Same age, same school, different church

15th November 2002 at 00:00
A Shared Childhood: the story of integrated schools in Northern Ireland

By Fionnuala O'Connor

Blackstaff Press pound;9.99

"All I ever knew about Catholics is they're Taigs and they hate us." Thus spoke a young Belfast mother as parents first met to plan a new school where Protestants and Catholics would learn together. It was the early Eighties, when passions ran particularly high in Northern Ireland. Bombings and sectarian killings were commonplace. Republican prisoners were starving themselves to death on hunger strikes. Heroes to many Catholics, their funerals repelled Protestants.

Into this fevered atmosphere, integrated education was born; 15,000 pupils are now educated in 47 integrated schools. But while widely praised abroad and lauded by secretaries of state, they receive a cooler domestic reception, reflecting the same divisions which make political agreement so difficult. Those 15,000 represent fewer than 5 per cent of pupils.

In telling the story of integrated education, Economist journalist Fionnuala O'Connor doesn't shirk from difficult issues. Although commissioned by the Integrated Education Fund, she has produced an admirably honest account, meshing interviews with participants with her own insights as one of Northern Ireland's most astute reporters. Northern Ireland Catholics generally attend "voluntary maintained" Catholic schools, while Protestants go to "controlled" schools - non-sectarian state schools in theory, but generally Protestant in ethos, enrolment, staffing and culture. The integration pioneers had to battle with still powerful bishops (since diminished by paedophile scandals) who cited Canon Law decreeing that Catholic children should have a Catholic education. Catholic teachers feared being blacklisted if they taught in integrated schools. And there has been equally strong loyalist political opposition arguing that Catholics should go to Protestant schools, leaving their religion and Irish identity at the school gate.

Parents drew flak from their own families for "sacrificing" their children's academic futures for their idealism. Their movement was derided as "a very middle-class, trendy thing to do". And, in a selective system, they were accused of choosing integrated comprehensives over tougher secondary moderns because they couldn't get their children into grammar schools. Not that there isn't a degree of wishful thinking surrounding integration. Visiting VIPs can feel good, while avoiding the realities of divided communities. As O'Connor wryly puts it: "The world's media have tended to truck around integrated schools almost as relaxation." But the elitism charge is less valid today. The first integrated school, Lagan College, was in the affluent Belfast suburbs. By contrast, Malone Integrated College today is on the fraught borderline between inner-city Catholic and Protestant districts. And the integration movement has the support of Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, education minister until direct rule was reimposed, and some working-class loyalist politicians.

You could read this book as a tribute to parent power. There were struggles to win funding from government and charitable trusts. Tensions abound between teachers and highly involved parent governors. But this is also about Northern Ireland. And even the best of intentions can't prevent culture clashes over the Union Jack, the Irish language, or what to call the second city - Derry (Catholic) or Londonderry (Protestant)? L'Derry was the less than satisfactory compromise.

Then there is the question of how religion is taught. The schools retain a Christian ethos, something English opponents of faith schools often misunderstand. Integrated schools are not secular institutions (though some parents would like them to be). They respect the traditions of both main faiths (as well as those with other beliefs or no faith). So non-Catholics witness the Ash Wednesday ritual of blackening the forehead or join in first communion celebrations. Moreover, pupils' own accounts show that integration doesn't change their identity. Indeed, some teenage pupils talk of getting caught up in sectarian riots.

Yet O'Connor suggests there are other signs of change. Middle-class Catholics have often sent their children to Protestant grammars such as Methodist College, where 25 per cent of students are Catholic. A small but growing number of Catholic children now attend state primaries - more than 3,000 at the last count. Some integrated schools started as Protestant schools gradually welcoming Catholics. This new trend of "transformation" complements newly built grant-maintained integrated schools.

While some seek a wholly integrated education system, realists would settle for educating a tenth of pupils in integrated schools by 2008. That would give more parents choice. Compulsion wouldn't work: too many on both sides fear their traditions would be diluted. But there is a chicken-and-egg factor: until communities feel comfortable with each other, integrated education will be a minority pursuit. But it may take a serious expansion of integrated education before there is real respect for each other's traditions.

Conor Ryan is a journalist specialising in education and Irish issues. He was political adviser to David Blunkett from 1993 to 2001

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