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Irish President slams Northern Ireland’s segregated school system in light of violence

The President of the Republic of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, has condemned the segregation of school children in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland Humanists – which has long campaigned for a single system of education free from religious division – has welcomed the news, saying Northern Ireland must move to a single, inclusive system of education if there is to be peace and integration in the country.

Speaking on the Late Late Show, Mr Higgins remarked, ‘Who in 2021 can justify the teaching of children separately on the basis of belief?’ He also stated that such policies were abandoning children ‘to parcels of hate and memory that others are manipulating’. His words came in response to a recent spike in inter-communal violence on the streets of Northern Ireland, some of which has reportedly involved children as young as twelve.

Currently, most children attending schools in Northern Ireland are separated from one another on the basis of their religious backgrounds. In the vast majority of cases, children from Protestant families attend controlled schools whereas children from Catholic backgrounds mainly attend schools run by the Catholic Church.

A recent report by Ulster University found that segregation is endemic from the earliest stages of education, with 47% of pre-schools – which are supposedly open to pupils from all backgrounds – entirely segregated and 70% highly segregated. Just 6% identified as having low segregation between Protestants and Catholics. At primary level, schools are even more divided, with just 1% of the pupils in Catholic schools coming from Protestant backgrounds and the numbers of pupils from Catholic backgrounds attending controlled schools so low that it was suppressed in the most recently published Government figures, presumably because individual pupils would have been easily identifiable.

Integrated schools have attempted to address the issue of segregation by balancing the proportion of places allocated to pupils from each community, as well as offering additional places to those from other religion or belief backgrounds. However, despite a 2018 poll finding that nearly 70% of parents would support their child’s school becoming integrated, just 7% of children attend them and they are difficult to access for many families.

Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator commented:

‘Michael D Higgins is correct. The events of the past few weeks clearly show why the segregation of children along religious lines in Northern Ireland needs to stop. We hope the forthcoming education review will lead to a single and inclusive approach to education, by identifying a clear path towards achieving this aim. A society that divides its children will never cease to be divided. If we want peace and integration we must educate all our children together regardless of background.’

In recent years, Irish governments have taken action to phase out religious selection in the majority of schools, referred to as the ‘baptism barrier’, reflecting that the practice is discriminatory and unpopular. The UK has made no such moves, and religious discrimination in admissions continues in roughly a third of British schools, and in virtually all schools in Northern Ireland.


For further comment or information, please contact Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator at or phone 02890 029946.

Read the Irish President’s comments.

Read our most recent article on the proposed bill to scrap faith-based discrimination against teachers in Northern Ireland.

Read our article on the independent Northern Ireland education review set to consider ‘single education system’.

Read more about our work on schools and education.

Read more about our work on faith schools.

Northern Ireland Humanists is part of Humanists UK, working with the Humanist Association of Ireland. Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

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