Belfast Telegraph

Talk of equality is meaningless when Protestant culture is ignored or excluded from so many schools

Catholic children are immersed in their own identity, but their state sector peers less so, says Nelson McCausland.

In the early hours of Sunday morning, a bomb was discovered outside the Holy Cross Boys’ Primary School in Ardoyne. I read the report on the internet and my attention was then drawn to the school website, which has at the top a photograph of the school name on the building.

When I saw it I was struck by the fact that the name of the school was in both Irish and English with the Irish name above the English — Bunscoil Gasur Na Croise Naofa.

This is a Roman Catholic Maintained school, not an Irish-medium school, but the Irish language is given a very important place in the school.

According to the website: “Holy Cross Boys’ Primary School has been making a concerted effort in the promotion of the Irish language and culture throughout the school. This has taken the form of Gaelic games and traditional music groups. All classes receive a weekly language lesson.”

The school “incorporates (Irish) language, folklore, song and dance in an organised way” and the website observes that this vibrant cultural programme is “testament to the people of Ardoyne and the love for their language and culture”.

This is a school in the heart of the Ardoyne community and the children are immersed in the Irish Gaelic culture of that community, which it describes as “their culture”, with Gaelic games, Irish language, Irish song, Irish dancing, Irish traditional music, Irish folklore and Irish language signage.

As the school’s vice-principal, Chris Donnelly, once said: “The school culture is often reflective of the prevailing culture of the local community.”

The commentator Jude Collins once observed: “Roman Catholic schools have a religious ethos and an ethnic, or cultural, ethos. They are Roman Catholic schools, but they are also Irish schools, because they teach Irish culture and affirm an Irish identity.”

However, there is a strong case to be made that all schools should embrace, value and affirm the culture of the community from which the children come.

There is evidence that this is good for the children, enhances the educational experience and improves educational outcomes.

Moreover, not only is it right for the child, it is the right of the child, to learn in the school about the culture of the home and community, whatever “their culture” might be — Irish, Ulster-Scots, Ulster-British, Orange, or whatever the culture of the wider school community.

Cultural traditions and cultural identities were never dealt with properly in previous political agreements, especially the Belfast Agreement, which was culturally unbalanced and merely pandered to the cultural demands of Sinn Fein.

Surely, now is the time to address these issues properly and to do so on the basis of sound principles, such as equality, good relations, cultural rights and good practice?

Some time ago, I was appointed to the Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition, which is considering such issues as flags, bonfires and paramilitary murals.

However, at a number of the public consultation meetings, people from the Protestant community have raised other aspects of “identity, culture and tradition” — especially how their identity and culture is reflected in the education system, or in many cases not reflected.

That has been a recurring theme and it is clear that, while some Controlled schools have embraced to some degree the cultural traditions of the community they serve, others have tended to ignore them, or exclude them.

That is why I was particularly interested in the Irish cultural ethos of the school in Ardoyne.

I could not identify a school in the Controlled sector where the children would experience the same degree of immersion in the cultural traditions of the community that the school serves.

Indeed, one parent, whose wife is Chinese, told me that his son learned more about his Chinese heritage in the Controlled school than he learned about his Ulster-Scots heritage.

This is an equality issue and during the last election campaign Sinn Fein often spoke about “equality”, although it might not be the sort of equality Sinn Fein were thinking about.

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