Friends across the divide

The US government is encouraging integrated schools for Protestants and Catholics in Ulster. Why is Britain so slow to do the same? Clare Longrigg reports

On St Patrick's day, the McCartney sisters were not the only people to meet President Bush. Also on the invitation list from Northern Ireland were two schoolgirls - one Protestant, one Catholic - from Ulidia College, an integrated school in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim. The reason is that the movement for integrated education is gathering momentum at a time of increasing segregation in Northern Ireland, and the American government is keen to demonstrate its support. The American Ireland Fund has given money; indeed the invitation to Ulidia's students coincided with the announcement of a $1m donation to the Integrated Education Fund (IEF).

"We need to keep integrated education on the agenda," says Eugene Martin, the head of Ulidia College, who accompanied the girls. "We believe it can be part of the solution in Northern Ireland. Integrated schools have been around for over 20 years. We're no longer a tiny minority."

The girls describe the visit as life-changing. "Integrated schools are a big stepping stone to progress in Northern Ireland," says Shannon Graham, 16. "I was brought up with a mixed background: I went to a Catholic primary school, but I attend a Presbyterian church. I love going to an integrated school because I feel free to express myself."

Rosie Hassin, 18, the head prefect, says that integration means everything to her and has changed her opinions. "You learn about everyone's culture and learn to respect them," she says. "I went to a Protestant primary school, and this was a big change. Nobody says, 'You're a Catholic, you can't be my friend', which can happen when you meet people outside school. Here, we don't even have to state our religion. We're just friends."

Integrated schools are set up by parents who are committed to ending sectarianism in Northern Ireland. The aim is a 50-50 Catholic-Protestant split across students and teachers, but in many areas this balance is not feasible, in which case there is a minimum quota of 30 per cent (some schools also set a quota for children of other or no religion). Apart from a balanced intake, integrated schools also set an ideological agenda: each one has a dedicated forum for discussion on issues affecting the students. "It is important there is a space for them to raise questions and discuss the issues of the day," says Martin. "They get a chance to put the Catholic-Protestant conflict in a wider context. We want them to start thinking and forming opinions, doing independent research for themselves; not, 'My daddy says...'."

Paul Caskey, of the IEF, says that integrated schools are not about being the same, but about having the same aspirations, sharing a vision. "Pupils are encouraged to talk about their views, and express themselves," he says. Segregation in some areas of Northern Ireland starts with housing, nurseries and primary schools. Although state schools and Catholic-maintained schools are theoretically open to pupils of any religion, in practice, says Martin, this is not the case: schools subscribe to a system of "benign apartheid".

There are still two teacher-training colleges serving the two communities, and many believe that integrated teacher-training is an important step. There is no shortage of teachers willing to work in integrated schools, but it is a challenge to move from a monocultural setting.

Anne Odling-Smee, who serves on the education and libraries board, was involved in setting up the first integrated school, Lagan College in Belfast, in 1981. "I came to Northern Ireland from Tyneside with my family in 1970, and the segregation really hit me," she says. "I was shocked by it. We are an inter-church marriage, and we baptised our children alternately Protestant and Catholic. They went to a grammar school in Lisburn, which was not in any way integrated: most of the teachers would not talk to our Catholic children. When you're brought up in a segregated society, you aren't confident about the language. You need to learn how to discuss the delicate issues and move on."

Since 1974, the All Children Together movement had been lobbying for Protestant and Catholic children to be educated together, but it took a group of parents to set up the first school. In 1975, Odling-Smee met some people who were interested in the idea. By 1981 a dozen or so people decided to go ahead. "We started in a Scout hall with 18 pupils, says Odling-Smee. We were supported by the Rowntree Foundation, but, until we were received into the state system, it was difficult."

Teachers took a drop in salary to work at Lagan College. There were also security issues. When the school had an open day, all the windows were smashed.

Once schools can prove they are viable, they receive state funding as co-educational, all-ability schools (all children in Northern Ireland take the transfer test or 11-plus, but the results are not part of the admissions process to integrated colleges). The IEF was set up in 1992 to support parents' groups. Before that, parents had to take on the risk themselves, and many mortgaged their houses to fund the venture.

"We talk about a leap of faith," says Caskey. "Parents are making decisions about sending their children to schools that have no buildings, no teachers, no track record. They're investing in a vision. There's also a political side: it's a brave thing to set up an integrated school. People feel a bit threatened. There is open, and hidden, resistance."

Parents' groups have to do everything from scratch - leafleting households, finding and funding a site, and recruiting staff. The IEF acts as a guarantor to get a school built, and ensures it stays open until it gains state funding. Some state schools have transformed into integrated schools by vote, but as Odling-Smee points out, it's easier to set up a new school than to change the culture in an existing one.

To prove they are viable, schools need to show they will not be taking pupils from established Catholic-maintained or state schools. Ulidia was turned down for approved status seven times. Lir Primary School in Ballycastle has recently been refused funding on the grounds that it would have an impact on other schools, which means the IEF will have to keep it afloat until it can reapply. If Lir closes, the nearest integrated school is 30 miles away.

The process of proving viability is a slow one. Colm Cavanagh has been through it twice, with two schools. "The Government leaves it to the parents, which is right - you can't impose it," he says. "But the Government is afraid of it. It's a hot potato. Once you try to work in the system, you have so many barriers set up against you. When they turned down that little school in Ballycastle, that means they're siding with segregation, rather than with people who are trying to integrate."

Cavanagh started a primary school in Derry in 1991 and says that Northern Ireland is even more divided geographically than when he was growing up. "I wanted to make sure my children had the opportunity to mix with people across their community, which is now vastly more necessary than it was 30 years ago."

The first public meeting Cavanagh held was attended by 115 people, and the first person to speak was against it. Proposed sites were opposed on grounds of road safety. At one proposed site, the local councillor built a bonfire. But Cavanagh reserves his wrath for the authorities. "It's been a long, slow slog," he says. "It's really sad when we want reconciliation that the Government won't support us. If we had waited for the Department of Education to start the process, there would not be one integrated school."

Caskey says he hopes the same resources that went into disarmament will be invested in reconciliation. Many in Northern Ireland are convinced that integrated education is vital to the process of reconciliation. There are schools that are really at an interface," says Odling-Smee. "They take kids who at night will be fighting, because that's where they live. These children have come to integrated schools and it's a revelation to them. They are looking at the way society indulges hatred and aggression. They are living in the middle of it, but looking at it together. We cannot insulate them from where they came from, but we can give them strength so that, when they get out of school, they know how to treat people who are not the same."

INTEGRATION: A HISTORY

The first integrated school, Lagan College, opened in 1981 in Belfast with 28 pupils. Lagan now has 1,000 pupils drawn from 128 feeder primaries.

As a whole, Northern Ireland has 57 integrated schools, with a total of 17,500 students enrolled, accounting for five per cent of pupils. Last year was the busiest yet for the integrated education movement: seven new schools opened. According to a recent survey, 82 per cent of parents want a choice of schools, and 64 per cent think integrated education is important to peace and reconciliation in the province. Sixty per cent say they would send their children to an integrated school if one were available

To start a school costs approximately £250,000. Ulidia College now costs £2m a year to run.

education@independent.co.uk

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