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Hopes are high for Ulster integration

Integrated education will enjoy another big boost in Northern Ireland next year if the Education Minister, Michael Ancram, gives the go-ahead to nine applications.

He may also be forced to give funding to Oakwood primary, a new independent integrated school in Derriaghy, south of Belfast, after a parent gained leave to challenge the minister's refusal to give it state funding in the High Court.

Three proposed new integrated colleges have applied for approval, but they face stringent conditions introduced in July. Even before they have buildings, staff or definite sites, secondary schools must have at least 100 first-year students on their books, compared with 60 previously, building up to a total enrolment of 500 or more.

Malone College in South West Belfast easily meets the target, with 123 pupils enrolled - the most any integrated school has achieved. Its catchment area covers both hardline Protestant and Catholic areas.

North Down would have met the old criterion for approval, with pre-enrolments of 76, but it may open with private funding, in the hope of gaining recognition later.

East Antrim, serving the predominantly Protestant areas of Carrickfergus and Larne, has 51 pupils. It expects more to sign on after getting the Democratic Unionist and Ulster Unionist mayors of the two towns to launch the prospectus jointly last weekend. Another four controlled (Protestant) secondary and two primary schools have applied for "transformation", under which existing schools can switch to integrated status.

Holywood High School, Bangor Central Primary and Annesborough Primary have a good chance of approval because, to save money, the minister wishes to encourage transformations rather than brand-new schools. In the case of Bangor High School, however, he will have to take note of the lukewarm response from parents.

A different problem exists in Lisburn, where two large secondary schools want integrated status. Fort Hill Girls' High School, which also wants to become co-educational, won strong support from parents for the switch and has ambitious plans to attract 40 per cent Catholics within five years.

Labour spokesman on education in Northern Ireland, Tony Worthington, said the creation of cross-community schools must be genuine. He claimed the Government's proposal to give schools integrated status even if only 1 per cent of their enrolments were from the minority community was "a ludicrous lowering of the threshold".

"Integration must have integrity, not just a plaque on the door. It must be genuine integration throughout, not just 10 pupils out of 1,000."

Mr Worthington has received a parliamentary answer showing that only 3. 1 per cent of primaries and 3.6 per cent of secondary and grammar schools have 20 per cent or more pupils from minority religions. These are mostly controlled schools with Catholic minorities.

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