While the Catholic Church across the two jurisdictions in Ireland is promoting its own schools this week, integrated education campaigners in the North are working hard to build community schooling that crosses religious and other divides.
The underpinning principle of ‘integrated education’ is the belief that by bringing Catholics, Protestants and children of other faiths and none together, in a shared learning environment, they can learn to understand, respect and accept each other better than in strongly denominational schools.
Earlier this month, Iraqi ministers for education visited Northern Ireland to learn from the experience of integrated schools, which are opposed by the Catholic hierarchy and the Democratic Unionist Party, but which have the support of a majority of people in the territory, according to both opinion polls and the clamour for admissions.
The Iraqis are working to develop a schooling system that creates unity while preserving identity and gaining acceptance across the country’s diverse society. Educationists from Israel-Palestine, Cyprus and elsewhere have also researched and praised the integrated approach.
There are currently 61 Integrated Schools comprising 20 Integrated Second Level Colleges, and 41 Integrated Primary Schools. In addition there are over 19 Integrated Nursery Schools, most of which are linked to Primary schools.
Community schools are very popular with parents, but they are opening at a relatively slow rate, partly because of a logjam in approving and overseeing their foundation. 18 months ago around 700 applicants for integrated schools had to be turned away due to lack of places.
However an Omnibus Survey by Millward Brown Ulster, showed that 81% of people in Northern Ireland believed that integrated education is important to the peace and reconciliation process in Northern Ireland.
Baroness May Blood, who has been involved in cross-community and trade union work for more than 40 years and in 1999 became the first woman in Northern Ireland to be given a life peerage, said recently: “There are many parents from both communities in north Belfast who want to see their children going to a school where they will learn and play together and this school is providing that opportunity.”
Baroness Blood is the campaign chair of the Integrated Education Fund — a charitable trust that provides a financial foundation for the development and growth of integrated education in Northern Ireland.
She explained: “I think it’s the way forward for there are a lot of schools — particularly in the urban areas — which are very low, that have empty desks, and I think that it makes sense to transform them into joint schools. And the kids don’t lose anything from that. In fact they can learn about one another’s culture from an early age which can only help them later on in their future life.”
Baroness Blood, who recently met with representatives of Accord, a network of religious and non-religious individuals and organisations working for inclusive schooling in the UK, said: “I grew up in what was a mixed area. Today kids are segregated from a very early age and know very little about each other and I believe that integrated education, as indeed an integrated workforce and indeed integrated housing, has to be the way forward for Northern Ireland.”
Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, one of the founders of Accord, said: “The story of the continuing development of integrated schooling in Northern Ireland is inspiring and challenging. Though the situation in the province is very different to other parts of the UK, there is much to learn from the experience of encouraging cross-community participation rather than segregation in schooling.”
He added: “The present UK government policy drift towards more single faith schools, the lack of a national curriculum for RE, and the granting of the ability to discriminate in admissions and employment on grounds of religion or belief – all this is unhelpful to the development of a healthy, mixed society. Publicly funded schools should be open to all and run for all, whether they are sponsored by religious, civic and business groups or not.”
This week is Catholic Education Week across the whole of Ireland, north and south. The Church is urging congregations to support specifically Catholic education and schooling.
Further information on integrated schools, and to support their development:
* Integrated Education Fund (IEF) - http://www.ief.org.uk/ 
* Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE) - http://www.nicie.org/ 
* Accord coalition - http://www.accordcoalition.org.uk/