Irish History Live


During the last two centuries education in Ireland has proved a very contentious issue. The question of educational provision has brought the church and state into conflict on numerous occasions and at times even had the power to threaten the stability of the Northern Irish government. From the creation of the national education system in 1831 to the development of two separate systems after 1921, it is an issue which has had an impact at almost every level of Irish society.


Education in Ireland

Pre 1900

In 1831 a new education system was adopted in Ireland, its aim was to provide non-denominational education for all Irish children. It was believed that if children from all denominations learned together then they could live in peace as adults.[1] The National Education Board consisted of seven commissioners of education. The commissioners were unpaid dignitaries, three Anglican, two Presbyterian and two Roman Catholic. The rules that they set had to be followed in all national schools and were to be enforced by school inspectors.[2] Whilst all children were to be taught secular subjects together, religious instruction was separate and outside of school hours. This proved to be a very controversial proposal and the commissioners were ultimately forced to back down and allow schools to become denominational. The opposition which non-denominational schooling faced was largely based on the idea that education is an extension of pastoral care and as such cannot be separated from religion. All the major churches saw it as their prerogative and were alarmed by the intrusion of the state into their sphere of influence.[3] In Ulster in particular Presbyterians were strongly opposed the new system, causing the Synod of Ulster to pass a resolution rejecting it in the 1830s. This was in addition to the campaign launched in Presbyterian areas of Co. Antrim and Co. Down in which schools were burned and teachers intimidated.[4] It was the reaction of Presbyterians and the other two main churches which forced the National Board to allow schools the power to exclude clergy from other denominations.[5] If the Board had refused, the churches may have stopped their schools becoming national schools and in doing so caused the whole system to collapse. 

Local control of education by clerics is a notable feature of the system and one which persisted well into the twentieth century. As Donald Akenson points out the system was shaped by the religious, social and political realities of the nineteenth century.[6] This was particularly the case in Ulster as populations were more mixed along religious lines than in other areas of the country. Education proved to be a volatile area of ‘intense cultural politics’.[7]

In 1868 the Powis Commission was established to inquire into the state of the National Education System. One of its recommendations was to introduce a payment by results scheme for all national teachers. The basic premise was that a proportion of a teacher’s salary would depend on the marks pupils obtained in exams set by inspectors. This system differed from that in place in England since 1862 because Irish teachers’ salaries were not solely dependent on the grades of their pupils.[8] The ‘results fees’ system was adopted in 1872 and meant that teachers earned money for each pupil that had attended one hundred times and reached a prescribed standard in core and optional subjects.[9] This method of payment meant that teachers were accountable for the progress of the children under their tutelage.[10] Unfortunately, the system was flawed and was ultimately detrimental to Irish education. Payment by results ensured that teachers followed a very narrow curriculum consisting of the ‘three R’s’ (reading, writing and arithmetic), geography and needlework for girls or agriculture for boys. This established a dull routine and turned the school inspector into an adversary to be outsmarted.[11]

The Powis Commission also reinforced the sexual division of labour within schools as it recommended that female teachers should be used for ‘female work’ only.[12] This is typical of attitudes towards female education in the nineteenth century. The curriculum for girls differed in that it focused on domestic concerns such as needlework with only a rudimentary knowledge of subjects such as arithmetic.[13]


Teacher training

With the introduction of the National Education System in 1831, a new method of teacher training was also developed. In 1845 the monitorial system of teacher training was put into practice.[14] This meant that promising pupils at the age of eighteen were given the opportunity to become monitors. These older students worked in national schools and simultaneously took extra lessons so that at the end of three years they could sit the King’s or Queen’s scholarship exam. If they were successful this would allow them to progress to a training college.[15] However the training college was not a compulsory element of a teacher education.

Model schools were specifically designed to train monitors; the larger ones also had boarding facilities and were divided into male, female and infant. The central model school was set up in Dublin in 1835.[16]

There were seven teacher training colleges in Ireland by 1900. Until 1883 the National Board refused to recognise any training college except Marlborough Street which was established in 1837 with a college for women opening 1844.[17] Marlborough Street was predominantly Presbyterian as the other major denominations favoured their own colleges. The Church of Ireland had Kildare Place; it was originally opened in 1811 and became the Church Education Society College in the 1850s. By 1878 it had been taken over by the General Synod of the Church of Ireland.[18] Catholic women could attend Our Lady of Mercy College, Baggot Street, Mary Immaculate College, Limerick or St Mary’s Training College, Belfast. Catholic men had a choice of St Patrick’s T.C., Drumcondra or De La Salle T.C., Waterford.[19] It was not until 1922 that a second training college was opened in the North under the newly established Ministry of Education. Stranmillis Teacher Training College was almost exclusively Protestant as the Catholic Church would not recognise Catholic teachers who trained there.


