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Are Protestant comprehensives multiply invisible?

DCU seminar hears the history of Protestant comprehensive schools

The Revd Professor Anne Lodge, who leads the Church of Ireland Centre at DCU, has presented new research into Protestant compreheneive schools, drawing on interviews and document archives, to tell their origin and contemporary stories and how their lived ethos is expressed.  She was speaking at a recent seminar on this theme, co–hosted by the Church of Ireland Centre and the Educational Studies Association of Ireland (ESAI) at Dublin City University’s Purcell House on Friday, 27th October.

This research project’s rationale was to capture the memories and insights of those involved at the start of comprehensive schooling, and also a concern about the visibility of the diversity of school type in research and policy–making.  It therefore sought to document and analyse the stories of the five Protestant comprehensives, and compare them with the nine other comprehensives and the 20 other Protestant second level schools.

The Revd Professor Anne Lodge.
The Revd Professor Anne Lodge.

Of the 14 current comprehensives, 10 were amalgamations of other schools, three were on greenfield sites, and one was a single school continuing to operate on its site.  Nine were rural and five were urban, four were in the DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunity In Schools) Plan for communities at risk of disadvantage and social exclusion, one had boarding, and one was in the Gaeltacht.

The five Protestant comprehensives are more likely to be large urban schools, and they account for 42 per cent of all comprehensive students.  Four out of the five came from the amalgamation of a range of different private secondary schools, while the other emerged out of local lobbying.

Their histories drew on roots in formal schools which were “complex structures and privately owned in many cases.”  These went back, in the case of the Royal and Prior in Raphoe, Co. Donegal, to the formation of Royal Schools in the Plantation of Ulster to educate the sons of Protestant settlers for university and civil service across the Empire.  Other predecessor schools included Cork and Kingstown Grammar Schools and charity schools such as the Hibernian Marine and Bertrand High School, formed respectively to educate the orphaned sons of seafarers and female orphans.  Five private secondary schools, such as the innovative Avoca College, were amongst the predecessors.

Professor Lodge with guest speakers at the DCU seminar.
Professor Lodge with guest speakers at the DCU seminar.

The General Synod’s Advisory Committee on Secondary Education (1962–1965) visited 42 post–primary schools in the State – of which 19 now remain – as well as three schools in Northern Ireland, and three Roman Catholic schools south of the border.  Its key findings were that buildings and educational facilities were inadequate, as were budgets and teacher salaries.

Its recommendations included appropriate secondary education for all Protestant children and young people, fewer and larger schools with adequate buildings and better facilities, and a range of school types including senior secondary, secondary, junior secondary and comprehensive.  Two comprehensive schools were initially sought – one in West Cork and one in Co. Donegal.

Several smaller schools were amalgamated in 1970 – Avoca and Kingstown Grammar; Cork Grammar and Rochelle; and Mountjoy and Hibernian Marine – while others were moving to new sites with new buildings.  In the following year, the Government proposed more comprehensive schools – two large ones for Dublin, one for Donegal, and one for Cork city.  This came to reality with the opening of Newpark, Mount Temple, Royal & Prior, and Ashton in 1972 with new premises for the Dublin and Cork comprehensives following in 1974.

By the late 1970s, the four Church of Ireland comprehensives were educating almost 2,000 children and the Secondary Education Committee was seeking greater flexibility for their boards of management in financial matters; there was a continuing concern throughout these years to protect fee–charging and boarding schools.

In terms of culture and ethos, around 70–100% of pupils at rural Protestant comprehensives are from a Protestant background compared with 35–50% in their urban counterparts although each one has an admissions policy giving priority to Protestant entrants.  All five schools had seen an increase in ethnic and cultural diversity and up a third of their pupils experienced disadvantage, as shown in payments for the book grant and other forms of support. 

History remained important as seen by artefacts preserved from legacy schools, and links through past pupils and teachers, sporting achievements, and cultural competitions and events were also appreciated.  “For some schools,” Professor Lodge added, “the history of half a century and everything that has actually happened in those stories is a very, very important part of the story they are now telling.”

The schools found a common ground on ethos – e.g. seeking to value diversity and all members of the school community equally, being Christian schools educating all inclusively in partnership with parents, a family atmosphere, and an everyday outworking of the Christian faith in values such as kindness, respect and ambition.

Lived dimensions of ethos included awards to reflect values, celebrations of sporting, art and cultural achievements, formal addresses at the start of the school year, chaplains and school assemblies (although the number of assemblies with a religious component varied significantly).

School leaders felt that the comprehensive model was suitable for a wide range of student abilities and encouraged a willingness to innovate and a sense of community across all learners.  Parents tended to proactively choose a comprehensive school.  However, conversely, small or medium–sized schools found it challenging to offer the full range of subjects in the curriculum, and comprehensives needed to keep an eye on the balance between holistic flourishing and academic outcomes.

Professor Lodge concluded by calling for a new phase of academic research about comprehensives, including the Protestant schools and education sector, and that Protestant educational discourse needs to recognise and include the comprehensives.  Indeed, the model gives great opportunities for professional sharing across sectors, and a larger version of the ‘Six Sisters’ cluster – an informal grouping of the five Protestant comprehensives and Temple Carrig School in Greystones.

Report on keynote address to follow.

The Board of Education (Republic of Ireland) represents the Church of Ireland in all educational matters applying to the State, including as an education partner with the Department of Education and other educational bodies.  It also supports religious education in primary schools under Protestant management and provides support, training and advice to primary level patrons and boards of management.

Dr Ken Fennelly

Secretary, Board of Education (RI)
Church of Ireland House
Church Avenue
Dublin 6
D06 CF67
+353 (0)1 4125 609


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