Faith, hope and unity
In the seaside town of Ballycastle, on the craggy, windswept coast of County Antrim in Northern Ireland, two secondary schools face each other across the busy Moyle Road. In many ways, the road and its traffic is a metaphor for the deep-seated cultural and historic schism that kept these schools apart through the Troubles and long before.
On one side sits the Catholic Cross and Passion College and, on the other, the Protestant Ballycastle High School. For as long as anyone can remember, those who attended the schools shared an uneasy, sometimes tense, coexistence. Teachers would stand guard outside the gates before and after school and during breaks to ensure the two sets of students did not clash.
Although this picturesque part of the country did not emerge from the Troubles completely unscathed, it escaped the worst of the violence that was a regular part of life in other areas. And yet the cultural divide was still there. Words and gestures were regularly exchanged between the local students, and occasionally fists. The two groups would rarely cross paths. Mutual suspicion ruled the day.
It is a stark example of just how much things have changed, then, that last year a joint student council of sixth-formers lobbied for a crossing to be built between the two buildings.
The reason students wanted a safe passage across the busy road is because the schools now have a common 16-18 programme and classes in both schools are attended by a mix of students in the brown uniform of Cross and Passion and the blue uniform of Ballycastle High.
And for the past three years, thanks to a #163;160,000 cash injection from the innovative national Sharing Education Programme (SEP), the schools have been increasingly sharing 14-16 classes, too. From September, a third of all classes for this age group will be shared.
The idea behind the SEP is a simple one - fund programmes that encourage collaboration between schools that are divided by religion. If you can persuade people in these communities to work and play together, the rest will follow. And like many of the best simple ideas, it works.
Cross and Passion principal Barbara Ward says that the unique collaboration has grown "naturally and organically" over time because of the two schools' individual limitations and the educational needs of their students.
With more than 1,000 students between the schools, it makes practical and financial sense to share their limited resources, but it is bridging the cultural divide that is the main driver.
Ballycastle High School principal Ian Williamson emphasises that the SEP enables the collaboration to move on at an even "greater speed". It has also allowed the expansion of extracurricular activities such as music and sport; the two schools have a joint orchestra and joint concerts are often staged. There is even a unified rugby team.
As staff and students at the two schools have found themselves increasingly drawn closer together, so too have members of the local communities. "In the past there would have been a feeling in the Protestant community that Ballycastle was a Catholic town and people didn't want to mix. We feel that that's starting to change," Ward says.
Williamson agrees: "We wonder whether it's as a result of what's going on between the schools or because of society more generally, but we do feel people are coming together here," he says.
All this is music to the ears of the organisers of the SEP at Queen's University Belfast. The programme, which is funded by non-profit organisation Atlantic Philanthropies and the International Fund for Ireland, encourages cross-sectoral collaborations between schools.
Since it started in 2007, 162 schools and more than 12,500 students have benefited. Two recent studies by Queen's and the University of Oxford reveal that shared education plays an important role in helping to break down the divide between Protestant and Catholic communities.
Both report that the more opportunity for contact students have, the more friends they gain from the other community, which helps to foster positive attitudes towards them.
The work has even earned international attention. Unicef invited the team from Queen's University Belfast to transfer the model to Macedonia, where schools are divided along ethnic lines between Albanians and Macedonians.
Members of the team are also due to travel to Israel to explore opportunities for educational collaboration between Jewish and Arab communities, and will soon speak at a pan-European education conference in Cyprus. There has also been interest from experts in India and Mexico.
Across the divide
Nowhere are the possibilities of the programme more apparent than in North Belfast, where an unlikely collaboration between schools is having positive effects on staff and students.
The Catholic, girls-only Mercy College and the Protestant Belfast Boys' Model School are located in the heart of the Ardoyne, which gained notoriety after some of the worst sectarian violence during the Troubles and even today is still deeply divided. Many students still consider it unsafe to walk between the two schools, yet the SEP has brought them closer together than many ever thought possible.
Olwen Black, vice-principal of Belfast Boys' Model School, says that teachers and students are determined not to be defined by location or history. "The Troubles stop at the gate," she says. "We have to make sure what happens here is about education alone."
While those at Belfast Boys' Model School enjoy a new multimillion-pound campus and a growing intake, Mercy College's buildings are more than 50 years old and its roll is small at less than 400 students.
The teachers had already been talking about working together in general education terms and sharing ideas and resources on a limited scale, but last year they approached the relevant people at Queen's University Belfast for funding to accelerate their work and make something more significant.
Staff at Belfast Boys' Model School wanted to learn from an accelerated reading programme run by teachers at Mercy College, while staff at Mercy College wanted their students to benefit from the new ICT infrastructure at the boys' school. "This was not devised to bring the communities together," Black says. "This really took place because of the educational needs and the difficulties being faced by the schools."
But as a result, teachers at the two schools are increasingly sharing more of their staff development work and also share a history teacher on a joint timetable who works three days a week at Belfast Boys' Model School and two at Mercy College - even a few years ago this would have been unthinkable.
"Three or four years ago we would have panicked beyond words at the idea of our students going to the other school," Black says. "But now boys and girls are in each other's schools because of curriculum need. We've even put on a regular bus service. It can be fragile, and it doesn't take a lot to set things back, but a lot of that fear has dissipated."
But despite the positive evidence from across the country, commitment from all of Northern Ireland's political parties to the principle of shared education and interest from overseas, the future of the programme is uncertain.
The second, three-year element of the programme that started in 2010 officially comes to an end this summer, although both funders have committed to supporting the development of collaborative networks until December 2014.
Professor Tony Gallagher, programme director and pro vice-chancellor at Queen's University Belfast, is hoping for legislation in the Northern Ireland Assembly for funding so the work can continue. "The worst possible scenario would be no legislation," he says. "A minority of schools will keep it going whatever happens because of the value they have got out of the programme. In other places, however, it may be more challenging. There may be some activity but it will not be a major part of the system.
"If there is proactive support from the Northern Ireland Executive I think you will see shared education spread quite rapidly, because there is much to gain from working collaboratively with other schools," Gallagher says.
"Even schools that are perfectly viable in their own right have gained from this, and we think that because of the benefits that derive from it, others will be keen to get on board, too."
Gallagher adds that although the university's formal role in the programme is due to end, he and his staff are still deeply committed to making it work.
"We want to try to make this happen because it is part of a broader process of stabilising Northern Ireland. Fifteen years after the Good Friday Agreement there is still a degree of fragility in the system. There is peace but there is still political tension, and so there is still work to be done, especially in education."
Whatever happens nationally, in places such as Ballycastle and Belfast, teachers are determined to carry on developing the new-found friendships.
In Ballycastle, principal Ward is in no doubt that there is a future for their partnership. "There is a huge desire from both boards of school governors to contribute to a shared future from a moral and practical point of view. That's reflected in the fact that the work we are doing is about real action and experiences which are sustainable and will go into the future."
Her counterpart, Williamson, adds: "What has made things work here over the years is quietly getting on with it. I believe the relationships are genuine and we could sustain most things that might come our way, but we can't take it for granted.
"What we have here is unique. There is a sense of pride among students about what we and they have achieved."