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A bridge across the River Foyle

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By Meabh Ritchie

Religious feeling runs high on the two sides of Derry, but Northern Ireland’s Sharing Education Programme sees Catholic and Protestant pupils working together, reports Meabh Ritchie

It may be early summer, but sheets of rain are slicing the landscape in two and colliding with the window panes. However, this class of Year 7 pupils seems oblivious. Sitting in an upstairs classroom in a secondary college in Derry, they are learning about drugs as part of their citizenship lesson.

All pupils are wearing uniforms, but half the class are in the red-trimmed navy uniform of Lisneal College, with an equal number of girls in bright blue blazers, the colours of St Mary’s College, a few miles away on the other side of the River Foyle.

“We’re talking about the most commonly used drug in the UK,” says Lisneal’s citizenship teacher, Clare Bell, pausing before the flicker of realisation crosses her face. “And Ireland,” she quickly interjects. Marian McClintock, the citizenship teacher from St Mary’s College, who is crouching next to a group of pupils, looks up and smiles in recognition of this quick save to make the lesson relevant to all of the pupils in the room.

It might seem like a minor correction, but the subtleties of language, along with which public holidays are celebrated, where someone lives and even their choice of sport, are all heavy with connotations in Northern Ireland, signifying Protestant or Catholic to those in the know. School uniforms, in particular, compulsory even at sixth-form, mark students out as Catholic or Protestant, grammar or secondary, and mean they can be an easy target for sectarian abuse.

The recent riots in East Belfast show just how divided some areas of Northern Ireland still are. And in Derry, the city’s name itself is a cause of dispute. “Derry” is preferred by nationalists and among the Catholic community, whereas many unionists prefer “Londonderry”, the city’s official name.

Nevertheless, this group of children in different uniforms, from opposite sides of the city’s River Foyle – and from opposing sides of Northern Ireland’s two main religious and political cultures – come together every Tuesday morning for citizenship class. They alternate between the mainly Protestant Lisneal College, where photos of the Queen’s visit to the school line the walls of the entrance, and St Mary’s, one of Derry’s Catholic secondary schools.

The torrential rain and wind almost prevented the bus from reaching St Mary’s. “But I’m not disrupting their routine,” says Martine Mulhern, deputy head of St Mary’s. “We want all the pupils in the school to know that this happens every single week. Pupils wearing a different uniform will be in these corridors, week in, week out, no matter what.”

The two schools are into their fourth year of working together as part of the Sharing Education Programme (SEP), which funds partnerships between schools across Northern Ireland over a three-year period. The programme, which was pioneered by the School of Education at Queen’s University Belfast and is chaired by former London schools commissioner Sir Tim Brighouse, has involved more than 10,000 pupils in the past four years.

Considering that 93 per cent of children are educated in schools that are overwhelmingly either Catholic or Protestant and that large areas of housing are still segregated across Northern Ireland, SEP is a pioneering initiative. In a survey of pupils taking part, 40 per cent said they had never met someone from the other community before, even 15 years after the paramilitary ceasefires. Teaching a mixed class is also a huge step for teachers, many of whom will not only have experienced segregated schooling as a pupil, but also in their professional training, as the two biggest teacher training colleges in Northern Ireland are effectively divided along religious lines.

For the pupils, setting foot in the other school for the first time is often the most daunting part of the process. One teacher remembers a fire alarm going off at a Protestant school in Belfast as the Catholic pupils were arriving. One of the Catholic boys asked, “Is that a Protestant alarm?” to which everyone burst into nervous laughter.

“I was really scared at first,” says Courtney, discussing her class at the protestant Lisneal College. A St Mary’s pupil, she finished her three-year mixed citizenship course last year. “It was the corridors that were the most scary,” she adds, “but then you get to the classroom and you see the people you know and it’s not so bad.”

As friendships grew over the years, pupils were able to satisfy each other’s curiosities. “We did ask questions about each other’s religions, especially among the girls,” says Robyn, 15 and a classmate of Courtney. “But it was never anything cheeky – it was just finding things out.”

When planning the shared classes between Lisneal and St Mary’s, teachers had to take their recent troubled history into account. Northern Ireland’s second city was home to some of the most bitter clashes between police and nationalist residents during the Troubles, and thousands of unionists upped sticks, moving to the other side of the river. The events of Bloody Sunday, when 13 unarmed demonstrators were shot dead by the British Army in 1972, also cast a long shadow over the decades that followed.

Even now, Derry is a city divided by its river, with the Catholic, mainly nationalist community living on the west Cityside, closer to the Republic of Ireland border, and the Protestant, mainly unionist community on the east Waterside. With the opening last month of the new Peace Bridge across the River Foyle, however, it is hoped that the city’s communities will be brought closer together.

