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The Discreet Tussle for Education in the North of Ireland: allegiance, identity, religion, managerialism


Dr Brian Feeney

 This year's annual Vere Foster lecture was given by Dr. Brian Feeney historian, commentator, broadcaster and political analyst



‘Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.’


This quotation from George Orwell’s 1984 perfectly sums up what many politicians believe is the point of education. It’s a slogan of The Party in the book. Few political parties would openly admit that they agree with the slogan but the fact is that for most political parties education is a great deal more all-encompassing than the 3 R’s. It constitutes what the Germans call weltanschauung – a general world view. In educational terms that means history, geography, literature, language, religion but not necessarily in that order. Few politicians are as helpfully explicit about their objectives in that arena as Michael Gove who set out in 2010 to have the English History syllabus changed to extol the virtues of the British Empire and to teach English history to the virtual exclusion of other countries’ past.

If you can present a view of the past which is rosy and contented, stable and secure then obviously the factors which comprised that view of the past and the circumstances which produced that past are aspects you want to maintain, transmit to the next generation and continue into the future. All states create their own origin myth. In that respect the newly partitioned part of north-eastern Ireland with its own administration which was created in 1921 was no different from any other self-governing territory. The new government of Northern Ireland, which in 1921 was called the northern parliament of Ireland, wanted to create its own explanation and justification – origin myth if you like -  of how and why it had come into existence and why its existence was a good idea to be maintained for the future.

It should also be said exactly the same was happening in the newly established Irish Free State which was producing a curriculum for its own education system that for the first time in history would be Irish centred as opposed to being geared to English culture and the politics of British imperialism in an examination system which Padraig Pearse had described as ‘the murder machine’. Indeed much of the new Irish curriculum apart from Maths and Science was deliberately ‘not English’, a reaction to the pre-1921 system. It was also as far as possible taught through the medium of Irish.

None of this process was unique to Ireland north and south. All across Europe new states created by the Versailles settlement of 1919 were developing their own nationalistic education systems: Czechoslovakia, Poland, Finland, Romania. For the first time all these education systems were using their own languages as opposed to an official language such as German or in the case of Finland, Swedish.

Now, if you were a German living in the new Czechoslovakia or Poland, and there were millions of them, a Hungarian in Romania or a Swede in Finland these new education systems presented some problems. The same was true for nationalists trapped in the new Northern Ireland. In all these places and many more, allegiance and identity became matters of bitter contention. How could the allegiance and identity of minorities be protected when the newly emerged states were equally determined to enforce a uniform allegiance and require identification only with the new entity?

Thus the north of Ireland was far from unique in Europe despite efforts then and until the present day by British governments to deny that there is a politico-ethnic problem in the UK. It’s a problem easily recognised by all political scientists who have looked at the north. The intensity of the problem is masked by the fact that everyone in the north speaks the same language whereas in somewhere like Belgium, where incidentally they’ve had just as much difficulty creating a government in the past five years as we have, the two communities speak different languages. Political scientists call the main sign of difference in a politico-ethnic conflict the ‘marker’ and in most places the marker is language as in Belgium or Switzerland. In the former Yugoslavia however and here, the marker is religion, not language. Serbs are Orthodox Christians, Croats are Catholic and many Bosnians are Muslim. They all speak Serbo-Croat.

If you identify in the Balkans as an Orthodox Christian or Muslim it does not indicate special devotion to the religion any more than people here designated Catholic or Protestant necessarily practise the religion. Religion is the outward and visible sign of political allegiance and national or cultural identity. No one was killed here during the Troubles because an argument about belief in transubstantiation turned violent.

How did the new north of Ireland cope with its two conflicting identities and allegiances? The answer is the same as all the other new states. The Unionist government tried to obliterate the minority view of the world. They attempted,  largely successfully, to make the north of Ireland an Irish-free zone with various bans and legal prohibitions of any manifestation of Irishness, even names like Seán and Séamus.

There was only one sphere where the Unionist writ did not run and that was Catholic education. The Catholic church was a national organisation. In its schools prayers could be said in Irish. There could be a map of Ireland in the classroom rather than one of the ‘British Isles’. The geography, history and literature of Ireland rather than that of England could be taught. You could play Irish music, even sing in Irish. Furthermore Catholic schools seemed unassailable because the Government of Ireland Act prohibited discrimination against any religion. Yes really.

