A leap of faith

6th April 2012 at 01:00
The community of Omagh in Northern Ireland has been torn apart by sectarian violence, including the 1998 bombing and the murder last year of Catholic policeman Ronan Kerr. Now a project hopes to integrate different communities by turning an abandoned army base into a joint site for the town's six post-primary schools. Darren Evans reports

At the height of Northern Ireland's Troubles, the safest way in and out of the vast St Lucia army barracks, on the edge of Omagh in County Tyrone, was by helicopter.

Every day, dozens of choppers would ferry men and equipment to and from the base, which at any one time was home to thousands of British Army personnel.

Now, almost exactly 14 years after the Good Friday Agreement, weeds sprout up from the parade ground where the helicopters once landed, and the harsh drone of their rotors is a distant memory.

The 120-acre site is deserted and its dozens of office and administrative buildings, 200 houses, shops and takeaways are empty - abandoned in 2007 when the last of the troops withdrew and the military gave the land to the community.

But in a few years' time, the last remnants of the military complex could be bulldozed into history and school buses could replace helicopters as the main mode of transport.

In what has been called the "ultimate swords to ploughshares project", the ambitious #163;100 million Lisanelly Shared Educational Campus initiative aims to rehouse six of Omagh's post-primary schools on the site in brand-new buildings.

An area of Omagh that has been closed to the public for 150 years could be opened up to the community and hundreds of pupils who have been segregated by religion, social status or academic ability could be brought together to learn on the same patch of land.

Although the pupils will still attend their individual schools up to key stage 4, each with its own distinct identity and ethos, they will share state-of-the-art sports, arts, science, and design and technology facilities.

The symbolism attached to the project is something that its developers hope will have repercussions for the whole of Northern Ireland; a former army base being transformed into a place of education for the whole community in a town whose name brings to mind the worst aspects of the Troubles would make a strong statement about the future Omagh and the country as a whole.

Community spirit

After all, for many people, Omagh has become a byword for terrorist atrocity. Outside Northern Ireland, it is chiefly known for the 1998 bombing by the Real IRA, which killed 29 people and injured 220. Although the incident spurred on the peace process, for some people the wounds have yet to heal. And last year tragedy struck Omagh again when Catholic police constable Ronan Kerr was killed in a car bomb planted by dissident republicans.

Hazel Jones, programme director for the Lisanelly project, says that the two incidents have galvanised the town's community and helped to change its outlook.

"Omagh was always quite a cohesive community; it was never a community that didn't get on, for the most part," she says. "The bombing came totally out of the blue and the shock and grief really brought people from all parts of the town together. Then last year PC Ronan Kerr's murder brought people even closer together and there was a tremendous outpouring of community spirit. So this project builds on really good foundations."

In fact, a recent survey by the project team shows that 70 per cent of the local community are in favour of the Lisanelly campus, rising to 90 per cent among the town's under-18s.

But as with elsewhere in Northern Ireland, education in Omagh is segregated along religious and social lines and the vested interests are difficult to overcome.

Schools that come under the scope of the local education and library board, which are largely Protestant, are known as controlled schools, while those run by the Catholic Church are known as maintained schools. There are also selective grammar schools of both faiths, often single-sex, which select pupils on the basis of academic ability through transfer tests at the age of 11.

The six schools involved in the Lisanelly talks are Omagh Academy, a controlled grammar, Omagh High School, a controlled secondary, Sacred Heart College, a (Catholic) maintained secondary, Arvalee School and Resource Centre (a special school), and the Catholic, single-sex voluntary grammar schools Christian Brothers (boys) and Loreto Convent (girls).

Bringing children of different faiths together on one site to learn would be an extraordinary and unprecedented step for Northern Ireland. The project's co-chairs represent the two religious communities. The Reverend Robert Herron represents the controlled school sector, while Monsignor Joseph Donnelly represents the Catholic maintained schools.

"We are in a unique situation," says Herron. "From the pupils' point of view it will give them a wider range of curriculum options and educational opportunities they wouldn't have had otherwise.

