Northern Ireland

Religion and diversity in Northern Ireland schools: ‘Very limited, if any, success’, says report

A study has looked at the religious make-up in schools in Northern Ireland since 1998
A study has looked at the religious make-up in schools in Northern Ireland since 1998 (Getty Images)

There has been “very limited, if any, success” among schools in Northern Ireland in creating a more diverse enrolment of pupils since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, according to new research.

The study by Queen’s University Belfast has looked at the religious make-up of schools in the north and compares it to around the time of the Agreement in 1998.

Professor Tony Gallagher examined the “widespread aspiration that schools would attract a more diverse enrolment, particularly in relation to the two main religious communities in Northern Ireland” following the Agreement.

But the research suggests that the success has been limited.

However, the main overall change has been a “marked decline in the proportion of pupils identifying as Protestant and an increase in the proportion identifying as other”.

It also states this pattern is particularly evident in ‘Protestant’ schools and notes that “only a minority of these schools have seen an increase in the proportion of pupils identifying as Catholic”.

The research also reveals there is “much less evidence of any change in the composition of ‘Catholic’ schools.

It states that “where it has occurred, it is in a small number of schools rather than across the schools as a whole”.

It also found that the pattern of change in integrated schools is “more complex with a marked increase in the proportion of pupils identifying as ‘other’ appearing to result in the proportion of pupils identifying as Protestant or Catholic declining”.

Professor Tony Gallagher
Professor Tony Gallagher

Professor Gallagher said that following the signing of the Agreement, most of the churches “made it very clear that they welcomed a more diverse intake into their schools and wanted to attract young people from all religions and none”.

But he said the “main conclusion is that they haven’t changed very much”.

“The least level of change has occurred in the Catholic schools where the vast majority of schools still have a largely Catholic enrolment despite the Catholic Church being clear after the GFA that they wanted the schools to be more diverse,” he said.

“There’s been a greater degree of change within the schools that have traditionally had a relationship with the Protestant churches.

“But there it’s a reduction in the number of young people who identified as Protestant and an increase in the amount of young people who identify as other, that’s having no religion or some other religion.

“There was always a very small number of those schools that had a significant Catholic proportion of enrolment and that hasn’t changed very much.”

He suggests a number of ways schools can attempt to “encourage or welcome applications from other communities”, including religious education teaching “timetabled at the beginning or end of the school day to facilitate parents who would like their children to opt out”.

Other suggestions include that RE could be “reformed altogether so that it is less directly or indirectly denominational in character” or schools could “remove any direct or indirect use of religion, or inferred use of religion, in their admissions criteria”.

The study concludes by stating that “whatever the extent to which schools pro-actively tried to work towards this change, the analysis here suggests that they did so with very limited, if any, success”.