Segregated education in the dock

Observations on Northern Ireland. By <strong>John O'Farrell</strong>

Richard Dawkins recently annoyed believers by asserting on television that religion is a core reason why people go to war. No, he was told, it is a source of reconciliation and forgiveness. Didn't Jesus bless the peacemakers? Isn't Islam a religion of peace?

Northern Ireland, as a case study, would seem to support Dawkins's argument, and that support is all the stronger thanks to a recent study of the education system.

The province's primary and secondary school systems are divided along religious lines, with Catholic schools on the one hand and "state" schools - attended by 93 per cent of Protestant children - on the other. Despite an official ethos of "education through mutual understanding", particularly in the teaching of history, the perception has long been that each system produces adults who conform to the political ideas of their parents.

That hunch has been confirmed by an analysis of data by academics from Aberdeen, the Australian National University and Ark, a joint research forum of Northern Ireland's two universities. Collating surveys from 1989 to 2003, they found, for example, that 96 per cent of Protestants who had received a state education saw themselves as "British", "Northern Irish" or "Ulster". More than 90 per cent of Catholic-educated people saw themselves as "Irish" or "Northern Irish". Their politics reflected these figures.

The study also looked at the impact of integrated education. Protestants who attended integrated schools tended to have the edge taken off their attitudes. More saw themselves as "Northern Irish" as opposed to "British" or "Ulster" (which has strong loyalist connotations). While not embracing Irish nationalism, they were more likely to "occupy the middle ground of NI politics": they were "willing to detach themselves from a British or unionist identity but not to adopt the identity of the other side".

Catholics who attended integrated schools showed similar effects: one-third wanted a united Ireland, compared with more than half of Catholics from segregated schools. In short, integrated education tempers the edges of unionism and nationalism. The catch is that only 4.6 per cent of pupils attend integrated schools, so they can make only a small difference.

And what about the people in neither camp? The same researchers report: "Those with no religion are overwhelmingly more likely than either Catholics or Protestants to label themselves as 'neither' (unionist/nationalist)." Among atheists, in fact, 67 per cent rejected both political viewpoints.

Godlessness is booming. The 1951 census recorded "only 221 freethinkers and 64 atheists, amounting to 0.02 per cent of the population", but in 2001 almost 14 per cent said they had no religion - making them the fourth-largest "belief" group in Northern Ireland after the Catholics and the two main Protestant denominations.

Dawkins will find a lot of comfort in their story: 90 per cent of the children of atheists inherit their parents' non-belief and will do better in life; 38 per cent have a third-level qualification, compared to 26-28 per cent of Catholics and Protestants.

Segregated education still has its apologists, who say that sectarianism is learned more at home than at school, and that the kind of people who send their kids to integrated schools are already less likely to be entrenched unionists or nationalists.

The latest research is the sort of empirical evidence that in other places would close down debate and usher in fundamental change, but in Northern Ireland both sides will probably ignore it. Blame their education.

Research summaries can be found at www.ark.ac.uk

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Shamed