Education for Reconciliation

Posted in Europe | 21-Dec-12 | Author: Ciarán McCarthy

Despite the recent outbreaks of violence over the decision to remove the Union Jack from Belfast City Hall and only fly it seventeen days a year we cannot forget that the most recent Northern Ireland Assembly Election (2011), was described by certain commentators as the most mundane in recent history due to a lack of conflict between the parties. This was a reflection of the evolving landscape in Northern Ireland, a landscape which sees parties from both sides of the traditional divide (the DUP and Sinn Fein) co-existing and working together on policy to ensure a peaceful and functioning society. One such example of cooperation between the DUP and Sinn Fein is evident in the area of education policy, particularly in the support that has been given to integrated schools. The Evolving Education Integrated schooling has made tremendous progress over the last thirty-one years to progress from its very humble beginnings. The first integrated school opened in a scout hut on the outskirts of Belfast in 1981 with a mere twenty-eight pupils in attendance. Today, there are sixty-one integrated schools in Northern Ireland with a total population of over 19,000 pupils. But the question remains, what are integrated schools and why are they receiving the backing of the two major parties in Northern Ireland? Integrated schools differ from segregated / mixed schools in that they have a balanced intake which attempts to prevent a single religious group from becoming dominant, with the ideal make-up consisting of roughly 40% Catholic pupils, 40% Protestant and 20% other, although the official balance from the Department of Education is 70% of one religion complemented by 30% of another religion. Additionally, the model which they espouse attempts to embed a culture of tolerance and respect for difference. Although it is difficult to meet the exact percentage requirements of integrated schools, it can be seen that integrated schools have the potential to act as a vehicle for breaking down preconceived barriers in Northern Ireland which in turn could restructure society in Northern Ireland by implanting concepts into the minds of children which will be carried on into later life. This is a key facet of the appeal of integrated schools as the Children's Law Centre and Save the Children previously stated in a submission to the UN's Committee on the rights of the Child that "From five to eleven, many children are forming their values and belief, yet the vast majority attend religiously segregated primary schools"

Proof that they work

Although integrated schools may appear to have gone through a recent phase of growth, the concept of integrated schooling has been an underlying aspect of the Northern Ireland community since the period known as the 'Troubles'. Work done by Miller (1978) showed that despite the tension caused by the conflict during this period, 77.4% of Protestants and 88% of Catholics demonstrated a strong to moderate interest in sending their children to a school that would teach both religions. Although research such as this – the question asked was hypothetical at the time – needs to be treated with caution, the surveys carried out since this time continue to show support for integrated schools among the public. For example the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey carried out in 2005 showed that 45% of respondents demonstrated a desire to live in an area of mixed religion while in the 2010 version of the survey 70% of the respondents stated that they would like for their children to attend a mixed religion school with only 24% stating that they wanted their children to attend a segregated school. Furthermore, 88% of respondents in the 2010 survey stated that they are of the belief that better relations will come about through more mixing with a further 62% saying that they believe relations between the Catholics and Protestants have improved over the last five years.

So the statistics show that integrated schools have the ever increasing support of the public, but what is the motivation behind this support? Fieldwork by McAleavy et al. (2009) discovered that there are varying reasons. Firstly, parents who grew up during the 'Troubles' may wish to promote tolerance and understanding in their children from as early an age as possible so that their children do not have the same defensive / confrontational nature as their grandparents. Secondly, it might be something as simple as wanting their children to attend the same school that their children's friends or neighbours attend, regardless of their religion. Or thirdly it may be that parents who are in mixed marriages want their children to be raised and educated in a system that does not take sides. These could be just a few of the reasons influencing parents to advocate integrated schools. But then the focus shifts to whether or not the integrated school actually succeeds in making the child more tolerant of other religions / ethnicities. Research carried out by Hayes and McAllister (2009) has taken a step towards filling the gap in longitudinal research vis-a-vis integrated schools and their benefits. Hayes and McAllister surveyed 15,302 individuals, all of whom identified themselves as either Catholic or Protestant, and who took part in the Northern Ireland Life and Times surveys over the period 1998 – 2006 as well as individuals who responded to the 1998 Referendum and Election Survey plus the 2003 Northern Ireland Election Study. Through their research they discovered that seven out of ten adults who had experienced segregated education stated that all / most of their friends were from their own religion whereas only four out of ten adults who had attended an integrated school stated that their friends were from their own religion. Moreover, seven out of ten adults who attended a segregated school were living in a religiously segregated area while only five out of ten who had attended an integrated school lived in a religiously exclusively area. It can be drawn from this research that attendance at an integrated school gives rise to a more diverse range of friends while simultaneously leading to the moderation of deeply held political views. It also demonstrates that what the attending pupils learned was then carried on into their later life and meant they were more likely to have greater social contact across the religious divide. Additionally, despite the economic downturn of the past couple of years, during the period 2003 – 2010 5,772 pupils were turned away from integrated schools due to the lack of available spaces in the schools, a statistic that is simultaneously positive and negative.

