This article examines education reform under the first government of Northern Ireland (1921–1925). This embryonic period offered the Ulster Unionist leadership a chance to construct a more inclusive society, one that might diminish sectarian animosities, and thereby secure the fledgling state through cooperation rather than coercion. Such aspirations were severely tested by the ruling party's need to secure the state against insurgency, and more lastingly, to assuage the concerns of its historic constituency. The former led to a draconian security policy, the latter to a dependency on populist strategies and rhetoric. It is argued here, however, that this dependency was not absolute until July 1925. Before that, the Belfast government withstood growing pressure from populist agitators to reverse controversial aspects of its education reforms, only relenting when Protestant disaffection threatened the unity of the governing party and the existence of the state.