In other parts of Europe with similar divisions the education bolt hole for a different identity had also been used. The late Frank Wright in his book Northern Ireland: a comparative analysis, shows that before 1914 in Polish Posen and West Prussia Catholic schools were a refuge from Germanising legislation in heavily Polish districts and after 1919 in the Sudetenland in the new Czechoslovakia German schools withstood Prague’s attempts to impose a uniform Czech identity.

Obviously Unionists saw Catholic education as a gigantic well-organised subversive political conspiracy, purveying an alternative allegiance and identity, a threat to the legitimacy of the new state. Immediately the Unionist government set out to abolish it but because of the Government of Ireland Act they had to move carefully by treating all religious education the same. The person who led the charge in 1923 was Lord Londonderry the north’s  Minister of Education. He has received undeserved accolades for what is usually described as his plans to secularise education. Cardinal Logue at the time knew exactly what he was up to when he said Londonderry was out to destroy Catholic education.

Who was this Minister of Education? Londonderry was a racist and imperialist and later a Nazi supporter. Professor Ian Kershaw, best known for his monumental study of Hitler, wrote a biography of Londonderry in 2005: its title, Making Friends with Hitler: Lord Londonderry, the Nazis, and the Road to War says it all. Unlike Unionist apologists for the man, Kershaw concluded Londonderry was a perfect representative of a large part of the British aristocracy at the time; contemptuous of the middle-class, prejudiced against Jews, he had ‘the political self-righteousness of the dogmatist’. In his family home at Mount Stewart a statuette of an SS man in a helmet carrying a Nazi flag, a gift from Ribbentrop, Hitler’s Foreign Minister when he visited, is ‘a reminder of the house’s brief but fateful connection with Hitler’.

It wasn’t so much that Londonderry was anti-Catholic which he was, regarding the religion with some justification as superstitious mumbo-jumbo, but with his fascist tendencies he believed there should be state control and uniformity where possible and particularly in this part of Ireland which should exhibit an exclusively British ethos like the rest of the empire. There was no room for alternative views of the world and certainly not for any anti-British or anti-Unionist sentiment harboured in the education system.

Londonderry’s plan was for all schools whether managed by Catholic or Protestant clergy to transfer to the state. He would establish local education committees, overwhelmingly Unionist, controlling schools. Managers, who in the Catholic system were mostly parish priests, would be abolished. No religion would be endowed. There would be no religious teaching during the school day. Teachers of any religion could teach in any school. Schools not transferring to the state would not receive full funding. All of which sounds eminently modern separating church and state and integrating education but not if education is the only legitimate outlet for expressing a different national identity, allegiance and cultural view. A new Unionist curriculum would obliterate that.

Now just to put things in perspective, in Scotland where there was a substantial Catholic school system the Fisher Act in 1918 fully funded Catholic schools, allowed them to appoint their own teachers and religious inspectors approved by the state. Of course in Scotland Catholic schools were not perceived as a threat to the legitimacy of the state nor did teachers or parents hold a different view of Scotland’s role in the world. The tens of thousands of Catholics of Irish extraction in Scotland knew they were in Scotland and acted accordingly.

As for Londonderry’s 1923 Act, he had underestimated the reaction of Protestant churches, particularly the Presbyterians, to abolishing religious instruction and opening schools to teachers of any religion. Many were horrified at the prospect of Catholic teachers in their schools. They announced, ‘The Bible is under threat.’ One leading figure Rev Robert Corkey, a senior Presbyterian and Unionist politician, objected that, ‘The door is thrown open for a Bolshevist, or an atheist, or a Roman Catholic to become a teacher in a Protestant school’ – in ascending order of horror it would seem. By 1930 Unionists had amended the Act so radically that Craigavon could assure the Protestant churches that, ‘You need not have any fears about our educational programme for the future. It will be absolutely certain that in no circumstances will Protestant children ever be in any way interfered with by Roman Catholics.’ These were supposed to be state schools he was talking about.

