Schooling for community change

By Simon Barrow
March 13, 2009

Integrated schooling in Northern Ireland has provable benefits. We should be learning that lesson in Britain.

Of course, you cannot directly compare the educational situation in NI with England or Scotland, say. Faith schools here are of a different character to denominational schools in the province. But that does not mean that there are no parallels or lessons.

On the contrary, the style/ethos of integrated education ( and its gains are what we should surely be holding up as the desirable pattern for the future, rather than schools that select, employ and discriminate on the basis of religion or belief?

At one level, this seems so obvious, that it shouldn't need stating. But it does, because education policy in the UK has been heading in directions which weaken rather than strengthen 'the mix', and publicly-funded schools of a religious character (and their powerful backers) are part of that problem when they maintain unfair policies and are allowed by the government (through whom they get their funding) to do so.

Sadly, in both NI, England and Scotland, it is churches who are obstructing reform that they should be in the forefront of (Wales has decided not to expand single faith schools). The 'Christendom' mentality in this area harms both community education and the Gospel, as Anglican priest Jeremy Chadd has pointed out (

But attempts to have a different kind of conversation to the 'pro' versus 'anti' one, or to bridge the divide with reform rather than rhetoric, get a cold shoulder or aggressive defensiveness in response. Many church news outlets will not even admit that there are substantial numbers of people of committed faith who want to change faith schools - preferring to highlight hardline secularist voices in order to blame 'the other' and avoid painful contradictions within the household.

In the end, this will not work. The pressure for change will continue to grow. It needs to do so with courtsey as well as conviction.

Meanwhile, what prompted these reflections was an article by Johan Hari in The Independent on integrated schools in the north of Ireland ( Here is an excerpt:

There is a policy that has been shown to erode [communal] hatreds. They are called integrated schools – and the parents of Northern Ireland are calling for them. Today, only five per cent of children in Northern Ireland go to a mixed school. The other 95 per cent are segregated in sectarian enclaves where they project feverish fantasies on to the other side. Violence is an inevitable bedsore where two uncomprehending tribes rub past each other in a small space.

But that 5 per cent hold the key. A six-year study by Queen's University, Belfast has looked at the long-term consequences of being schooled alongside The Enemy. They interviewed adults who attended these schools – and found that whatever their parents' attitudes, they were "significantly more likely" to oppose sectarianism. They had "far" more friends across the divide, and they identified as "Northern Irish", rather than British or Irish. Their politics were much more amenable to peace. Some 80 per cent of Protestants favour the union with Britain, but only 65 per cent of those at integrated schools do. Some 51 per cent of Catholics who went to a segregated school want unification with Ireland, but only 35 per cent of those from integrated schools do. The middle ground – for a devolved Northern Ireland with links to both countries – was both broader and happier.

It's difficult to caricature people you've known since you were a child: great sweeping hatreds are dissolved by the grey complexity of individual human beings. Think of the young lads who, as you read this, are being persuaded by the Continuity IRA and the Ulster Defence Force to sign up and take on The Others. If they had grown up with crushes on Catholic girls they sat next to in Geography, or playing football with Protestant boys at break-time, wouldn't they be more likely to question the demonisation they're being fed?

But there is better news still. In the most detailed study of Northern Irish opinion, an extraordinary 82 per cent said they support the idea of integrated schooling, and 55 per cent of parents say the only reason their kids don't go to an integrated school is because there isn't one in their area, or they can't obtain a place in the vastly over-subscribed existing schools. There is a pent-up demand in the province for the very mechanism that will – over time – provide peace from the bottom up.

So why isn't it happening? Small minorities of religious sectarians – Protestant and Catholic – have been allowed to dominate the school system. The respective churches have obstructed integrated schools, refusing to nominate people to sit on their boards, and jealously guarding their profitable privileges. Northern Ireland needs its own equivalent of Brown vs, the Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court judgement that desegregated the schools in the Deep South. The church hierarchies will be left yelling, like Governor George Wallace of Alabama, "Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" – and shamed before the world.

There are brave forces within Northern Ireland fighting for this to happen – and it's a neat historical coincidence that this call comes at the moment when Northern Ireland's school-age population is contracting – and many schools will have to merge anyway. There is currently a surplus of 50,000 excess school paces in the province, and it's set to balloon even further as the birth-rate falls. Schools should be folded together into integrated wholes. All new schools should be mixed by law.

The British and Irish governments can launch a Phase Two of the Good Friday Agreement now, setting ambitious targets for integrated schools to rapidly expand. Martin Luther King didn't dream of a little black boy and a little black girl playing in separate playgrounds, with a vast steel wall between them. No. Our leaders can offer a Northern Ireland where Catholics and Protestants will play together and pair off together. Who knows – a hefty push for school integration could yield, in a few decades, a Northern Irish Obama, carrying both sides in his veins.

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