Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Our Benign System of Apartheid

There are schools in existence where children of different denominations work together and play together, and who will assert that this assembly is anything but beneficial for all concerned?’ Not the words of Peter Robinson, but of Lord Londonderry, speaking on the first reading of his Education Bill at Stormont on 14 March 1923. The first government of Northern Ireland – and in particular its first Education Minister – sought to introduce to the new state a secular, integrated system of education. Unfortunately eighty-seven years later we still have segregated education. The reason we did not end it during Craig’s premiership was the opposition from all the main churches at that time; particularly the Protestant denominations.

Under Londonderry’s plans all state schools in Northern Ireland were to be integrated and without overtly religious identities. Part 5 Clause 28 of his Bill stated that all government funded schools ‘shall be open to children of all religious denominations for combined literary and moral instruction… [and] the times at which religious instruction is given shall not form part of the times during which any child is required … to attend school’.[1] Therefore, the Education Minister sought to introduce non-denominational schools with a secular curriculum, provision for religious teaching being made only after the formal school day had concluded.
No doubt aware of potential clerical opposition to such plans, Lord Londonderry also said during the first reading of the bill in the Northern Ireland House of Commons, ‘do not let it be said that [the] churches…are now…the stumbling block in the way of an ideal system owing to a determination to segregate their flocks and create from birth a division when union is essential’.[2] It was clear that Londonderry was attempting to put the onus on the churches to support the measure so as to avoid driving a wedge between the communities in Northern Ireland, thereby creating instability at a time when the new state was still attempting to firmly establish itself. The response of the Protestant religious bodies to this proposed legislation was to endorse it in principle, but also to raise concerns that such a degree of secularisation would be damaging to the religious and moral upbringing of the children exposed to it. United in these sentiments, the churches petitioned the Education Minister to amend the bill, Londonderry reporting in Cabinet on 16 April that the churches were pressing him ‘to allow denominational teaching within the hours of compulsory attendance’.[3] This pressure led the Education Minister during the bill’s second reading on 17 April to concede ‘we should include in the Bill such provisions as will ensure that [religious] instruction…will be imparted to the children’.[4]
Yet the failure of the government to meet the demands of the Protestant churches for substantial amendments to the bill before it was enacted led to a much more intense and public campaign of opposition to the act. The Presbyterians, Anglicans and Methodists adopted a united front, forming the United Education Committee (UEC) in December 1924 which demanded that the teacher appointment process be tightened to prevent ‘the door [being] thrown open for a Bolshevist or an Atheist or a Roman Catholic to become a teacher in a Protestant school’.[5] With this united front and with an election nearing – the UEC passed a resolution calling for a £20,000 fighting fund to enable it to put forward candidates - Craig gave in. On 13 March 1925 amending legislation was enacted, providing for compulsory Bible instruction and a role for the Protestant churches in the appointment of state school teachers.
While the 1925 education legislation was sufficient to pacify the churches and remove their electoral challenge, it was not enough to satisfy them entirely. It would only be with the 1947 Education Act that Protestant agitation over schools ended. Under this legislation, primary education would conclude in the Eleven-plus exam, the school leaving age was raised to fifteen, grants to voluntary schools was increased to sixty-five per cent and school meals, books and medical care would be free. Most importantly, as far as the churches were concerned, there would be an act of daily worship and religious education in all schools. The Catholic Church, unwilling from the very beginning to permit state intervention in its schools, became all the more averse to doing so as this Protestant agitation continued; and proved successful.
However, finger-pointing for the current situation solves nothing and moves us no further along. The point that should be taken from this is that Northern Ireland Governments have previously attempted to integrate our schools, only to be harassed into not doing so by church opposition. Today it is the Catholic Church rather than the Protestant denominations that will continue to object the loudest; already we’ve had Catholic hostility to the idea.[6] With considerably fewer mixed areas than before the Troubles, a fractious, squabbling Executive and church opposition to it, integration of our schools will be even more difficult than Robinson admits it will be.

Stephen Goss

[1] Education Bill (NI), 1923
[2]Parliamentary Debates: official report, first series, vol. i:Third Session of the first parliament of Northern Ireland,  13& 14 Geo. V, House of Commons, session 1923,  14 March
[3] NI Cabinet Papers, 4/77, 16 April 1923
[4]Parliamentary Debates: official report, first series, vol. i:Third Session of the first parliament of Northern Ireland,  13& 14 Geo. V, House of Commons, session 1923,   17 April 1923
[5] Corkey, Episode in the History of Protestant Ulster, p39
[6] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-11558249

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