Monday 24 October 2016

Radical change needed as Protestants play catch-up to Catholics in education

Published 23/01/2016 | 02:30

Seamus Heaney was a celebrated example of a generation of Catholics who used education to better themselves. Photo: Steve Pyke/Getty Images
Seamus Heaney was a celebrated example of a generation of Catholics who used education to better themselves. Photo: Steve Pyke/Getty Images

'We are a Protestant parliament and a Protestant state," said James Craig, first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. But something has been hatching in the eight decades since those words were heard - an evolution which would have dismayed the Northern state's founders. The province is turning greener.

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Population studies show there are currently more Catholic teenagers than their Protestant counterparts, leading to the inevitable conclusion of a Catholic majority within 10 years.

Another notable development is that it will not just be a majority, but a well-educated one. More Catholics than Protestants are proceeding to third-level education. They outnumber Protestants on campus by significant proportions, for example by 15pc at Queen's University.

Meanwhile, Protestants are underachieving at school for a variety of reasons. But those Protestant teenagers who continue their education are more likely than Catholics to attend college in Britain - and stay there after graduation. It's unclear whether lower fees at home might reverse that trend. Even so, the North's demographics are on the march.

Soon, Catholics will comprise the bulk of the electorate for the first time in the province's history, with many educated to a high standard. But another shift must be factored in: post-Good Friday Agreement, a generation has grown up which cares less for the Easter Rising or the Battle of the Boyne than its predecessors did.

Nevertheless, change is to be expected. Those holding key jobs in the coming decades will be drawn from a different cultural background to the current incumbents. So policy shifts may well ensue in various areas.

There may also be a plebiscite on whether Northern Ireland maintains the union with Britain or looks towards the Republic - if not with a view to full reintegration, then in some kind of mutually beneficial alliance.

These developments present a dilemma for unionism. But patterns visible in census figures have signalled them for some time.

Figures obtained by the Belfast Newsletter from Stormont's Department of Employment and Learning this week showed that roughly 50pc more Catholics than Protestants are entering higher education. These statistics do not simply reflect demographic trends. They turn the focus towards schools.

Catholic schools dominate the top 10 in Northern Ireland's ranking, feeding through to university places. Clearly, Catholic pupils are not cleverer than their Protestant counterparts. But Catholic grammar schools are more successful at steering pupils through exams and preparing them for the workplace.

Queen's University says its student population "is broadly in line with the available census data for 2011": of those declaring a religious affiliation, 35.8pc identified themselves as Protestant and 50.6pc as Catholic.

Northern Ireland's link with Britain will be questioned at some stage in the foreseeable future. But that doesn't mean the corps of educated Catholics leaving university will vote en masse, given the opportunity, to change the status quo. Strictly Green or Orange identities appear to matter less than was once the case, particularly with increasing secularisation.

A cross-border poll by RTÉ and BBC NI last year found that only 30pc in the North said they'd like to see a united Ireland in their lifetime. Some 66pc in the Republic favoured it - although the number halved when tax increases to pay for unity were suggested.

Identity seems to be a fluid construct. A number of Catholics now categorise themselves as Northern Irish only, as opposed to Irish, or Northern Irish and Irish, according to the 2011 Census.

But on the subject of identity, among sections of the loyalist community an identity crisis is apparent which could lead to another siege mentality - with ramifications for Northern Ireland as the demographics and their consequences unfold.

Population trends can be predicted, but not emotional attachments or where people will feel their best interests lie. Nobody can forecast accurately how Northern Ireland's future will develop. There is a growing emphasis on integrated education, which is promising. But there are more peace walls, which is not.

An education gap between Protestant and Catholic achievement is widening, and its origins lie in a culture gap. Northern Protestants must learn to place more value on schooling. In the past, working class Protestants expected to be apprenticed to a trade with a well-paid job for life. Exams were unnecessary. But heavy ­industry collapsed - Harland and Wolff, for example - and with it their employment prospects.

Catholics, by comparison, recognised schooling as a tool to better themselves, and seized the opportunity when free education was introduced in the 1940s. This led to the generation that encompassed Seamus Heaney, John Hume, Bernadette Devlin and Seamus Mallon.

Radical change is needed now so that education is valued by people from poorer Protestant socio-economic groups. Their leaders must drive it. Far-reaching change is challenging for unionism. Yet people continue to vote along traditional loyalty lines in both communities, rather than on policies - even when their leaders are not representing their best interests at Stormont.

The North's grammar school system - where children are selected on academic potential - is problematic. Grammar schools have been invaluable in giving a chance to bright children from modest backgrounds. But a two-tier structure has been produced, and in some cases children are herded through school without being educated. Selection at the age of 11 needs to be ended so that children of all abilities can expect a higher standard of schooling. The less able need it as much, if not more, than the clever.

This would require a policy adjustment, which requires a cultural mindset adjustment. Such changes are brought about only when major forces work towards them. Unfortunately, it isn't happening.

Meanwhile, academic excellence is embedded in the DNA of Catholic grammar schools and their results dominate the North's league tables. In 2014, Catholic grammars tied for the top five places in exam results, while only two non-Catholic schools were in the top 10.

Such figures ought to be a wake-up call - not alone for unionist leaders but for all politicians in the North. However, tribal anxieties continue to trump any sense of common purpose. DUP education spokesperson Peter Weir responded to the Newsletter article by saying universities needed to be made more welcoming to Protestants.

He spoke of a campus "chill factor" for Protestants and complained about bi-lingual signs at Queen's. This is nonsense. Exam results will send students to university regardless of how many GAA shirts they see beside them in the lecture theatre. Culture is, of course, a way to bridge divides. But that requires education.

Irish Independent

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