22 February 2022, The Tablet

Bishop of Derry defends right to choose Catholic education

“Catholic schools in Northern Ireland ask only that they be able to sit at the table.”

Bishop of Derry defends right to choose Catholic education

Bishop of Derry Dr Donal McKeown: Catholic schools can be active partners in celebrating diversity.
George Sweeney / Alamy

Bishop Donal McKeown has defended parents’ right to choose a Catholic education for their children in Northern Ireland following criticism of current education system by President Michael Higgins.

Bishop McKeown, who is chair of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, which oversees more than 440 Catholic schools across Northern Ireland, said Catholic schools in the region have shown that they can be active partners in celebrating diversity.

He told The Tablet that they would continue to be chosen by parents from across the community because of the quality of their educational outcomes and their community links.

The Bishop of Derry was responding to comments made by President Higgins in an address to the All-Island Women’s Forum and the National Women’s Council of Ireland in Enniskillen last week, in which the Irish president said integrated education was a “key element to a successful, inclusive and harmonious future”.

Mr Higgins described the current education system as “shamefully” and “overwhelmingly segregated”.

However, Bishop McKeown warned against a “simplistic caricature” of bad “segregated schools” and good “integrated schools”. 

“The fact is that the are many schools outside the ’integrated sector’, including a number of Catholic schools, which welcome considerable numbers of pupils from across the community,” he said.  

He also highlighted that 52 per cent of newcomer children opt to go to Catholic schools and that two of the most racially integrated schools in Northern Ireland are in the Catholic sector in Dungannon and Craigavon.

“Catholic schools in Northern Ireland ask only that they be able to sit at the table as we try to muster all our shared wisdom in the face of many problems. We are part of the solution and expect better than to be told that we are lesser members of the educational family,” said Bishop McKeown.

He said education in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland share many challenges such as underachievement, a socially divided society and how to celebrate diversity.

Northern Ireland faces specific problems due to the legacy of conflict and division, he said.

The chief executive of the council, Gerry Campbell, described Mr Higgins’ remarks as “offensive” and “unhelpful” and told the Irish Times that Catholic schools should not be blamed for sectarianism.

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