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Integrated Education: Essential to a Shared Future in Northern Ireland

Resource type: News

Gara LaMarche |

Last week in Belfast, on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the Good Friday peace agreement, I sat down with Tina Merron and Sam Fitzsimmons, who are among the leaders of a bold effort to ensure that Catholics and Protestants in this long-contested region do more than stop killing one another – that they learn with and from one another.

As I learned from Ms. Merron and Mr. Fitzsimmons, as well as from my colleagues in Atlantic’s Belfast office, education is one of the most complex and intractable problems in Northern Ireland. Parents there have two basic choices when it comes to educating their children: send them to the state school, which generally provides for Protestant children ,or enroll them in the separate -state funded Catholic sector . It’s an either/or proposition – one that in the past fueled the fires of sectarianism and now perpetuates stereotypes and prevents peace from gaining a bigger foothold in Northern Ireland.

Approximately 95 percent of children in Northern Ireland are educated in religiously segregated schools. The Integrated Education Fund, an Atlantic grantee, is seeking to change that by funding and helping to organize something that seems simple but is all too rare in Northern Ireland: schools in which young people can carry out their studies with boys and girls from both communities – Protestant and Catholic.

This system has not only two tracks but two failings as well: first, it fails to prepare kids for the reality of a mixed society. And second, by nurturing separateness, it cements the prejudices and stereotypes, the animosity and distrust, that have plagued this country for so long.

Tina, who is the chief executive of the IEF, believes many parents in Northern Ireland want something better.

“As a parent I wanted to give my child what I didn’t have,” she said of her decision to champion integrated education. “I’ve been through 30 years of The Troubles. I want children to mix.”

Establishing these integrated schools – there are 62 now, educating 19,000 students – is no easy task, and it falls on the shoulders of courageous parents to do the work. Financial support from the government is available, but the parents and the schools they set up must prove their viability first. Staff must be recruited, premises secured, and a religiously balanced enrolment of a requisite number of children must be attained. Significant voluntary parental effort and financial support are often needed to kick-start and sustain schools until official support is forthcoming.

My Atlantic colleagues met with a group of parents who are rising to that challenge last week. Their project, the new Blackwater Integrated College, will be an amalgamation of two existing integrated colleges, Down Academy and Rowallane Integrated College. The proposed new school, which is now operating in temporary classroom buildings on the grounds of an abandoned hospital, will be able to educate 400 pupils from all backgrounds – Protestant, Catholic, and those who identify with other faiths or none at all.

In integrated schools, Catholics study their religion and Protestants study theirs – as well as the normal school curriculum. They also study integration – the process of coming together from different traditions. The result is something that at first seems counterintuitive, but in practice has a powerful impact, the parents told us: the children are more grounded in their faiths, and at the same time more tolerant of other faiths.

“Fear of the unknown disappears,” said Dr. Olwen Griffith, the principal of the school. “Children in integrated education are more comfortable with their own culture, so they are more open to other cultures.”

Gillian Cummings, who has been active at BlackwaterIntegratedCollege is a passionate advocate for the integrated education movement – mainly because of what she has seen it do for her 11-year-old daughter, Sophie.

“I’ve seen her confidence grow – and she has a huge belief in her ability. This setting for education brings everything out in the child,” she said. “And they look at the whole child. This is so much more than bringing Catholic and Protestant together.”

John Hagan, the interim chair of the Board of Governors of Blackwater, has seen other important benefits of integrated education.

“It goes far beyond the school. When schools are located in the community parents will integrate – outside the school, at social events, sports. There are all sorts of spin-offs. The school can be a hub,” he said.

Mr. Fitzsimmons, who is the communications officer for IEF, agrees.

“There’s also an acclimation for parents and grandparents. For parents it’s often the first time encountering somebody from the other tradition,” he said.

Talking to the parents it’s easy to see how often the past gets in the way of a better future in Northern Ireland. The big picture goal for integrated education is to move beyond what sets people apart.

“I see this as very much the way forward,” Ms. Cummings said. “That all the things in the past won’t matter. If you could get your child away from all that, it would be amazing.”

Atlantic’s Reconciliation and Human Rights Programme is also supporting efforts to enable collaboration and sharing among the 95 percent of school children who are educated in religiously segregated schools. Combined with integrated education, the hope is to re-configure an outdated system by building positive relations between school children, parents and teachers across the entire educational landscape in Northern Ireland.

The parents working on integrated schools are under no illusion that the road ahead will be smooth, or their task easy. The state is not supportive of integrated schools because, government officials say, there are already too many empty spaces in state schools – there’s no sense in building or funding more schools. And the Catholic Church is not supportive because its leaders don’t want to surrender any control over religious education.

Monica McWilliams, Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, told us over dinner last week that this church-and-state power play is a long-term problem that harms children and families who support integrated education, and, by extension, all of Northern Ireland.

Atlantic and its grantees are working toward a different future. One in which the children of Northern Ireland learn with and from each other, together, so the promise of the Good Friday agreement – the promise of a peaceful, prosperous and diverse society – can be fully realized.

Gara LaMarche