“Two generations of people in this city will no longer know what it was like to live with neighbours of a different faith,” says Alan Rowan, Lisneal’s deputy headteacher. “It’s a very big step for a kid in the Creggan (Catholic housing estate) to come to the Waterside to a Protestant school, and likewise the other way round. I would say that people of this city from the unionist tradition still see themselves as very closed in their space.”

Even driving from one school to the other is a huge step, particularly because SEP pupils are identifiable by their different school uniforms. But the contrasting school uniforms play a crucial role throughout all the SEP school partnerships, signifying overt differences but promoting tolerance towards pupils from the “other” school.

As part of the same ethos, the different symbols and celebration days from each community are not stripped away for the shared classes. Ms Bell remembers taking her pupils to St Mary’s the week before Remembrance Day and some of them were wearing poppies. Nationalists in Northern Ireland reject wearing poppies, seeing them as a symbol of the British Army and their involvement in the conflict.

“Some of our bus drivers were saying to me, ‘You can’t let them go in there with their poppies on,’” says Ms Bell.

But teachers and pupils taking part in SEP opt to confront issues of difference between the two communities rather than avoid them. “I just said if they want to wear their poppies, they can,” says Ms Bell. “If something is said, we have to let them work out how to deal with it and know how to explain it. But nothing was ever said in the end.”

In these shared classes, pupils learn from each other in a secure place. “Quite often, it’s not in our lesson plan, but things do come up,” says Mrs McClintock. “We don’t go around looking for difference, but if difference comes up we’ve never shied away from it. Maybe that’s why it can be dealt with in a calm, normal way.”

Teachers from both Lisneal and St Mary’s are fully aware that their attitudes and working relationship are under scrutiny from the pupils. They are setting an example of what is some pupils’ first experience of a mixed friendship – pupils know that the teachers swap knitting patterns and text over the holidays to arrange lesson plans – but it requires an open-minded outlook. “This is one area where you really do have to leave your own prejudices and opinions aside and just go with the flow. Just take everything on board,” says Ms Bell.

Teachers with no previous experience of teaching mixed classes need to be able to address problems that arise. Relations between schools in Derry were tested in September 2009, when 15 A-level pupils from St Cecilia’s College, a Catholic secondary college, had food thrown at them and were verbally abused while attending shared history lessons at Lisneal College, as part of another SEP project. The incident happened at a time when the city council was proposing an official change in the city’s name from Londonderry to Derry, and tensions were running high.

But, in this instance, the shared history classes continued and the pupils behind the attack were disciplined, while the victims received a formal apology. The board of governors at both schools issued a joint statement pledging their continued commitment to working together. The incident marked a major turning point in the relationship between the two communities in Derry. And as Lisneal, St Cecilia’s and St Mary’s have continued to work together, the effect of SEP projects across key stage 2, 3 and 4 has started to ripple through the schools.

“I would argue that the benefits (of SEP) have been incredible,” says Mrs Mulhern, St Mary’s deputy head. “In the past, it has been very difficult to get our post-16 pupils to move schools (if their school does not offer the subjects they want), but what we have seen as a direct benefit of the SEP is that more pupils are moving out into other schools, Protestant and Catholic.”

Shimna Integrated College in Newcastle, County Down, has extensive experience of dealing with issues of difference. The secondary school opened in 1994, on the first day of the IRA ceasefire, and takes pupils from a mainly rural catchment area where there are pockets of small but divided communities.

Although pupils and parents who have made a commitment to fully mixed schooling are perhaps less likely to be involved with sectarian incidents, there are still strong disagreements at Shimna, including among the staff. “But we would never think of it as ‘resolving’ an issue,” says Ellen McVea, vice-principal. “If it’s the truth of what people believe, then it has to be worked through. It’s not about containment. We’re not expecting to agree with each other, but you can live and learn in the same building while strongly disagreeing.”

Senior management ensure that at least one training day a year is set aside for integration issues where staff explore their own background and talk openly about their attitudes. “Things get really busy and you have so many other issues to deal with in the school,” says Ms McVea. “But it would be too easy to slip back into politeness and deal with things by not mentioning them. It is something that needs to be revised and revisited all the time.”

Mixed or “integrated” education in Northern Ireland has been in existence for 30 years, but only 7 per cent of the pupil population is educated in mixed schools. This is partly because integrated schools are comprehensive in a system that is overwhelmingly divided into grammar and non-grammar. But families also have loyalties to local, single-identity schools or have concerns, whether well-founded or not, that their culture will be pushed beneath the surface in the name of neutrality.

So while many integrated schools are successful and oversubscribed, the impact on the school system overall has been limited, says Professor Tony Gallagher, SEP director and pro-vice chancellor at Queen’s University Belfast. “People were looking to see if there was any other way to address the issue and have an effect across the system more quickly,” he says.

