President Obama criticises faith segregation in education

June 28, 2013

United States President, Barack Obama, has cited single faith schools as a cause of social division in Northern Ireland. Speaking last week at an audience at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall comprising of 2,000 pupils from secondary schools in the city, he said:

‘Because issues like segregated schools and housing, lack of jobs and opportunity – symbols of history that are a source of pride for some and pain for others – these are not tangential to peace; they’re essential to it.

‘If towns remain divided – if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs – if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division. It discourages cooperation.

‘Ultimately, peace is just not about politics. It’s about attitudes; about a sense of empathy; about breaking down the  divisions that we create for ourselves in our own minds and our own hearts that don’t exist in any objective reality, but that we carry with us generation after generation.

‘And I know, because America, we, too, have had to work hard over the decades, slowly, gradually, sometimes painfully, in fits and starts, to keep perfecting our union. A hundred and fifty years ago, we were torn open by a terrible conflict. Our Civil War was far shorter than The Troubles, but it killed hundreds of thousands of our people. And, of course, the legacy of slavery endured for generations.

‘Even a century after we achieved our own peace, we were not fully united. When I was a boy, many cities still had separate drinking fountains and lunch counters and washrooms for blacks and whites.’

The Accord Coalition continually highlights the dangers for community cohesion by segregating children on the grounds of faith in the education system, as well the benefits for society from mixed schooling. Responding to President Obama’s speech, Chair of the Accord Coalition, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain MBE, said: ‘The danger for social segregation caused by dividing children into faith schools applies not only in Northern Ireland, but in Great Britain too. We should learn from the terrible example of the Province and how decades of mistrust, although caused by other factors, were reinforced by the faith-based educational system. Separating children at the school gate is not the way to teach them about an inclusive society’.



The Cantle Report’ was commissioned by the Home Office and published in 2001 after race riots in Bradford, Leeds, Oldham and Burnley that year. The report noted how riots had not arisen in diverse areas, such as Southall and Leicester, where pupils learnt about different religions and cultures in local schools, and was concerned that some schools appeared to be ‘operating discriminatory policies where religious affiliations protect cultural and ethnic divisions’. At the launch of ‘The Cantle Report into Community Cohesion in Blackburn with Darwen’ (2009) its author, Prof Ted Cantle, stated that faith schools with religious admission requirements were ‘automatically a source of division’ in the town.

A key finding of ‘Social Capital, Diversity and Education Policy’, by Professor Irene Bruegel of the London South Bank University Families & Social Capital ESRC Research Group (2006) was that ‘Friendship at primary schools can, and does, cross ethnic and faith divides wherever children have the opportunity to make friends from different backgrounds. At that age, in such schools, children are not highly conscious of racial differences and are largely unaware of the religion of their friends … There was [also] some evidence that parents learned to respect people from other backgrounds as a result of their children’s experiences in mixed schools.’

Identities in Transition: A Longitudinal Study of Immigrant Children’, by Rupert Brown, Adam Rutland & Charles Watters from the Universities of Sussex and Kent (2008) found that the effects of children from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds mixing at school ‘… were consistent, most evidently on social relations: higher self-esteem, fewer peer problems and more cross-group friendships. Such findings show that school ethnic composition can significantly affect the promotion of positive intergroup attitudes. These findings speak against policies promoting single faith schools, since such policies are likely to lead to reduced ethnic diversity in schools.’

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