New research has suggested the problem of sectarianism in Northern Ireland could be defused with the integration of religious schools. But the only genuine integration of religious schools has already occurred in Australia in the nineteenth century with the pubic education systems. It has taken centuries of bloody strife in the UK for those interested in a cohesive society to realize that children should be educated together. This is an argument the DOGS has been making for decades.


According to a University of Ulster nine-year study study, Protestant and Catholic children educated alongside each other, pupils from different religious backgrounds were able to set aside belief differences in order to form strong friendships. The results of the study, funded by the European Union Special Support Program for Peace and Reconciliation, were published in the June edition of the British Journal of Educational Psychology.

Professor Maurice Stringer, from the University of Ulster, told the Times: ‘Firmly held group attitudes towards the central issues that Protestants and Catholics disagree on most changed through friendships in mixed schools.’ He added that the study showed the best approach was to let children mix naturally and form their own friendships in school playgrounds and cafeterias, rather than teachers trying to encourage such links through structured group interactions.

Psychologists at the University of Ulster studied 1,732 children at ages 11, 12 and 14 at integrated schools, all-Catholic schools and all-Protestant schools, and found those who attend with children from a different faith have much more contact with members of other religious groups, both at schools and out of school, than children who attended segregated schools.

Maurice Stringer, the psychology professor at the University of Ulster in Coleraine, who led the study, said the report provides support for educating Protestants and Catholics together as a means of creating cross-community friendships and moderating political attitudes in a divided society.

Just 6% of Northern Ireland’s 330,000 children attend schools which integrate children from different religious backgrounds.

‘You wouldn’t expect segregated schools to have much contact across the religious divide, but what was most surprising from this study is that firmly held group attitudes towards the central issues that Protestants and Catholics disagree on most, changed through friendships in mixed schools because they got the opportunity to mix,’ Stringer said.

The researchers used a children’s political-attitude scale to measure pupils’ stance towards issues such as support for the Catholic and Protestant faiths, support or lack of it for parades, discrimination by the police, and British government involvement in Northern Ireland. Stringer said teachers in mixed schools in Northern Ireland can find it difficult to build a school ethos or challenge segregated attitudes. But, he said, the results of the study suggest that simply allowing children to mix and become friends in a supportive school environment is enough to produce change.

‘What we found is if you have structured activities in schools organised by a teacher, they don’t have the same impact,’ he said. ‘So we went back and asked the children why. It turned out that when children are creating a friendship, it’s important that they did it by themselves, such as choosing who to sit next to in the cafeteria. Teachers would be better off just facilitating contact rather than structuring things.’

Between 35% and 40% of Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland living in segregated environments. This is particularly evident in schools, with 94% attending schools of their own faith, Stringer’s research pointed out.Professor Stringer’s main areas of research include inter-group contact and inter-group relations, cross-group contact and friendships, and group segregation and self-esteem.

It seems that the Irish are finally realizing what those who have supported public education in Australia have taken for granted for 150 years. The tragedy in Australia is that we are rapidly dividing our children along sectarian lines.


According to the Auditor General’s Report on the Funding of Non-Government Schools, tabled in Parliament in June 2009, the proportion of Australian students attending non-government schools has risen steadily over the past three decades from 21 per cent of students in 1977 to 34 percent of students in 2007.


According to the Auditor General The dollars for division in direct federal grants alone now amount to a total of $1.6 billion of Australian government funding for non-systemic schools ( 31% of total Australian government funding of non-government schools) while systemic schools received a total of $3.3 billion of Australian Government funding ( 69% of total Australian Government funding for non-government schools). These figures do not include State government grants or indirect funding through taxation exemptions.


However, the Auditor general should be noted that Catholic systemic schools make up about 70% of non-government sector and 90 % of all systemic schools, and have an average SES score of 99. The majority of Catholic systemic schools are funding maintained. The average SES score of Catholic systemic schools is 98. The average SES score of non-Catholic systemic schools is 103. The lower average SES score of systemic schools (and the correspondingly higher general recurrent grants funding) coupled with the size of the Catholic sector  means that systemic schools receive more general recurrent grants funding than non-systemic schools. It should be noted that these figures are somewhat rubbery given what the auditor general himself regards as limited data collection about non-government schools available through the federal bureaucracy.


What does all this mean?

The only answer to this problem is to go back to the proper Constitutional position of separation of Church and State, withdrawal of funds from sectarian schools and the transfer of these schools into a genuine public system. This not only makes social sense. Given the duplication, triplication etc. etc of schools at public expense, billions of dollars of public money would now be saved if Australia funded a world class public system and forced private provision to be genuinely independent.


If readers believe this is not possible, remember that it has already occurred in the last years of the nineteenth century. Australia should return to its egalitarian roots and demand a strong system of public schools complemented by genuinely independent, self-funded schools. Otherwise, we will slip back into the sectarian past of the UK, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.