'Quality education' attracts pupils of all faiths and none, says head of Catholic school
The head of a religious school in Co Down has outlined the reasons why he believes "not only Catholics" go to Catholic seats of learning.
Liam Perry is principal of St Columbanus' College in Bangor, where 47% of the 700 pupils identify as Catholic.
Protestant children make up some 32% of the pupil population, with the remaining 21% identifying as either 'other' or non-religious.
"It (the school's make-up) hasn't been by design - it has been steady and organic growth," Mr Perry said.
"We are not a social construct. All we do is provide quality education, which is what parents want for their children."
More than a third of the school's teaching staff do not identify as Catholic.
Mr Perry said Protestant numbers at the school had held steady and stressed there was no disparity between the educational attainment of working-class Catholics and their Protestant counterparts.
"There is no discernible difference when it comes to performance," he said.
"We don't target or have special programmes for anyone. We don't make a difference and our pupils don't make a difference. Everybody is eating from the same menu."
The headmaster, who thinks schools across all sectors are doing more to reach out to different communities, is proud to head St Columbanus' College, which is one of the most inclusive schools in Northern Ireland.
"That (inclusiveness) in no way diminishes our Catholic ethos," he said.
"We work on the maxim that we are exclusively Catholic, but not exclusively for Catholics."
Mr Perry pointed out that the Hellenistic Greek word 'Katholikos', from which 'Catholic' is derived, translates to 'universal' and has often been interpreted to mean 'all are welcome'.
It is a message that he believes has much appeal to modern parents.
"If you're producing quality education underpinned by sound values - Gospel values - it can curtail the challenging aspects of modern school life in terms of a values-driven system," he said.
"The work we do is based around those values, and people of all denominations and none seem to like that."
Mr Perry stressed that many Catholic schools around the world were known for their inclusive ethos, and he cited former Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz to illustrate his point. "He is an alumni of St Patrick's High School in Karachi and went on to become the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League," he explained.
Despite Mr Perry's hope for a more inclusive future, however, recent statistics published by the Department of Education revealed the system was more split than ever.
On school census day this year there were 175,649 Catholic pupils, representing 50.7% of all enrolments, in nursery, primary, secondary, grammar and special schools.