Education 1900-1920

Towards the end of the nineteenth century the national education system was coming under considerable criticism for the narrow curriculum and the non-practical nature of the subject matter. The Belmore Commission (1897) was set up to assess practical and manual instruction in Ireland. It concluded that the current curriculum was out of date and recommended that more attention needed to be paid to useful practical skills and kindergarten.[20] This was partly due to the payment by results scheme but the large numbers of small schools did not help the situation. These schools were inadequately funded often with very few pupils. In 1904, 60% of all national schools were single teacher with an average daily attendance of less than fifty. Teachers were often responsible for teaching multiple age groups at once, making it very difficult to broaden the curriculum.[21] There were also influences coming from outside Ireland with regard to what was good educational practice. ‘Practical educationalists’ and ‘child-centred educationalists’ were challenging approaches to elementary schooling.[22] 

One of the key changes to Irish education in this period was the abandonment of the payment by results scheme. It was replaced with a salary scheme based on numbered grades which ranged from three to one with one being the highest. This also meant that teachers were less results driven and could expand the curriculum. The newly appointed Resident Commissioner for education, Dr William Starkie revised the programme for national schools which would now include drawing, elementary science, physical education and manual instruction alongside the traditional subjects.[23] This development was accompanied by a change of emphasis, there was now a more child-centred approach with particular interest in how early (kindergarten) education was carried out.[24] Teachers were encouraged to adapt the National Board’s programme to the facilities they had available.[25] This was significantly different from the rigid, formal style of the nineteenth century.


Education in Northern Ireland

The system which the Ministry of Education inherited in 1921 was largely denominational with the majority of schools under clerical control. There were 2,042 national schools, 75 intermediate schools (mostly grammar) and 12 model schools in 1921. As the commissioners of education had been based in Dublin there was no educational administrative structure. This meant a new department had to be built from the ground up.[26] The education minister, Lord Londonderry wanted to create a non-denominational system with local education committees controlling schools rather than managers. He instructed Robert Lynn to set up a committee and put forward proposals for a new education system. Under section five of the Government of Ireland Act the state could not endow any religious body and as such the new system had to be non-denominational.[27] The result of the Lynn Committee was the 1923 Education Act which passed into law on 2June 1923. It created a county and regional system which could levy rates and administer schools which were fully controlled by the Ministry of Education.[28]  National schools became primary or public elementary schools and were split into three categories depending on how they were funded. Class I schools were either newly built or had transferred to the control of the Ministry. They were termed ‘provided’ and ‘transferred’ schools and received full funding. Class II schools were known as ‘four and two’ as they were managed by a committee of four representatives of the old manager and two from the local education authority. They received partial funding. The final class was for independent schools which refused to allow the ministry any control. As a result they only received funding for lighting and heating. Classes II and III were known as voluntary schools.[29] The 1923 act also banned religious instruction during school hours and prohibited the religious affiliation of a teacher being taken into account when they were being considered for a post.[30] It was these arrangements in particular that provoked a strong reaction from the Protestant churches which in turn led to the amendment acts of 1925 and 1930.

The Catholic hierarchy was suspicious of the new education system. Cardinal Logue felt that the Lynn Committee was a pretext for an attack on the Catholic school system. This added to the general feeling of hostility towards the Northern Irish State. The main concern of the hierarchy was to retain complete control of their schools so that a Catholic ethos could be maintained.[31] The Protestant churches were equally troubled by the idea of non-denominational institutions as they considered the function of schooling to be both moral and educational. This attitude is unsurprising given the response of the churches to non-denominational education in the nineteenth century. The same suspicions and anxieties which prevented joint education in 1831 once again made themselves known in 1923.

In 1924 the main Protestant churches formed the United Education Committee to protest the secular nature of the education provided by the 1923 act. They put considerable pressure on the government and as the stability of the country was tied to the support of grass roots unionism an amendment was passed in 1925.[32] This meant that the ban on religious education was lifted and religious tests for teachers were permitted. In practice this destroyed all attempts at a non-denominational system as publically funded schools became Protestant whilst a separate Catholic school system developed simultaneously.[33]  After further debate over the next five years a second amendment was granted in 1930. It permitted clerical representation on both regional education committees and management boards of transferred schools.[34]

The next major piece of education legislation came in 1947 and was modelled on the English Butler Act 1944. It introduced universal secondary education for all children up to the age of fifteen in Northern Ireland. The act also created a new secondary school system which pupils would transfer into at the age of eleven. Northern Irish children could go to an intermediate secondary school, which was free and non-academic, or a technical intermediate school which they entered at the age of thirteen. Alternatively schools were available for those who were able to pass the eleven plus exam and thus receive government funding to go to a fee paying grammar school.[35]



Education in Northern Ireland has seen many changes since the first National schools were opened in 1831. Political and social developments have had a significant impact on how schools were run. This coupled with changes to teacher training and the completely new system introduced in 1921 meant that educational provision was constantly under pressure from external forces. Despite its challenges the Northern Irish education system survived the early years of the new state with certain aspects still apparent in the modern school system.



