Faith Matters

Are Catholic Schools worth keeping in Northern Ireland?

Ahead of a conference to examine the case for maintaining Catholic schooling in Northern Ireland, Tracey Harkin of the Iona Institute reflects on the challenges facing the sector

For many Catholics, parents and teachers alike, faith has become nominal, yet the demand for Catholic schools remains strikingly high

TWENTY-THREE years following the Good Friday Agreement and Northern Ireland is still not a society at ease with itself.

Political conflict abounds. Around Easter there was substantial street violence, stemming from protests over the 'border in the Irish Sea'.

Frequently we hear integrated schools being heralded as the answer to these divisions. 'Educate them all together,' they say, 'and in a generation much of the misunderstanding and animosity will disappear.'

Yet despite government support and encouragement, only seven per cent of pupils in Northern Ireland currently attend integrated schools.

Recently two prominent sportsmen, rugby's Andrew Trimble and the GAA's Oisín McConville, spoke out on the BBC programme The View in support of integrated education.

For Mr Trimble, the answer to our social divisions is obvious.

"If someone came from somewhere else and they said, 'You've got social issues and people not engaging with different communities in Northern Ireland,' they would look and say, 'Well, your kids don't spend any time together'.

"Let's just educate our kids and then they can do religious stuff at the weekend or weeknights or outside of school hours."

It is not surprising that many people, particularly those outside Northern Ireland, hold this view.

Professor Jon Tonge, considered an expert on Northern Ireland politics, offers an opposing opinion.

"Blaming segregated education for the vicious sectarianism that too often prevails in Northern Ireland is convenient but intellectually lazy," he says.

He points out that Liverpool has six more Catholic schools than Belfast, and "yet the city's sectarian problems died out decades ago".

Catholic schools in Northern Ireland are financially supported by the state.

The plethora of school types and systems undoubtedly creates expensive inefficiencies.

A related debate is over the selective educational system, with transfer tests for admittance to grammar schools at age 11.

Teachers preparing their pupils for First Communion know that after the big day of celebration, those children may not be back to Mass and Communion 

The Catholic Church opposes this system, but many Catholic grammars strongly defend their status.

And what about the original objective of Catholic schools to help parents transmit the faith to the next generation?

In times gone by, Catholic parents sent their children to Catholic schools and supported the faith practice at home.

Even when times were hard, financial sacrifices were made to support the schools.

Parents were confident that their children's teachers, many of them priests or religious, were themselves faithful Catholics who strove not only to provide academic excellence for their pupils but to pass on the faith as well.

Yet today many young people are opting out of faith practice at an early age.

Parents are frequently not attending church, and so the children are not attending either.

Teachers preparing their pupils for First Communion know that after the big day of celebration, those children may not be back to Mass and Communion in the foreseeable future.

For many Catholics, parents and teachers alike, their faith has become nominal. Church attendance may just be for baptisms, weddings, and funerals.

Even the most dedicated Catholic teachers have a hard job teaching the essentials of faith when the home situation, and the wider cultural background, does not support it and is often positively hostile.

These particular problems of course are not unique to the north.

The demand for Catholic schools in Northern Ireland however is still strikingly high.

Parents still seem to value something in the Catholic ethos, and at least the children may gain some religious and spiritual literacy.

Perhaps later in life, some embers of what they have encountered may remain with them, and they may find their way back to the Church.

In light of these realities, how strong a case is there for continuing the effort to maintain Catholic schooling in Northern Ireland?

Are there better ways that we as a Church should explore in supporting parents who want to pass on their faith to their children?

To reflect upon such timely issues, The Iona Institute NI is hosting an important online conference, 'Is Catholic Education Worth Keeping in N. Ireland' on Saturday June 12 from 11am to 1pm.

An expert and engaging line up of speakers includes: Professor Francis Campbell, Vice Chancellor of the university of Notre Dame, Australia and a former UK ambassador to the Holy See; Bishop of Derry Donal McKeown; Marie Lindsay, former award-winning principal of St Mary's College in Derry; and Professor Peter Finn, principal of St Mary's University College in Belfast.

Tracey Harkin is a mother of eight and spokeswoman for the Iona Institute NI. To register for the free 'Is Catholic Education Worth Keeping in N. Ireland' conference, email More at

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