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Text: A M Gallagher ... Page Design: John Hughes

Majority Minority Review 1
Education and Religion in Northern Ireland

by A M Gallagher

Section 2: Primary Schools


On the 31st December, 1985, there were just over 165,000 pupils aged five years and over in some 1,000 primary schools in Northern Ireland; 3,687 of these pupils were in the preparatory departments of grammar schools. Of this total number of pupils only 65 were twelve years of age while none were older. These pupils were taught by 7,902 teachers (DENI Statistics).

This is in marked contrast to the situation in the late 1940s, the first years in which pupils could take advantage of the 1947 Education Act and attempt to qualify for a non-fee paying place in a grammar school. In 1949, for example, there were just under 186,000 pupils in over 1,600 primary schools. Of this total number of pupils almost 32,000 were twelve years of age or older, of whom almost 3,000 were fourteen years of age or older. These pupils were taught by almost 6,000 teachers (Ministry of Education, Northern Ireland, Statistics).

The number of primary school pupils peaked in 1956 and in 1972, from which time enrolments have declined although the rate of decline flattened out in the latter half of the 1980s. By contrast, the number of primary schools has steadily declined so that the average size of each school increased up until the late 1970s.

The change that occurred in primary education between 1948 and 1986 can be traced directly to the 1947 Act, Prior to this, most children in Northern Ireland received their entire education in Public Elementary schools. After 1947 post-primary education was to be made available to all pupils, but until sufficient new schools were built, it was not, in practice, available (see Section 4). Hand in hand with the construction of new secondary schools went the reorganisation of primary schools into the contemporary pattern with a theoretical (and barring a small number of exceptions, actual) upper age limit of eleven years

Identifying Protestant and Catholic primary schools

Reorganisation of the primary schools took some time and was not fully completed until the 1970s. For example, in 1963 there were 437 unreorganised primary schools (out of a total of 1,442 schools), in 1966 there were 215 such schools and by 1969 only 81 such schools remained. Unreorganised primary schools took pupils over the age of eleven years until such time as secondary school places were locally available. For the present study, the main significance of this is that differentiating between 'Protestant' and 'Catholic' primary schools is unreliable before the mid-1960s. Having said this, the Ministry of Education published details of the religious affiliation of pupils until 1964 (see Akenson, 1973).

Until 1969 there were three types of school catering for primary-age children: controlled and voluntary schools, and preparatory departments of grammar schools. The controlled primary schools were almost exclusively Protestant while the voluntary schools were predominantly, but not exclusively Catholic. Unreorganised voluntary primary schools included some church-endowed schools (mainly Church of Ireland) that had not yet transferred to Ministry of Education control.

From 1969 onwards Catholic voluntary primary schools became increasingly organised as maintained voluntary primary schools. As such, the separate category of voluntary primary schools rapidly declined: in 1986, for example, there were only 311 pupils in voluntary primary schools.

For this reason the structural comparison between Protestant and Catholic primary schools below is based on data from 1965 onwards. This comparison assumes that controlled primary schools can be considered to be Protestant schools, while voluntary or maintained voluntary primary schools can be considered to be Catholic schools (for further discussion on this issue see Darby. 1973, Darby et al.. 1977, Murray, 1978 and Greer, 1983). The relative accuracy of this categorisation can be gauged from the 'Schools Apart?' study (Darby et al., 1977). Of 150 primary and post-primary schools responding to a survey it was found that over 95% of Protestant schools had less than 5% Catholic enrolment and over 98% of Catholic schools had less than 5% Protestant pupils. Similarly, of 750 primary school teachers in the survey, only 3 were employed in schools of different religion. There has been no reported research on more recent circumstances.

Preparatory Departments

The structural comparison of primary schools below does not include pupils in the preparatory departments of grammar schools. The number of such units has declined over the years (for example, 44 units in 1965 compared with 29 units in 1985) while the number of pupils has declined from a peak of just over 5,500 pupils in 1971 to just under 4,000 pupils in 1986. Although these pupils are not included in the discussion below, it should be noted that by the 1980s all the preparatory departments were to be found within Protestant grammar schools. This is of particular significance given that pupils in preparatory departments are more likely to qualify for grammar school places in the 11+ transfer procedure (Sutherland and Gallagher, 1986).

Pupils, teachers and schools

Figures 2.1 to 2.3 present some basic information on the changing patterns in Protestant and Catholic primary schools between 1965 and 1985. Figure 2.1 indicates the pattern of pupil enrolment showing, for both school types, an increasing population until the early 1970s followed by decline. The rate of decline among Catholic schools appears to have been smaller than that among Protestant schools and from 1983 onwards the decline among the former appears to have been arrested. One effect of this is that in 1985 there were more pupils enrolled in Catholic primary schools than in Protestant primary schools.

The falling rolls in the early 1970s had an effect on the number of primary teachers by the late 1970s. Figure 2.3 indicates that the number of teachers employed in the schools steadily increased until 1977 and began to decline in both sectors from 1979 onwards.

Figure 2.2 indicates the number of primary schools which have, as suggested above, steadily decreased as many of the small primary schools closed. The graph suggests that the rate of decline in the number of schools was greater among Catholic schools until 1982, from which time the rate of decline has been greater among Protestant schools.

