Ulster wary of motives for integration

Paul McGill

Increased interest in integrated schools could be fuelled as much by competition for pupils as by the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Four controlled secondary schools in the south-eastern area are balloting parents on changing status. In the north-east, the education and library board, equivalent to the local authority, has adopted a new policy offering positive support for bringing children together across the religious divide, with shared schools and cross-community contact.

The north-east board's chief executive, Gordon Topping, agreed that last week's decision by education minister Michael Ancram to approve new grant-maintained integrated secondary schools in Ballymena and Coleraine could also convince existing schools to "transform".

In the south-east, Fort Hill girls high school, Lisburn, expects the result of its ballot next week. It also plans to go co-educational. The changes could mean it would attract pupils from across southern Belfast.

Laurelhill, also in Lisburn, expects to complete its ballot soon, following an initiative by headteacher Harold Harvey. "It is in the long-term interests of the school and of society," he said.

High schools in Holywood and Bangor are also considering switching to controlled integrated status, but Tom McKee, of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, believes they are simply trying to secure their futures.

"Some secondary schools have been hammered by demographic change and open enrolment. They realise that parental choice is volatile and they reckon integrated education is the flavour of the year. Some feel there will be more long-term stability if they go integrated," he said.

"This is obviously an effort to create integrated schools in name rather than in substance," said Frank Bunting, of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation.

"I am wary of initiatives which do not come from parents. Is it a genuine attempt to provide integrated education to parents who want it or to increase enrolments at the schools to allow selection?" One problem is how schools can become integrated in predominantly Protestant areas. In Lisburn, the main casualty could be the struggling Lisnagarvey high school, down to 345 pupils and with poor examination results.

Catholics in the town are served by St Patrick's, where enrolments are small but growing healthily. Even if all moved to new integrated schools, they would make up only a fifth of the total.

Tom Nolan, chief executive of the south-eastern board, said none of the controlled schools considering transformation had an ulterior motive.

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Paul McGill

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