Segregation: Must we still pay the price?

28 Apr 2023 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 28 Apr 2023

Pic: Joshua Clay, Unsplash

With essential services in Northern Ireland now at risk because of the lack of a Stormont budget, and departments facing massive spending cuts we can no longer afford to waste money by duplicating services.

Executive departments face big cuts to their spending in this financial year when the budget is set.

The Education Department has already announced the end of several key services as a result of its tightening finances.

No construction work for new school buildings will take place this year, school holiday food payments for children entitled to free meals during term time have ended and a scheme providing free books for babies has been scrapped. We have written about this here.

Yet the Education department wastes many millions by funding schools divided on religious lines and by continuing a system of academic selection long abandoned elsewhere.

Since the first attempt to introduce non-sectarian education in 1831 the religious establishment has successfully resisted the teaching of Catholics and Protestants together, despite the damage this does to community relations and the recognition of the role of integrated education in the Good Friday Agreement.

This despite opinion polls which consistently show 71% opposed to religious segregation in education and declining attendance at churches, the sharp rise of numbers who state they have no faith (now 17%) and increases in the number of citizens who are from non-Christian backgrounds.

The extra cost of this is staggering, and all to preserve a system which was described by the former US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland,  Mitchell B. Reiss in the following terms:

“After taking on this assignment, I was astonished to learn that roughly 95% of Northern Ireland schoolchildren are educated in segregated schools. As Americans, we have first-hand experience with segregation, not so long ago. And we know it doesn't work. Segregation short-changes the students by denying them exposure to one half their society. And it weakens the country by embedding misunderstanding and distrust”.

Former Secretary of State Brandon Lewis was almost as forthright when he said: “We are in a situation where still, people in Northern Ireland first meet a Protestant or Catholic when they go to work or university. [Segregated education] just isn’t going to ever drive full reconciliation.”

As to the cost and waste we could start with the 50,000 empty desks across the schools estate together with the £95 million or so wasted on duplication.

To that we can add the £1 billion plus we spent in the past decade alone by bringing our young people into contact with each other in various cross-community initiatives to correct the negative consequences and prejudices resulting from their initial segregation.

Then we could add the cost of home to school transport, approximately £81 million per year, which sees children being bussed past their nearest school to attend a school of a different management type.

Then there are the staggering range of arms-length bodies to support, currently eight, of which five support delivery of education in mainstream schools. These are: the General Teaching Council of NI; the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment; the Catholic Council for Maintained Schools; the NI Council for Integrated Education and Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta.

All of them get grant aid to cover staff salaries, administration costs and the implementation of an annual plan. Each of them has separate sections for finance and human resources. Each has at least one administration building to service and maintain and each has their own management structure and governing board.

 The department also provides grants to “professionalise the contribution” of a number of sectoral bodies – the Catholic Schools Trustee Service (£98,000) the Controlled Schools Support Council (£983,000) and the Governing Bodies Association (£98,000).

 This before we even start to quantify the damage done over many decades by separating communities from each other in a part of the world long scarred by bitter conflict.

In recent years the argument has become blurred by the introduction of “shared education” and the notion that schools are integrated because they are attended by 10% of children from the other community.

Thus some politicians argued as did the DUP’s Diane Dodds that last year’s Integrated Education bill did not promote “real inclusion” it “simply supports one part of our education system and discriminates against all others.”

The TUV leader Jim Allister went one further accusing the bill of “supremacy.”

And there is a danger that the department will end up spending more money rather than less in maintaining three sectors and their respective infrastructures.

But what is really required is a commitment to transform the entire school system so that there are no sectors based on religion, just one for all of us.

That is not going to happen overnight but it has to happen: it is what the vast majority want, it will save a lot of money and merging schools will ensure more children are educated close to home. There is no reason why educating children together cannot be achieved without people compromising religious principles where they have them. And it will, at last fulfil a commitment made under the Good Friday Agreement.

But achieving this will require a lot of political will and commitment. And the opposition has been skilfully marshalled. The Independent Review of Education which is expected to report back later this year states: “In our evidence sessions and consideration of papers, it is apparent that there is no agreed definition of what a ‘single system’ means in reality. Many take the view that ‘a single system’ means increasing the provision of integrated education and reducing community and sectoral divisions. Others have focussed on the difference between grammar and non-grammar in post-primary. Others again have highlighted the existence of unnecessary complexity and duplication in the administration of education.”

The waters, it would seem are well and truly muddied.

This is a pity at a time when budgets are so constrained that deep, painful and severely damaging cuts are planned to the education budget.

Ms Dodds and her colleagues say it is important for parents to be able to choose the school that their children attend. It is an interesting point which should not be dismissed.

It is also clear that a large majority of us want our children to be educated together and yet only a small fraction are able to realise that ambition.

In the meantime separation of young people continues and we continue to pay for it.  

Choice is a fine thing, but we should also seriously consider whether we think it is acceptable for the poorest and most vulnerable in our communities to bear the cost of maintaining separate school systems when their own education has been cut to the bone.


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