Despite this overall decline in the number of schools, it should be noted that the majority of Northern Ireland's primary schools remain small (for comparisons with England and Wales see Darby, 1977, and Wilson and Foote, 1981). In 1978, for example, just under 50% of all primary schools had 100, or fewer, pupils. Indeed, in the same year just over 20% of the primary schools had more than 300 pupils enrolled. The predominance of small primary schools is found in both sectors: in 1978, for example, two-thirds of the primary schools in both sectors had 200, or fewer, pupils enrolled. At the same time the smallest schools (less than 51 pupils) were somewhat more likely to be Protestant rather than Catholic schools (Wilson and Foote, 1981).

The 'average' school

Figures 2.4 to 2.6 present a picture of the 'average' Protestant and Catholic primary school in 1965, 1975 and 1985. Figure 2.4 presents the average number of pupil per school, figure 2.5 presents the average number of teachers per school and figure 2.6 presents the pupil/teacher ratio.

Figure 2.4 charts the differential impact of falling rolls in both sectors. Whereas the average enrolment of Protestant primary schools was greater in 1965 and 1975 (the year in which rolls began to decline), by 1985 the average enrolment was greater among Catholic primary schools.

Figure 2.5 indicates an equalisation in the average number of full-time teachers employed in both school sectors in 1975 and 1985. In 1965 the average Protestant primary school had about one more full-time teacher than the average Catholic primary school.

The overall picture provided by figure 2.6 is that larger schools meant smaller classes. For both sectors the average number of pupils per teacher had fallen from around 30, in 1965, to around 23, in 1985. The pupil/teacher ratio in Catholic primary schools has generally been slightly larger than that of Protestant primary schools. This may be related to the procedure used by the DENI to calculate future staffing needs which is based on the projected pupil numbers for the whole of Northern Ireland and does not take account of regional or religious differences in fertility rates.

The overall conclusion from this comparison of Protestant and Catholic primary schools would suggest that, structurally at least, they were and remain broadly similar. The most significant differences between the sectors appear to be the differential impact of falling rolls and a generally higher pupil/teacher ratio in Catholic primary schools. However. it should he noted that in 1985 there were some 4,000 pupils enrolled in the preparatory departments of Protestant grammar schools.

The finance of schools

One area where Protestant and Catholic primary schools are different is in the arrangements for funding. Currently both school types receive full recurrent expenditure from Government: this includes teachers' salaries, and the running and maintenance costs of schools. Where they differ is in expenditure on capital projects, such as new school buildings or equipment. At present Protestant primary schools receive 100% costs towards capital projects while Catholic schools receive 85%. Therefore, in Catholic schools the school authorities have to raise an additional 15% towards capital projects. This requirement may mean that some Catholic primary schools are more poorly resourced, particularly in terms of equipment. This may, in turn, have an effect on the educational delivery of such schools. Although there is some published evidence on the facilities available in primary schools (for example, Ministry of Education, 1968 and Trew, 1971) this does not permit a comparison between Protestant and Catholic schools.

The curricular organisation of primary schools

Evidence on the curricular differences between Protestant and Catholic primary schools falls into three main areas. The most recent evidence concentrates on the relative impact of selection on the curriculum (see Sutherland and Gallagher, 1986, and Teare and Sutherland, 1988) and this, of necessity, concentrates on the final years of primary schooling. Secondly, there has been some discussion on the teaching of history (for example, Magee, 1970; Darby, 1974) and religious education (for example, Greer 1978, 1979, and Greer and Brown, 1981). Finally, comparative information was gained in the 'Schools Apart?' study (Darby et al., 1977) and a subsequent detailed follow-up investigation of two schools (Murray. 1985a).

Sutherland and Gallagher (1986) found, from an opinion survey of primary teachers and principals, that teachers in Catholic primary schools reported spending more time preparing their pupils for the selection tests. Following from this, the principals and teachers in Catholic primary schools reported that selection had a greater impact on the curriculum as compared with those in Protestant schools. More specifically, more of the principals and teachers in Catholic schools (particularly teachers of P6 classes) reported areas of the curriculum which they felt were curtailed or omitted due to time spent preparing their pupils for the selection tests.

It may be the case that selection appears to have a greater backwash effect on Catholic primary schools because of a perception, in the past at least, that education formed, for Catholics, one of the more efficient (or available) routes to social mobility (see also, Murray, 1978). Whether this explanation is valid or not, it should be borne in mind that the evidence referred to above deals with principals' and teachers' opinions, that is, it is an investigation of perceptions rather than direct impact.

"Traditional biblical syllabuses were products
of their time and it is understandable that they
often failed to take childrens' development and
limited experience into account."

Teare and Sutherland (1988) directly examined the curriculum offered by a small number of primary schools in Northern Ireland. They found that more time was spent on preparation for the Transfer tests in the Catholic schools in their sample, but only in selective areas. However, the curriculum area showing the greatest difference in time allocation between the Catholic and Protestant primary schools in their sample was religious education.