However the organisational classification of the Londonderry Act remained intact and remained the structure of the educational system until recently. The Protestant schools had transferred to the state after 1923. Why wouldn’t they: it was a Protestant state? However after 1930 the state allowed Protestant clergy as ‘the transferors’ to be appointed to the governing body of each school. In most cases they quickly became chairmen. That meant the schools which were and remain in effect Protestant schools received full state funding. Since the Catholic schools did not transfer and the classification of the Londonderry Act remained in place they did not receive full funding but 50% initially, an outrageous state of affairs since the so-called state schools were and are anything but. They consciously peddled a British ethos just as the Catholic schools consciously peddled an Irish ethos but the difference was they suffered financially for it.

This classification remained even after the 1947 Education Act when secondary intermediate schools were established in the north and the discriminatory funding was extended to them. Gradually the funding for Catholic schools increased, first to 65%, in 1968 to 80% and finally in 1988 100%. All through this period the hypocrisy and fiction were maintained and supinely accepted by the Catholic church that what were in effect Protestant schools with clergy on all governing bodies were state schools. No one pointed to the practice in Scotland where Catholic schools had been fully funded since 1918.

All the time a discreet unspoken tussle went on about the curriculum with repeated attempts by the north’s department of Education, notoriously along with Agriculture the most biased anti-Irish departments at Stormont, to impose for exam purposes syllabi as English as possible in History, Geography and English literature, which would thereby require all students for state exams to study those syllabi. For example, until the 1970s the main textbook for GCE English Literature was A Pageant of English Verse basically from Chaucer to the early twentieth century. Junior History examined the Tudors and Stuarts though Catholic schools had their own textbooks on the Tudors and Stuarts written by the Head of History in a Catholic training college. For Senior, then GCE and A level, Irish history was relegated to a walk-on part. The inspectorate, overwhelmingly Unionist, frowned on certain books like Dorothy MacArdle’s Irish Republic. On the other hand one result of this English-fixated approach was that many pupils in Protestant schools grew up knowing nothing about the place they lived in or their own community’s origins and past history.

That state of affairs persisted until the late 1980s when after the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement and the production of the Northern Ireland Curriculum in 1991 full cognisance was taken of the fact that there are two communities in the north whose rights must be equally respected and differing world views accommodated. The Irish government now had a permanent presence in the north through the Joint Secretariat and were able to make what was officially known as ‘views and proposals’ about all aspects of policy in the north including education and the curriculum.

Funding was raised to 100%, though it must be said Cardinal Daly at the time initially wanted to keep it at 96% objecting to too much reliance of the state: shades of the ‘mother and child’ controversy of 1954. Money began to follow the pupil instead of being given to maintain premises and facilities after the Irish government discovered that at one extreme Our Lady’s grammar school in Newry was receiving £175 per pupil while Campbell College, an independent school was receiving £1450 per pupil of public money – to maintain its extensive grounds and facilities you understand.

It seemed the icing on the cake was the creation in 1987 of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS), a central management system for Catholic schools in the north. Incidentally it was to be called the Catholic Education Council but the minister Brian Mawhinney objected to the term ‘Catholic Education’. So much had changed since 1923, or not?

Now here’s the rub. At a time when institutional religion in Ireland began its precipitate fall from grace, shall we say, and religious practice suffered a catastrophic collapse, the Catholic church in the north got a tighter and more officially approved grip on education than ever before. To be sure there are many devout and practising Catholic teachers in Catholic schools but there are many other teachers who are what is known as ‘cultural Catholics’ who would be designated for Fair Employment purposes as of Catholic ‘community origin’. Ironically for the first time in the history of the north when an Irish identity had been formally recognised, guaranteed and secure and it was no longer necessary to hide behind the religious ‘marker’ in schools to promote a national identity, conspicuous promotion of a Catholic ethos became an essential requirement for promotion to vice-principal or principal. Paying lip service to Catholicism was no longer enough. Advancement in some cases demanded consistent hypocrisy. The only way to escape clerical control was to go the whole hog and establish Gaelscolaíochta and in 2000 two years after the Good Friday Agreement DENI with gritted teeth established Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta to promote and facilitate Irish medium education.

For the majority in Catholic schools however worse was to come. With centralised CCMS control came managerialism. CCMS came at the high tide of Thatcherism. Thatcher believed professions were a conspiracy against the laity and set out to subject medicine, law and education to managers. Only law survived this onslaught: the Bar Council and Law Society still run that profession.

