Hello England, it’s Northern Ireland. I’m just dropping you a line because I’ve noticed that a lot of people seem to be very angry about your education system. After an (admittedly cursory) inspection of the evidence, I would say that this anger is justified (why do your posh people get different schools? Do you know it’s not normal to play lacrosse?). You seem to be aware that your bit of the country divides children by wealth and that it’s a bit weird. So I thought you might like to know that my bit divides children by religion, and it’s even weirder. Basically, we decided that it was a really good idea to have separate schools for Catholics and Protestants – and I hope that raises some questions for you, because let me tell you, I have some answers:
Q. How does that work?
A. The three most common types of school in Northern Ireland are: controlled, catholic maintained and integrated. All of them are funded by the state, all of them are free to attend, and all of them exist at both primary (might as well start ’em young) and secondary level. Catholic maintained schools were founded by the Catholic church amid (pretty reasonable) fears that the then Protestant-Unionist government would discriminate against Catholic pupils. Controlled schools are government run state schools, originally controlled by the Church of Ireland, Presbyterian or Methodist churches, who transferred them to the government in exchange for church representatives being allowed to sit on their Boards. They are technically non-denominational but in practice are mostly attended by Protestants. Integrated schools actually are non-denominational but aren’t very widely attended, partly because they are non-selective, unlike the controlled and maintained sectors which still run on a grammar/secondary system. Got it? Good.
Q. But it’s not like the government’s forcing people to go to separate schools?
A. No, fair enough, they aren’t – and a lot of money does go into integrated education. But at the last election only one of the main parties said they wanted a single education system; the rest were content with the staus-quo. This is where I have to be careful because (spoiler alert) I’m Protestant, so can’t really get high and mighty about an education system set up to protect Catholics from discrimination. What I would quite like, however, is for the government to put a bit of effort into creating a society where Protestants and Catholics discriminating against each other is a little less likely – but unfortunately they collapsed over a row about woodchips in 2016 and we are apparently meant to…. talk amongst ourselves (?) until they decide to reconvene.
Q. So, did you go to one of these schools?
A. I did indeed – controlled grammar in a rural market-town; teaching staff ranging from outstanding to slightly unhinged; within easy walking distance of a Lidl (35p cookies, can’t recommend highly enough).
Q. So how did it aid religious intolerance?
A. The split school system doesn’t cause intolerance so much as not do anything to prevent it. So, while your average controlled school may not go round extolling the virtues of the Reformation, in creating a space containing only Protestants it: 1) perpetuates the idea that they are somehow different from Catholics. 2) allows its pupils to express whatever prejudices they may be picking up at home with relative impunity.
Q. These Catholics, did you ever….. see any of them?
A. Yes, I did – indeed towards the end of my school career I was even allowed to go among them, in order to receive lessons in A Level Government and Politics which my school could not, apparently, give themselves. Findings as a result of this daring experiment were: 1) The Catholic school had a graveyard in the middle of it, which was officially decreed. Weird. 2) On paper, I sound like I’m going to be “very orange” but I am, in fact, “alright”. 3) The Catholic pupils could excuse themselves from being late to class by saying that they were in the chapel praying, which remains the best excuse I have ever heard.
Q. What single incident best sums up how… unique… your school experience was?
A. That would probably be when, aged seven, I was assigned a Catholic pen-pal. Not a French Catholic pen-pal or an Italian Catholic pen-pal but a Northern Irish Catholic pen-pal who went to a school ten minutes down the road, who I was instructed to write to in order to facilitate cross-community relations. The fact that most seven year olds do not know whether they are Catholic or Protestant or what that might mean had, apparently, not occurred to anyone.
Q. So, are we supposed to believe that this whole experience has left you terribly scarred?
A. Not really, no; I get a bit jumpy when I have to talk about Catholicism in case I offend someone by accident, but I don’t know that Freud could get much mileage out of that. For the effect on our national consciousness, however, I would point you towards a child in my primary school who did not wish to meet any Catholics in case they were “witches”. Perpetuating historic prejudice, is perhaps the most concise description.
Q. Have you finished?
A. Yes, I think I have. But please remember: part of the country most of you live in essentially segregates four year olds by religion. And it’s a bit messed up.