"And on a wider scale our divided education system will take a step towards a more integrated and cohesive solution because we will have children mixing with others who they haven't mixed with in the past."

Sir Robert Salisbury, who recently headed a literacy and numeracy taskforce for the Department of Education, Northern Ireland (DENI), lives in Omagh. "I think it's a brilliant scheme," he says. "If it comes to fruition, it could provide a blueprint for schools all over the country. It's a solution that will solve many of the educational problems in Northern Ireland.

A symbolic project

"Although pupils will be in separate institutions to begin with, the barriers will start to come down organically as students mix in drama, music and sport."

Tony Gallagher, professor of education and pro vice-chancellor of Queen's University Belfast, shares these sentiments. "It's a fantastic idea on its own terms, but the symbolism makes it even better. It's such an obvious thing to do, and has the potential to be a model for the future organisation of schools.

"If people focus on the bigger picture, the project provides a great opportunity for the whole town. It's one of the ways we can square some of the circles and provide people with an opportunity to work together for the common good.

"It's not a model for everywhere else, but if they can get it up and running and it becomes a success, there's no reason why that can't be looked at in the future."

It is hoped that Lisanelly will completely modernise post-primary education in Omagh, allowing schools to meet the targets of Northern Ireland's new Entitlement Framework, which requires access to a larger range of subject areas by September 2013 and aims to provide pupils with the best educational opportunities available.

"From an education perspective, it would allow pupils to have access to the widest range of subjects in state-of-the-art facilities," says Jones. "It's well-recognised that if pupils think their government invests in the best facilities for them, it builds their confidence. Lisanelly has real potential in that area."

There appears to be political backing from Stormont, too. Education minister John O'Dowd is keen on Lisanelly, calling it "visionary", and the government committed itself to the project in its recently published draft Programme for Government.

"I think it will work in Omagh," says O'Dowd, a Sinn Fein member. "Here you have a former military base that's been gifted to the community. I can't think of a more fitting image or tribute to our future than doing that. Politicians in the North were told to set aside their political differences - I think that message has to go to our civic society as well. For the betterment of society, concerns should be set aside for a clear signal we are moving forward."

However, despite the ambition, desire and drive from politicians, educationalists and community members for this unique opportunity, the success of the project is far from certain. Currently, the situation is described as "fluid"; while some schools are keen to join, especially those with substandard buildings, others are more hesitant to sign up. And until they fully commit to the project, it is essentially in limbo.

Loreto has been involved in a protracted series of negotiations and more recently a legal battle with DENI over new accommodation to replace its "substandard" town-centre site. Loreto says that it was promised a new building in 2004. But in 2010, the decision was reversed by then education minister Caitriona Ruane, who said she wanted Loreto to be part of Lisanelly instead.

In January, the Court of Appeal ruled "with regret" that Loreto did not have a "legitimate expectation of getting a new building". The school's board of governors told TES that it was not able to wait for Lisanelly when first invited to join the scheme in 2007, and the project's "modest progress" since has justified that decision.

Jones had little idea how complex the situation would prove to be when she came from the Republic of Ireland to head the scheme two years ago. "I was interested by this development project that had this enormous social aspect to it," she says. "But I didn't anticipate the non-physical challenges. Although it's relatively simple as a development project, the really difficult issues are the 'hearts and minds' issues."

It pays, as they say, to be prepared. Although the programme team is still focused on a six-school scenario, it is also preparing alternative plans for five or even just four schools to occupy the site.

Complicating matters is a country-wide, area-based planning process, which looks to guide future capital spending on schools based on the needs of pupils instead of institutions. Only when that is complete can the scheme move on to the next stage.

While the political wrangling has been taking place, Jones and her team have been getting on with the task of keeping the project moving in other areas, such as applying for outline planning permission and conducting site investigations; at least a year's worth of remedial work will be needed before any schools can be built.

Jones says that the "once in a generation" opportunity should not be missed. "For 150 years, the site was used for military purposes. You had 120 acres of land that had been cut off from its community and now it could be transformed and reintegrated back into that community. This is not just about education, but regeneration and the shared future that most people in Northern Ireland aspire to."

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