CCMS eagerly grasped this ethos of managerialism and created a system of advisers and requirements parallel to the DENI and the Education and Library Boards. Teachers and boards of governors found themselves pulled in several directions having to satisfy ever growing and often pointless managerial exercises. Some involved in management were too stupid to be teachers and besides, didn’t know how schools worked. The gigantic parasitic HR industry hit education. I’ll paraphrase Ronald Reagan’s words about government in 1986 and pass on. ‘The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from HR and I’m here to help you.’

Envious of the CCMS the Protestant churches and some Unionist politicians agitated for an equivalent body to oversee controlled, that is Protestant schools, and in 2014 the Controlled Schools Support Council (CSSC) duly emerged. If only the teachers in controlled schools knew what was in store for them with another bureaucracy interpolated between boards of governors and the soon to be established Education Authority.

Not content with CCMS, CSSC, ELBs and DE, another quango, GTCNI was inflicted on the education system. At a cost of about £2 million a year it has been a colossal failure. In England and Wales the GTC was abolished in 2010. No one noticed.

All these bodies have to justify their existence. No manager has ever been appointed who didn’t need a deputy who has to justify his or her existence. They do that by asking for reports from schools. It used to be assumed that you were doing your job unless there was evidence to the contrary. Managerialism assumes you’re not doing your job unless you provide evidence to the contrary, constantly, continually: the result is constant monitoring, testing, auditing, directing, none of it related to improving teaching standards or providing extra teachers or class contact time. Never have classroom teachers had less control over what they do with pupils yet they are the only people who know how schools should be run.

The process reached its nadir in March this year with a preposterous directive requiring school principals to count every crayon and paper clip in the school. As if pupils never take pencils, crayons, or any other piece of equipment home and lose it. Of course they would never throw a crayon or broken pencil in a bin.

At the macro level in 2015 an over-arching new bureaucracy arrived after years of deadlock at Stormont, the Education Authority, with five directorates and a humungous vast overpaid bureaucracy replacing ELBs with no obvious saving in numbers or money. The EA employs almost 40,000 people and has a budget of £1.5 billion. There are about 19,000 teachers in the north. Nothing more needs to be said. Nevertheless, despite the EA having authority for education across the north parish priests through CCMS still exercise an unacceptable power for their own parochial purposes to configure the Catholic school estate.

Take north Belfast as an example, by no means unusual. There, without regard to the educational expertise and advice of the teaching staff and unions and many parents, the Catholic church and CCMS decided to merge and rationalise the post-primary schools while ignoring the existence of the two Catholic grammar schools and the large enrolment of Catholic pupils at a Protestant grammar school in that part of the city. Of course the post-primary schools will not be physically merged, only the school leaderships. The schools will continue to exist on split sites until the twelfth of never. There is no money for new schools. The Catholic church continues to speak out of both sides of its mouth about grammar schools but in its actions supports them at the expense of post-primary schools some of them separated only by a high fence.

To conclude: when the north of Ireland was invented in 1921 there was justified fear and apprehension that a uniform British education would be imposed, an Irish identity denied and Catholic education abolished since Catholic education seemed the only legitimate refuge for an Irish identity and alternative allegiance. All that has changed. Irish allegiance and identity are secure and Catholic education was secured with it. The result is that the Catholic church now enjoys unprecedented power in education in this part of Ireland while ironically its power is being challenged and diminished in the Republic.. This at a time when there are almost no clergy on the staff of any schools in the north. As elsewhere in Ireland Catholic priests are a dying breed. Nuns are an endangered species. Church attendance is at an all time low running between 10-15% in working-class districts. Due to a shortage of priests and falling attendance the frequency of Masses has been drastically reduced in all parishes.

Yet clergy with no educational knowledge or expertise can in effect decide the configuration of education primary and post-primary across the north for reasons known only to themselves and remember, this education system is now staffed almost 100% by lay teachers. It seems the Catholic population finds this management arrangement an acceptable price to pay for control over the allegiance, identity and cultural view, the weltanschauung transmitted to their children which was so dearly bought and maintained in the early years of the northern state.

The losers in this state of affairs are the teaching profession and ultimately that means the pupils.

Date: Tuesday, 27 June 17