Like the decennial census, the Schools Census is important in that it provides a glimpse of what the religious breakdown of the future will look like. Today's school children are, of course, tomorrow's voters. Given Northern Ireland's politico-religious divide, it is likely that today's Protestant children are tomorrow's unionist voters, and today's Catholic children are tomorrow's nationalist voters.
This year's Schools Census - published today - adds to a series going back over a decade, and thus permits the trend to be followed, as well as this year's snap-shot.
As in the decennial census, there are large numbers of children whose religion cannot be ascertained, or who genuinely do not have one. In order to estimate how these children may identify in terms of Northern Ireland's 'community' division, this blog has, this year, recalculated all of the results since 1998 using the outcome of the methodology that NISRA applied in the 2001 Census. In other words, the 'None/Not stated' children are 'allocated' to the different options (Catholic, Protestant and Other Christian, Non-Christian, and None) in the same proportions that NISRA allocated children and teenagers in its calculation of 'Table S306: Age By Community Background (Religion Or Religion Brought Up In)'. This was:
- For children aged 5-11, those who were declared as 'None/Not Stated': 24.3% to 'Catholic', 40.0% to 'Protestant and other Christian', 0.5% to 'Non-Christian, and 35.2% to 'None'.
- For children aged 12-18, those who were declared as 'None/Not Stated': 25.4% to 'Catholic', 46.5% to 'Protestant and other Christian', 0.5% to 'Non-Christian, and 27.6% to 'None'.
It shows clearly that the proportion of children who are from a Catholic community background is over 50%, and has been over 50% for over a decade. The proportion from a Protestant community background had hovered at around 45% for around a decade.
Since 2005, though, the Protestant proportion of schoolchildren has visibly declined, and now stands at 43.8% (of the adjusted figures. They form only 40.4% of the raw figures!). At primary level the Protestant proportion is lower than at secondary (43.3% against 44.3% of the adjusted figures), showing that the decline is set to continue. The difference between one year's schools census and the next is almost entirely due to the difference between the exit cohort (those who were counted in year N, but no longer in year N+1), and the entry cohort (those too young for school in year N, but in P1 in year N+1). Of the 14 age cohorts counted each year, only two contribute to change, and 12 are counted in the previous and following years. So a visibly declining Protestant share, year on year, implies that the entry cohort is significantly less Protestant than the exit cohort – the difference between two age-cohorts is sufficient to produce a visible effect on the whole 14 age-cohort population.
The conclusion is, of course, that Catholics are more numerous than Protestants at all ages under 18 – and have been for the whole period covered. In fact, children from a Catholic community background form an absolute majority of children, and have since the series began in 1998. More even - Catholic children form a majority even before the figures are adjusted to 'allocate' the unstated.
The consequences for the wider population, and vitally the electorate, are obvious. If Catholics continue to vote overwhelmingly for nationalist parties, then the new voters coming into the electorate have been majority nationalist for quite some time. As they age, they will contribute to the 'greening' of the electorate, unless significant numbers vote for unionist or centre parties. However, despite claims to the contrary by some unionists, there is no evidence of any 'Catholic unionist' vote – or if it exists it is equally matched by a Protestant nationalist vote.
As is so often said, our children are our future. Our children are increasingly Catholic, so what does that say about our future?