The original flavour of peace;Education in Northern Ireland

16th October 1998 at 01:00
Nadene Ghouri visits a school built on the ruins of a crisp factory by parents determined to beat sectarianism

THREE years ago, Oakwood integrated primary school opened its doors during a week of vicious sectarian rioting across Belfast. Hugh Wilkinson was so worried the school was going to be petrol-bombed, he and some other fathers camped out in the corridors at night.

His eldest son, Jordan, was only three at the time, too young to even be at the school, but such was their determination to see the school actually make its inaugural term, the parents were prepared to risk their personal safety. Because Oakwood's parents have no ordinary relationship with their school.

Six years ago, a parent placed an ad in a local newspaper wondering if anyone else would be interested in setting up an integrated school in the area. A disparate group of parents responded. From both sides of the religious divide and representing every spectrum of the social classes, they had only one thing in common - their desire to see their children learn together. Mr Wilkinson says: "I wanted Jordan to go through life never being afraid of admitting who he is, the way I did."

As yet, receiving no official government funding and run as a limited company by parents, Oakwood is little more than a few Portakabins on the former site of burnt-out crisp factory.

Trevor Ray, whose sons Matthew, six, and David, four, attend Oakwood, says parents "drive past and are appalled", but adds, "once we get them through the gate, we've won them over".

The factory closed after being set alight during the Troubles. All that remains of the original buildings are the skeletal metal frames. After the fire, it became a playground for glue sniffers and joy riders. Despite that, headteacher Olwyn Frost says the site was in other ways "perfect".

Situated in a tiny interface between the nationalist areas of Twinbrook and Poleglass and the loyalist areas of Milltown and Seymour, Oakwood is a physical and spiritual no-man's land. Ms Frost explains: "We were in a perfect position to offer neutrality - people can feel safe here. They don't have to walk their children to school past any emblems of one culture or another."

Although the Department for Education in Northern Ireland has a recent remit to encourage integrated schooling, policy favours "transformation", whereby existing schools open their doors to pupils from the "other side". Of Northern Ireland's 920 primary schools, there are currently 25 integrated of which eight are transformed.

But transformation is not always an easy or desirable option for parents. "You couldn't afford to put your four-year-old in a non-neutral area," explains Mr Wilkinson. "You'd be sitting at work thinking: 'Oh, I wonder if my child got shot today'."

Mr Wilkinson, who like Trevor Ray is in a mixed marriage, insists the school does more than educate children. Last weekend, several families went away to "talk about the effect Oakwood has had on our lives and how we can take our message to the wider community". Before they set up the school, many of the parents had never met anyone from the "other side".

Mr Wilkinson says: "The more we learn about how different we are, the more we learn just how much we're the same. It's so hard for people outside Northern Ireland to understand what it was like growing up never meeting someone from another religion. Imagine growing up in the middle of London and never meeting someone from another race."

Ms Frost agrees: "It's not enough to have an integrated school standing alone. If children go home to an environment where integration isn't a feature - that's not much use. The weekends give us a safe space to ask questions about each other which must be asked." She admits she was amazed to discover "how much sectarian baggage I carried".

Rather than homogenise culture, the school "concentrates" on separate identity. "If we deny our children their individual cultures, that would be completely missing the point," says Mr Wilkinson.

And that doesn't just mean Catholics and Protestants. The school has a 35 per cent Protestant, 45 per cent Catholic spilt, with 25 per cent "others". Ms Frost tries to foster a multi-cultural ethos - Oakwood has just celebrated Chinese New Year and is due to have a visit from a Muslim imam.

Equally unusual is the school's socio-economic mix - 30 per cent of Oakwood's pupils receive free school meals. And until the school receives official status, even the poorest parents have to "dig into their dole packets" to pay for transport and playtime milk. "If nothing else it gives us something else to think about," says Ms Frost.

She never had a "burning mission" to teach in the integrated system. Setting up a "child-centered" school from scratch was what attracted her. Now there's no going back, she says.

Oakwood recently had a fourth funding application rejected. Officials say a local transformed school caters for the area's integrated needs.

However, in a PR masterstroke, the board has managed to get all but one of the parties in the new national assembly to sign a petition in their favour.

Hugh Wilkinson says: "We're no better than other schools. We just chose a different route. At times it's been a nightmare, but at last, I think we can see light at the end of the Troubles, sorry, tunnel."

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