. So we must all do a great deal more to reverse social segregation, especially that underpinned by public funds.

We must strive to overcome these sectarian divisions in welfare or health services and, most of all, in education. Whether by design or by practice there is a significant growth in minority faith schools. They increase social segregation, and in particular they tend to isolate those from minority ethnicities and cultures.

However, there is a solution. Studies show that the younger children from all backgrounds start to be educated together, the more successfully they integrate. If they are very young, this draws in the parents too. The more they integrate, the better their chances of employment and consequently the less the chance of social exclusion and poverty.

Let us educate all our children together. This will help reduce ethnic and religious exclusion in the future. It will help ensure a more cohesive Europe at ease with itself in generations to come.

Speech by Keith Porteous Wood at the Race Convention, Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, London, 28 November 2006

Let me say at the outset that I would fight to preserve Freedom of Religion, but also the freedom to change religion — an act still punishable by death in some religions — and the freedom not to have a religion, and not be discriminated against because of that.

Religion is massively more important to the identity of those in minority communities than it is to the rest of the population. Perhaps in such communities religion is regarded as a defence against an uncaring and sometimes hostile world, but that defence is also a barrier.

In recent years, minority ethnic identity has been redefined from being predominantly geographically-based to being religiously-based. This tends to alienate the millions who are not religious (including those within minority communities). It also entrenches a sense of separateness and, in some cases, religious superiority. Few religions do not preach “my religion is better than your religion” either directly or by suggestion. For some, the religion also extends to an ideology which should be spread as widely as possible. “Keep with us”, they say, “not with the heathens, infidels, or the kaffirs” – meaning of course everyone outside their religion.

And often, religious adherents are expected to dress or eat in a certain way (as is their right) to reinforce their identity, in essence their difference from others. Those drifting away and integrating are generally subjected to peer pressure in order to force them to come back into line. I am told that there is now much more pressure to wear religious clothing in the UK than there is in Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey – or even Iraq.

It is no coincidence that schools have always been a major focus for religious groups. They know very well that the best and perhaps only chance they have of inculcating religious belief and identity is at a very young age. This applies to the Church of England as well as to Catholics and those of other faiths.

Many of you will remember with horror the scenes a few years ago at Holy Cross Catholic Primary School in Belfast where frightened little girls were being stoned by their Protestant neighbours. Although it doesn’t hit the headlines as much now, sectarianism is still alive and well in Belfast. Twenty-foot walls remain to keep the Protestants and the Catholics apart. Some Protestants have never had a conversation with anyone from the Catholic community and vice versa. And they are both Christian and white. Even if the root cause of the conflict is cultural, tribal or political, religion is the marker and that was why the so-called faith school was the focus of the attack. And what better place than schools to reinforce that tribalism, the separation — the idea that children who were born no more than two streets away from each other — are somehow fundamentally different because their parents cleave to a small variation of the same religion.

Multiply that by ten and you have Iraq.

But wouldn’t it be a better idea if schools were for teaching everyone together, rather than preaching apart?

I oppose the idea of all state-funded religious schools for that reason, among others.

But if we open many more minority religion schools that are likely to be predominantly mono-ethnic and in communities that are already apart from the mainstream, are we not missing out on perhaps the only opportunity for cohesion?

Will these schools not just reinforce separateness by their very existence? Separateness of religion, culture and even perhaps ideology?

In his Report on the West Yorkshire riots in 2001, Lord Ouseley wrote of Bradford :

...fear of confronting all-white and/or all-Muslim schools about their contribution, or rather lack of contribution, to social and racial integration. [8]

And this is not just about minority faith schools but some Christian schools too. The Chief Inspector of Schools in England, observed in 2005 that:

Many young people are being educated in faith-based schools, with little appreciation of their wider responsibilities and obligations to British society...we must not allow our recognition of diversity to become apathy in the face of any challenge to our coherence as a nation. [9]

I shall now draw my contribution to a close with some extracts from the gospel according to Professor Irene Bruegel of South Bank University. I commend to you her excellent study, Sharing Crisps with someone different? Social Cohesion, Diversity and Education Policy. She says:

  • Friendship at primary schools can and does cross ethnic and faith divides wherever children have the opportunity to make friends from different backgrounds
  • The positive benefits of mixed primary schooling particularly for white children, extend into the early years of secondary school. They were more likely to make new friends from a different background, [and] were more aware of racial discrimination
  • … parents learned to respect people from other backgrounds as a result of their children’s experiences in mixed schools.

