A qualitative study of ethos and identity within Controlled Schools that have a majority protestant student Intake

  • Abbie-Leigh Kewley

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Lack of clarity and inconsistent perspectives on the ethos and identity of the Controlled sector in Northern Ireland underpins the rationale for this thesis. The overarching aim of this study is to elucidate understanding of the ethos and identity of Controlled schools with a majority Protestant student intake via a qualitative line of enquiry. In the context of policy and key debates, this area of research is timely, as on the 1st September 2016, the Controlled Schools’ Support Council was established, in which the development and maintenance of ethos is listed as a core focus. It is also relevant with respect to the paucity of research on the Controlled sector as a whole.

This study adopts an interpretivist-social constructionist approach in which Donnelly’s (2000) ‘three dimensions of ethos,’ Critical Theory, Organisational Identity Theory and Cognitive Role Theory serve as a complimentary conceptual lens. The research employs a qualitative research design with a purposive sample of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders.’ Semi-structured interviews are the primary data collection tool, supplemented by docent interviews (inspired by Chang 2017) and documentary analysis. The thematic analysis of the data presents six main themes and nineteen sub-themes.

The findings suggest some uncertainty in what constitutes a Controlled schools’ ethos, that the tension between the Protestant churches, Controlled schools and the state is unresolved and that teachers’ exercise of their agency is context-contingent. These findings, whilst situated in the context of this particular qualitative study, nevertheless have relevance to debates relating to critical education, social cohesion and issues connected to religiously influenced schools in increasingly pluralist societies, and particularly within jurisdictions that are emerging from conflict. Moreover, in exploring the ‘lived experience’ of ethos and identity in Controlled schools with a majority Protestant student intake, this study contributes to the literature by presenting additional insights to Donnelly’s (2000) ‘three dimensions of ethos’ and also the role of the individual in relation to organisations.

Thesis is embargoed until 31 December 2024.
Date of AwardDec 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsNorthern Ireland Department for the Economy
SupervisorJames Nelson (Supervisor) & Joanne Hughes (Supervisor)


  • Education
  • Northern Ireland
  • controlled schools
  • protestant

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