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Breaking Down Barriers Through Education

Resource type: Grantee Story

Students in Fermanagh Trust’s Shared Education Programme. Photo: Fermanagh Trust

”That’s a nice idea, but are you insane?”

That was what Tony Gallagher, professor of education and pro-vice chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast, commonly heard when he suggested in 2006 that predominantly Roman Catholic and Protestant schools in North Belfast share resources and exchange students.

This response could be expected because Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society with segregated schools. To address this challenge, Atlantic began investing in integrated education in 1997 with the goal of enrolling 10 per cent of students in integrated schools; and, from 1997 to 2007, enrolment nearly doubled to 19,183.

To engage the remaining 90 per cent of students, Atlantic shifted its focus in 2006 to shared education, which promotes collaboration between existing segregated schools to share teachers and curricula.

Queen’s University soon established a shared education programme, with 12 partnerships, 65 schools and 4,500 pupils. One partnership involved three all-girls schools in North Belfast, a low-income community that suffered a disproportionate number of deaths during The Troubles, and where emotions still run high. Prof. Gallagher said, “If we could do it in North Belfast, we could do it anywhere.” With some persuasion, students from two Catholic schools began taking classes at the Protestant institution. “They were wearing their own uniforms. Everyone knew. But there were no issues at all,” he said.

“In divided societies,” Prof. Gallagher added, “people… assume the worst which solidifies boundaries. Because people were willing to… take a risk and reach out across divides, remarkable things happened.”

In 2012, more than 10,500 pupils from 150 schools are participating in shared education classes on a routine basis. Pupils have forged friendships across communities and report increased self-confidence. Shared resources and reduced duplicative services may achieve annual savings of over £43 million ($67.3 million).

Atlantic has invested £16.5 million ($21.9 million) in integrated and shared education and has leveraged over £75 million ($117.4 million) from government for integrated education and £15.8 million ($24.7 million) for shared education from the International Fund for Ireland. The programmes’ impact is gaining momentum. The Programme for Government (PfG) 2011–2015 stresses “the need to build a shared and better future for all.” The PfG further states that it will “ensure all children have the opportunity to participate in shared education programmes by 2015,” and it will “establish a ministerial advisory group to explore and bring forward recommendations to the Minister of Education to advance shared education.”

This political support represents a significant change and achievement for Atlantic’s grantees that now work with other funders such as UNICEF, the Tony Blair Foundation and USAID, to transfer the learnings on shared education to other divided societies, including Macedonia and Israel/Palestine. These days, Prof. Gallagher’s “insane” idea has support from many sectors and is reaping benefits for many students.


Giving While Living: Marking 30 Years of Achievements: 1982–2012

> Read more stories of impact in our 30th anniversary publication

The Fermanagh Trust and Integrated Education Fund are also Atlantic grantees for integrated and shared education.

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