Standing up for Catholic schools

Catholic schools scapegoated for segregation

There’s a lazy and naïve consensus about the future of relations between the unionist and nationalist communities in the North. The conventional wisdom holds that Catholic schools are a major problem and a barrier to building a shared future. The simplistic idea is as wrong as it is offensive to those who work hard in Catholic schools daily to ensure that they are welcoming and inclusive places and that students are former to be tolerant, well-rounded individuals.

It’s a feeling often articulated by teachers in Catholic schools in the North. They will tell you how hard they worked during the civil conflict to ensure that their children would see education as a way out, and not fall prey to the lure of paramilitarism. They will also tell you of their incredulity that some politicians who spent decades acting as sectarian firebrands now accuse Catholic schools of being divisive.

For some time now, Catholic schools have looked on wide-eyed at the massive resources being pumped in to integrated schools.

Now, to be clear, no one in the Catholic sector is opposed to integrated education. Catholic schools don’t want special treatment. They simply want fair treatment and they want politicians to look at their achievements and contribution and stop kicking Catholic schools.


It was with a certain sense of disbelief that I read remarks from the deputy leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) Dolores Kelly at the weekend comparing a faith-based education to racial segregation. Such inflammatory rhetoric is good for a headline and will surely see policymakers who have a preferential option for integrated schools approve of Ms Kelly. But such language ill becomes a politician who wants to be taken seriously.

It’s also an insult to the many teachers, parents and families in the Catholic sector who have made huge sacrifices. Many of these people are (were?) supporters of the SDLP.

Writing in The Irish News this week, Tom Kelly, a seasoned media commentator and a former vice chairman of the SDLP, has a fairly withering critique of his former party.

He writes that “of all the parties, only the SDLP has shown a remarkable ability to alienate its core voters without winning any new ones”.

It’s a fairly devastating conclusion and one that is hard to argue with based on the electoral numbers. When the Assembly was established in 1998, the SDLP had 24 members compared to Sinn Féin’s 18.

Today, Sinn Féin has 29 assembly members compared to the SDLP’s 14 and most commentators expect the SDLP’s support to decline further.

Dolores Kelly wants her party to move from the current position of supporting pluralism and parents’ choice in education to a one-size-fits-all model of integrated schools.

She suffered an embarrassing defeat as her party colleagues refused to back her draconian and heavy-handed attempt to impose a simplistic solution to a complex problem.

Catholic schools exist because parents want to choose a faith-based education for their children.

These schools welcome children of all religious traditions and none. Catholic schools have been at the forefront in welcoming new communities.

In terms of educational achievement, Catholic schools consistently top the tables. Catholic schools have also worked hard to tackle the issue of educational disadvantage and have made admirable strides in ensuring that children from challenging backgrounds get the education they deserve.

Ms Kelly and others should look to the Catholic sector for leadership, rather than seeing it as an easy target. Besides, even at a pragmatic level, it seems odd for a party which relies largely on the Catholic community for support to turn on Catholic schools.