Drawing on the large body of research into the social psychology of prejudice, she argues that day-to-day contact between children who can more easily see each other as equals has far more chance of breaking down barriers between communities than school twinning and sporting encounters. “…If [the Commission on Cohesion and Integration] is to address the questions of integration effectively, [she says it] has to consider (among other matters) how far the retention of existing faith schools have hindered integration.” [10] 


Here is a discouraging passage from Prof. Alan Smith:

In recent years there has been a significant shift away from the creation of new integrated schools towards the 'transformation' of existing schools to becoming more integrated. In practice this has mainly involved existing 'Protestant' schools trying to make the school more open and inclusive and the challenge of transforming the culture and ethos in this way is only beginning. Policies to support the transformation of schools are also likely to have a differential impact on the Protestant community so long as the Catholic authorities hold fast to the view that they have a moral commitment to provide a Catholic education for Catholic children. The outcome may be a sense of loss within the Protestant community of its schools whilst the Catholic sector remains largely intact. In the longer term such a dynamic may have a negative impact on relations between these two communities.

* Munira Mirza et al., “Living apart together: British Muslims and the paradox of multiculturalism”, Policy Exchange, 2007, p. 5.

1. Speech By Baroness May Blood, House Of Lords, 2 November 2010.

2. “Call for religious labelling to go”, SecEd News, 02 December 2010.;section=News;type_uid=1

In the Republic of Ireland the supporters of Catholic schools are even arguing that lack of religious indoctrination is itself religious indoctrination: “Irish Educators: There's No Value-Neutral School”, Zenit, 6 April 2011.

3. “Booby-Trap Bomb Kills Northern Ireland Policeman”, Associated Press, 2 April 2011.

4. “Increase in cross-community friendships among Northern Ireland teens”, press release, University of Ulster,  16 May 2012.

5. Council Directive 2000/78/EC of 27 November 2000 establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation, [preamble] #34 and Article 15.

6. “Tight security follows death threats”, BBC, 14 January 2002.

7.  “Catholic RUC men are more popular victims for the IRA than are protestants in the police”, Steven Bruce, The Edge of the Union: The Ulster Loyalist Political Vision, Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 125.

8. Lord Herman Ouseley, (former head of the Commission for Racial Equality), “Community Pride not Prejudice”, July 2001. For background on the report: Report criticises racial divisions in Bradford, Guardian, 12 July 2001.

9. David Bell, then head of The Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills (Ofsted), quoted  Tony Halpin, “Islamic schools are threat to national identity, says Ofsted”, The Times, 18 January 2005.

10. Irene Bruegel, Professor of Urban Policy, London South Bank University, “Social Capital, Diversity and Education Policy”,  August 2006.

Further reading on religion in the schools

Northern Ireland

Shawn Pogatchnik, “Despite peace, Belfast walls are growing in size and number”, Associated Press, USA Today, 3 May 2008. (The photo in the box above is of seven-year-old Cein Quinn, mentioned in this article and depicted at

Alan Smith, “Education and the Peace Process in Northern Ireland”, Paper presented to the Annual Conference of the American Education Research Association, Montreal, April 1999. 

Brendan O'Neill, “A sectarian peace”, Spiked, 5 September 2001.

Irish Republic

“INTO [Irish National Teachers’ Organisation] submission wants rights of denominational schools curtailed”, Iona Institute, 21 June 2011.

Patsy McGarry, “Schools have to include religion classes, forum told”, Irish Times, 24 June 2011.

Jack Quann, “Catholic Church set to lose patronage over 23 schools”, Newstalk, 2 April 2013.


Andrew Gilligan, “Ofsted praises Islamic schools which oppose Western lifestyle”, Telegraph, 6 November 2010. 

National Secular Society Paper: “The Impact of Faith Schools on Teachers”, Faith Schools: Freedom of Choice or Recipe for Division? Their Impact on Education and Wider Society, Windsor Castle, 13 – 14 November 2009.

Last updated 24 June 2011 

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