One of the reasons that schools were more open to the idea of sharing classes across the divide is because in 2006 the Northern Ireland Department of Education grouped local schools together in order to provide a greater breadth of subjects. The 2013 target is that each pupil will have access to a minimum number of 24 subjects at key stage 4 and 27 at A- level, with a mix of vocational and academic.

The local school networks were a response to Northern Ireland’s troubling educational landscape: falling pupil numbers mean there are too many schools, but with too few resources – partly as a result of parallel Catholic and Protestant systems, according to the 2006 Bain review. However, there was concern that, left to their own devices, schools would stick to collaborating with other schools from the same faith and cultural background. “It could actually entrench the divide,” says Professor Gallagher.

It was thought that the SEP could help schools from different faiths work together by putting practicality at the heart of community relations. “We thought if you could persuade schools to work together across the divide, but focus on the high-quality core-curricular activities, that might be what it would take,” says Professor Gallagher. “If you can make it work educationally, and do your core activity better, then schools have an incentive to keep it going. Rather than beginning with reconciliation, you begin with what is important now and then move towards reconciliation.”

Trying to accommodate two disparate cultures within one school community is no easy feat. But the divisions are often further entrenched and complicated in Northern Ireland’s post-conflict society. At first, the SEP was charged with being impractical and even dangerous. But Professor Gallagher was “pleasantly surprised” that the schools found a way of working together very quickly. “Part of the reason for that – which was almost unintentional but fortuitous – was that we gave an awful lot of autonomy to the teachers,” he says. “We discovered that is quite uncommon in education.”

SEP provides residential training for school leaders and teachers where they address their own contrasting experiences and backgrounds, and learn how to deal with issues that might arise in a mixed class. However, there is still a long way to go before school collaboration between the two communities becomes widespread, says Ms Bell: “(Some teachers) have their own baggage and prejudices that you can’t bring into a mixed classroom. You can’t have that and do what we do,” she adds.

The Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE) has also committed to training teachers of newly mixed classes, and this year is appointing a project manager responsible for teacher training in this area. While the NICIE wants to see an expansion of the integrated sector to normalise mixed schooling across the board, the local school networks and schools’ initial willingness to work together is a step in the right direction, says Noreen Campbell, NICIE chief executive.

“Teachers, for the most part, have come through a segregated system and don’t have the confidence to deal with these things,” she says. “We will be giving them the skills to deal with issues that might not be to do with French or chemistry, but might be to do with the (recent) visit by the Queen and what it meant.”

Regardless of public attitudes towards fully integrated or partly mixed schooling, the case for more collaboration between schools can be made in purely economic and pragmatic terms. With more than 50,000 empty spaces across Northern Ireland – around 15 per cent of the total capacity – there is money to be saved at a time when government budgets are already being squeezed.

But compared with when the first integrated school was set up 30 years ago, it is much easier for teachers, parents and pupils to consider shared education since Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness signed the power-sharing agreement four years ago.

The rapid pace of change in Northern Ireland has been a welcome surprise to its people. Not only has it demonstrated that politicians from diametrically-opposing positions can work together, but it has also made the prospect of shared schooling and shared daily life a real possibility for young people.


– 20,000 pupils are educated in integrated schools.

– 10,000 pupils have experienced mixed classes through the Sharing Education Programme (SEP).

– 275 teachers have been involved in SEP.

– 1,500 schools in NI in total.

– 40 per cent of SEP pupils said they had never met someone from the “other” community.

– 90 per cent of people in NI are in favour of mixed schooling.

– 50,000 surplus places in schools across NI, because of falling enrolment figures.

– 80,000 estimated surplus places by 2015

Figures from the Integrated Education Fund, Sharing Education Programme and the Department of Education in Northern Ireland


1981: Lagan College, the first school for Catholics and Protestants, is opened by a campaigning parents group in an old Scouts hall with an intake of 28 pupils.

1994: IRA declares a complete ceasefire. Shimna Integrated College, County Down, opens its doors on the same day.

1998: The Good Friday Agreement is approved by referendum, establishing a devolved, democratic government in Northern Ireland, but without backing from Rev Ian Paisley and the DUP.

2006: Department of Education introduces the Entitlement Framework, meaning local groups of schools will have to work together to provide a greater breadth of subjects by 2013.

May 2007: After years of disagreement and breakdown of the assembly, political parties reach an agreement. Rev Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness are sworn in as first minister and deputy first minister respectively.

Sep 2007: The first 12 Sharing Education Programme (SEP) partnerships begin.

Sep 2010: The second cohort of SEP partnerships get underway.

Oct 2010: Peter Robinson, first minister of Northern Ireland, says separate schooling in Northern Ireland has created a “benign apartheid”.

2011: Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education celebrates 30 years of integrated education.


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