Northern Ireland news

Demand for Catholic schools remains 'strikingly high'

The Iona Institute NI is to consider the question 'Are Catholic Schools worth keeping in Northern Ireland?'

DEMAND for Catholic schools in Northern Ireland remains strikingly high with parents valuing their ethos, a conference will be told.

The Iona Institute NI is to consider the question 'Are Catholic Schools worth keeping in Northern Ireland?'

The free online conference will hear from prominent Catholic educationalists including Professor Francis Campbell, Vice Chancellor of the University of Notre Dame in Sydney, Australia, who formerly served as UK ambassador to the Holy See.

Bishop of Derry Donal McKeown, former principal of St Mary's College Derry Marie Lindsay and Prof Peter Finn, principal of St Mary's University College Belfast will also take part.

Conference organiser Tracey Harkin said although it was 23 years since the Good Friday Agreement, political conflict and community division persisted.

Frequently, integrated schools were heralded as the answer to these divisions, she said.

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

"As Professor Jon Tonge has pointed out, Liverpool has six more Catholic schools than Belfast, and yet the city's sectarian problems died out decades ago. Is Professor Tonge right in claiming that blaming our school system for our divisions here is both convenient but intellectually lazy?" Ms Harkin said.

"Catholic schools in Northern Ireland are financially supported by the state. The abundance of school types undoubtedly creates expensive inefficiencies.?A related debate is over the selective educational system, with transfer tests for admittance to grammar schools at age 11. 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 parents were confident that their children's teachers were themselves faithful Catholics who strove not only to provide academic excellence for their pupils but to pass on the faith as well."

She added that many young people were opting out of faith practice at an early age. For many Catholics, parents and teachers alike, their faith has become more nominal and 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," Ms Harkin said.

"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.

"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?"

The conference will take place on Saturday June 12 from 11am to 1pm. To register, email ionainstituteni@gmail.com and find out more at ionainstituteni.org.

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