ReIigious education

Greer has published a series of papers on religious education in schools, and while the most important empirical work concentrated on sixth-formers in post-primary schools (Greer. 1972), he has published a number of papers on religious education in primary schools. One of these (Greer, 1979) reported on a survey of 16 Protestant and 12 Catholic primary schools which found that the average time spent on religious education in the former was 23 minutes per class per week compared with 91 minutes a week in the latter, a pattern confirmed by Teare and Sutherland (1988). Greer (1979) discussed also the debates over the nature of religious education in Protestant primary schools.

Thus Greer stated: "Traditional biblical syllabuses for primary schools were products of their time and it is understandable that they often failed to take childrens' development and limited experience into account. What is disturbing about recent biblical syllabuses produced in Northern Ireland is the ignorance they still reflect of commonly accepted knowledge of children ... In state (Protestant) schools in Northern Ireland it has long been assumed...that the aim of Religious Education should be confessional or evangelical". A later paper (Greer and Brown, 1981) highlighted the controversial nature of religious education in schools which, it suggested, had lead to a weakness in the system of inspection provided.


Magee has presented a more discursive examination of the teaching of history in schools throughout Ireland (Magee, 1970). Although the main issues in this area concerned post-primary schools, Magee did identity problems in primary schools also: "In primary schools (History) was an optional subject, and in classes preparing for county council scholarships and later, qualifying examinations, the temptation for teachers was to leave it alone. History teaching in the primary schools of Northern Ireland was - and continues to be - spasmodic, uncoordinated and largely academic, a 'watered down' version of grammar school history". Magee's work will be discussed more generally in a later section and it should be noted that recent years have seen improvements in the history text-books that are available for schools and the philosophy underlying the teaching of history (see for example, Austin, 1985; see also Darby, 1974).

Comparative evidence

In a survey of 99 primary schools Darby et al. (1977) compared curricular and extra-curricular activities. At the time of the survey the publication of teaching packs had been a growing development and the survey revealed a difference between Protestant and Catholic primary schools in the use of the Schools Council Religious Education material (praised by Greer and Brown, 1981, as a more innovative approach to the subject): whereas a quarter of the Protestant primary schools reported using this material, this was true of less than one-in-twenty of the Catholic primary schools.

"In primary schools (History) was
an optional subject, and in classes
preparing for county council scholarships
and later, qualifying examinations, the
temptation for teachers was to leave it alone."

The survey revealed some differences in the sports played in primary schools, although these differences were not as wide as had been previously thought. Thus, while Gaelic football and hurling were exclusive to Catholic primary schools, and rugby was exclusive to Protestant primary schools (although only a minority of these), soccer, netball and a variety of other sports were common to both. Similarly, although visits to such centres as the Ulster museum were more common among the Protestant primary schools, they were not uncommon among Catholic primary schools.

School ethos

In a series of publications Dominic Murray (Murray, 1983; 1985 a; 1985b) examined some of the differences in the style and operation of Protestant and Catholic primary schools in Northern Ireland. Murray expanded upon the original 'Schools Apart?' study by spending six months in each of a Protestant and Catholic primary school. He argued that the two separate school systems reflected the two dominant cultural communities in Northern Ireland and demonstrated this with regard to textbooks, ritual, symbols and general ethos.

In his direct and detailed comparison of the two primary schools, Murray found that the Protestant school identified much more closely with the policy-making and administrative apparatus of the educational system By contrast the Catholic school only contacted administrative bodies on occasions of dire necessity. Neither was this confined to educational bodies. Murray noted that pupils in the Protestant school paid much more frequent visits to community organisations such as the fire brigade, post office, local Government offices or police stations.

Perhaps Murray's most significant claim was not in the extent of separation, but rather in the perceptions made of these differences. In an abstract sense, it was not surprising that the Catholic school, for example, displayed numerous religious artefacts. Nor, in an abstract sense, was it surprising that the Protestant school flew a Union flag. Murray pointed out' however, that the perceptions of either side viewed such symbolic gestures as deliberately antagonistic: "The two dominant cultures are so mutually antipathetic that any demonstration of one is perceived as an assault on the other" (Murray. 1983).

Further research areas

There are three main areas where research evidence on primary schools appears to be needed. Firstly, although it is possible to describe two parallel religious school systems, there is relatively little evidence on the degree of religious homogeneity within those systems. The 'Schools Apart?' study (Darby et al., 1977) provides the most recent evidence, but this may now be out-of-date.

The different arrangements for financing Protestant and Catholic primary schools have been described, but there is relatively little evidence on the impact of these differences on the educational delivery of the schools. This seems to be a particularly important issue given that a selective system of transfer from primary to post-primary education is likely to remain for the foreseeable future.

The third area requiring further research is in the curriculum offered by primary schools. In particular, detailed information is needed on activities within the classroom.

The issues of finance and curriculum have an added significance: at the time of writing the DENI is drafting legislation for Educational Reforms in Northern Ireland. The reform measures effect the financing of schools and propose the introduction of a national curriculum. Delivering the national curriculum will undoubtedly have resource implications for schools. Arguably there is a strong case for research monitoring the implementation of the reforms.

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