Ireland’s School Segregation - OZY | A Modern Media Company


Because religion, politics and schooling make for a combustible mix everywhere.

Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education threw out “separate but equal,” many of America’s schools are de facto segregated. Maybe it’s small consolation, but Americans aren’t the only ones whose national aspirations outstrip our political will. 

In Northern Ireland, torn for centuries over Protestant-Catholic strife, just 7 percent of students attend integrated schools, according to its Department of Education. That means 93 percent of students go either to state schools, where the vast majority of students are Protestant, or to schools maintained by the Catholic Church. School segregation is just one facet of sectarian separation, but it has lifelong effects — intermarriage rates are low — and, integrationists believe, it damages the prospects for long-term peace. 

But attitudes have changed since the Troubles, roughly three decades of intense conflict, ended 25 years ago. A 1989 Education Reform Order charged the Department of Education with fostering integrated schooling, and despite little progress, a poll last year found that two-thirds of Northern Irish wanted more government action toward school integration. Then again, the poll was sponsored by the Integrated Education Fund that — you guessed it! — champions integrated education.

…If we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division.

— President Obama, speaking in Belfast in 2013

Everywhere, schooling, religion and politics are combustible when combined, and each explosion has its own particular alchemy. In the United States, bussing became a focus of anti-desegregation efforts. In Ireland, one of the difficulties of school integration was that it seemed to require the building of wholly new schools: existing schools sometimes resisted becoming integrated ones. Building new schools proved expensive, though, and although the education department eventually allowed state financing for new schools, the 2008 credit crunch made getting financing difficult. 

Today, a third of Northern Ireland’s integrated schools came into being through the transformation of existing schools. But the integration movement still depends on grants. Might the state loosen its purse-strings where integration is concerned? In 2012, the education minister was accused of discriminating against integrated schools when his department rejected a proposal by one to expand, as well as its request for the funding to do so. A May 2014 ruling by the High Court slapped the Department of Education on the wrist, finding that it must do more to “encourage and facilitate integrated education”— including, when necessary, going above and beyond to promote it. 

Even the American president has weighed in. While speaking in Belfast last year, President Obama argued that mixing was essential to peace. “If towns remain divided — if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs — if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division.” His remarks kicked up a fuss among some people back in the States, who perceived the remarks as anti-Catholic, anti-Christian, anti-religion. “Simply insane,” responded William Donohue, the Catholic League president who often criticizes Obama. “Never did Obama say he wants ‘an end to Catholic education.’ Indeed, he never said anything critical about the nature of Catholic schools. It makes me wonder: Have any of his critics bothered to actually read his speech?”

All of which just points up how hard these issues can be everywhere. 

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