Last week Belfast shocked the world once more as little girls were reduced to tears by adults screaming abuse as they walked to school. For the international media, the Protestants protesting as Catholics walked their children to Holy Cross school in the Ardoyne lost the battle, as their community feels it has lost both war and peace.
Facing across the rubble-strewn road was another school, this one attended by Protestant children. On the third morning, when the protesters had been shamed into swapping verbal abuse for horns and whistles, a few outsiders must have noticed several Protestant girls, in their blue school uniform, blowing whistles like the adults before heading off to their nearby secondary, perhaps to hear an assembly sermon on tolerance.
So is sectarianism fed by separate schooling? Shouldn't the authorities push harder for integrated schools, where children can learn that the other side doesn't have horns?
Segregation is the norm in Northern Ireland. Most people are taught in segregated schools and continue to send their own children, automatically, to the local segregated school to be taught by similarly unmixed staff. Given that most of the population, and virtually all of working-class Belfast, live in segregated districts, it is common for people to reach adulthood without forming any relationship with anyone from "the other side".
The small integrated sector, launched with a self-imposed requirement to aim for a balance of Catholics and Protestants in both staffing and enrolment – since diluted by government recommendation to broaden access – is still for many a slightly eccentric idea. It has been there since the Eighties, but only 4 per cent of children go to such schools.
Among the parents who set up the first of the consciously integrated schools 20 years ago, the strongest shared aim was to have their children taught in a classroom side by side, Catholic, Protestant and neither, in an atmosphere of mutual respect. In the group which set up the primary school that my two daughters attended, one young mother hit a popular note when she said her whole early life in a strongly loyalist district had been among Protestants. She had heard bad things about Catholics but had never met one until she was 21, and she wanted things to be different for her children.
The argument for integration might seem obvious. Opinion polls regularly show a high level of support for it. But the census taken this year is expected to show that segregation has increased rather than decreased. For most parents, separate education is not a conscious choice but part of the fabric of their lives.
Ten years ago, in a study of shifting political identity, I interviewed a wide range of Catholics. Some considered integrated education a unionist or government ploy to dilute Irish nationalism. Most were open about the flaws in Catholic education, scathing about the narrow theology and corporal punishment of their youth. But there was a defensiveness, a cultural loyalty. "We wouldn't have kept our identity in a system where we'd have been looked down on," said a successful 60-ish businessman.
For many working-class Catholics, education has meant real social mobility. By comparison, working-class Protestants complain that schools encouraged them to think no further than the unskilled jobs of the shipyard, now gone but then a Protestant near-monopoly.
In both state and Catholic schools, teachers resent the suggestion that, compared with the 46 integrated schools, theirs are seedbeds of prejudice. Publicly, principals in both sectors point to shared pupil exercises, debates, even field trips. Funding and encouragement come from government-sponsored programmes of "Education for Mutual Understanding". But off the record, some admit that in effectively monocultural surroundings, it is almost impossible to create empathy with "the others".
A Catholic mother near Holy Cross spoke warmly of the integrated school she worked in as a classroom assistant, and the contrast it offered with the bigotry around her. Integrated secondary education might be an option for the future. But, for the moment, her own child was going to the Catholic primary.
Holy Cross's principal, Anne Tanney, also spoke sadly last week of the efforts she and her counterpart across the road in Wheatfield Primary, formally termed a state school but with pupils drawn solely from nearby Protestant streets, had made for years to foster mutual civility between their pupils. Wheatfield staff stayed off air and out of range of the cameras. In flashpoint districts such as the Ardoyne, both kinds of school are extremely sensitive about their relationships with the communities around them.
Staffrooms are more polite than the playground, especially if they contain at least a few "others". But a teacher at a Protestant school recalled the unselfconscious group chuckle as a games mistress recounted her team's journey through "Indian territory" to play the nearest Catholic school. "She'd forgotten her school's Catholic teachers because there were only two of them."
Fionnuala O Connor, Northern Ireland correspondent of 'The Economist', wrote 'In Search of a State: Catholics in Northern Ireland' (Blackstaff, 1993). It won the Orwell and Ewart-Biggs prizes. She is writing an account of integrated education, to be published next year.Reuse content