[1] M. Cohen, ‘“Drifting with denominationalism”: a situated examination of Irish national schools in nineteenth century Tullylish, Co. Down’ in History of Education Quarterly, XL no. 1 (2000),  p. 52.

[2] Cohen, ‘Drifting with denominationalism’, p. 52.

[3] J. Coolahan, Irish education: its history and structure (Dublin, 1981), p.5.

[4] J. Magee, ‘From national schools to national curriculum: popular education in Ulster from 1831 to the 1990s’ in E. Phoenix (ed.), A century of northern life: the Irish News and 100 years of Ulster history 1890s-1990s (Belfast, 1995), p. 100.

[5] N. C. Fleming, ‘The first government of Northern Ireland, education reform and failure of anti-populist Unionism, 1921-1925’ in Twentieth Century British History, xviii, no. 2 (2007), p. 157.

[6] D. H. Akenson, The Irish education experiment: the national system of education in the nineteenth century (London, 1970), p. 376.

[7] Cohen, ‘Drifting with denominationalism’, p.50.

[8] Akenson, The Irish education experiment, p. 316.

[9] Magee, ‘From national schools to national curriculum’, p. 106.

[10] Coolahan, Irish education: its history and structure, p. 7.

[11] Magee, ‘From national schools to national curriculum’ p. 106.

[12] R. Cullen Owens, A social history of women in Ireland (Dublin, 2005), p. 26.

[13] Ibid.,pp 22-23.

[14] Magee, ‘From national schools to national curriculum’ p. 102.

[15] G. Beale, and E. Phoenix, Stran: Stranmillis College 1922-1998: an illustrated history (Belfast, 1998), p. 3.

[16] R. Wylie, Ulster model schools (Belfast, 1997), p. ix.

[17] Magee, ‘From national schools to national curriculum’, p. 102.

[18] S. Parkes, Kildare place: the history of the Church of Ireland Training College 1811-1969 (Dublin, 1984), p. 13

[19] Coolahan, Irish education: its history and structure, p. 33.

[20] Coolahan, Irish education: its history and structure, p. 34.

[21] D. Akenson, Education and enmity: the control of schooling in Northern Ireland 1921-50 (Newton Abbot, 1973), p. 12.

[22] Coolahan, Irish education: its history and structure, p. 33.

[23] Magee, ‘From national schools to national curriculum’, p. 107.

[24] Coolahan, Irish education: its history and structure, p. 33.

[25] Ibid., p.34.

[26] P. Daly and K. Simpson, ‘Politics and education in Northern Ireland; an analytical history’ in Irish Studies Review, xii, no. 2 (2004), p. 168.

[27] N. C. Fleming, ‘Lord Londonderry and educational reform in 1920’s Northern Ireland’ in History Ireland, ix, no. 1 (2001), p.37.

[28] S. Farren, ‘Unionist-Protestant reaction to educational reform in Northern Ireland, 1923-1930’ in History of Education, xiv, no. 2 (1985), p. 227.

[29] Akenson, Education and enmity, pp 61-62.

[30] D. Akenson, J. Coolahan and S. Farren,  ‘Pre-university education, 1921-84’ in J. R. Hill (ed.), A new history of Ireland, vol. 7: 1921-84 (Oxford, 2003), p. 713.

[31] S. Farren, ‘Nationalist-Catholic reaction to educational reform in Northern Ireland, 1920-1930’ in History of Education, xv, no. 1 (1986), pp 19-21.

[32] N. C. Fleming, ‘The first government of Northern Ireland, education reform and failure of anti-populist Unionism’, pp 162-163.

[33] S. Farren, ‘A lost opportunity: education and community in Northern Ireland 1947-60’ in History of Education, xxi, no. 1 (1992), p. 72.

[34] Daly and Simpson, ‘Politics and education in Northern Ireland; an analytical history’, p. 169.

[35] Akenson, Education and enmity, p.  180.

Sara Irvine is a graduate of Queen’s University Belfast. She completed her BA in 2012 and her MA in 2013.  Sara’s BA dissertation was entitled ‘The role of women in Northern Ireland during the Second World War’. Her MA research continued to look at Northern Irish women but focused on female teachers 1921-52. She is currently a History PGCE student at the University of Ulster, Coleraine.



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