The Future: to take a Darwin Approach?

However, it is not as simple to suggest that building more integrated schools is the answer to societal conflict in Northern Ireland. More and more spare school spaces are becoming available in Northern Ireland while conversely an ever increasing amount of schools are being amalgamated due to budgetary cutbacks. It can be drawn from this that it is not as simple as ensuring that more places are available in integrated schools because the growth and expansion of integrated schools is constrained by the high surplus level in the Northern Ireland education system due to the lack of young people in the general population. Due to these reasons it may appear that an evolution of current schools along the lines of becoming openly shared schools could be a successful alternative to building new integrated schools. Mervyn Storey, DUP MLA and party spokesperson on education points out that any such evolution would allay the fear that a new integrated sector would take children away from existing schools which would in turn have a negative effect on the budgets of existing schools. So if current schools are to evolve into more 'shared' schools, do politicians believe that this approach can work? Mr. Storey was quick to point out the example of a controlled school in Lurgan (controlled schools are traditionally seen as being Protestant while Maintained schools are traditionally viewed as being Catholic in nature) which now has a majority Catholic student make-up while a Maintained school in Bangor now has an equal representation of pupils from across the religious divide. In both cases the schools have been chosen on the basis of their academic results and not on their traditional religious alignment. 

Mervyn Storey
Mervyn Storey, DUP MLA


Mark Durkan, leader of the SDLP party in Northern Ireland from 2001 – 2010 and current MP for Foyle, commented that he has been struck by the diversity ethos which is now prevalent in schools. Sue Ramsey, Sinn Fein MLA for West Belfast stated that the more that young people come together, the better it will be for Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile Andrew Bell, who is head of Community Relations, Equality and Diversity in Education policy as well as education projects in Neighbourhood Renewal Projects for the Northern Ireland Department of Education highlighted the point that the Department cannot afford the current level of excess spaces in Northern Irish schools due to the current economic climate and associated budgetary cuts. While the Department does indeed have a commitment to encourage integrated schools Mr. Bell expressed the belief that mixed schools which are not of official integrated status, can be equally successful in having positive results vis-a-vis the integrated outlook of its pupils.

Andrew Bell

Andrew Bell, Head of Community Cohesion Team Dept of Education

Andrew Bell, Head of Community Cohesion Team Dept of Education Another alternative is the option of creating an education campus which existing schools could share. The idea of an educational campus is not experimental as it is currently in place throughout the world with the most successful example of such a campus perhaps being Oxford University. Within Oxford there are 38 independent, self-governing colleges which give their students and academics the benefits of belonging to both a large, internationally renowned institution while simultaneously being in a smaller, interdisciplinary community. Now for the first time ever, Northern Ireland could be about to have such a campus but at the level of post-primary education. There are currently plans to redevelop 140 acres of former military land at Lisanelly in Omagh into a state of the art education campus shared by six of the areas post-primary schools. It is expected that the Planning Department will take six months to come to a decision on the plan but if approved the campus would allow pupils to mix through the sharing of facilities. The facilities will in turn be of a higher standard due to the schools donating a portion of their entitlement from their core school. The logic for combined and improved facilities is echoed in the thoughts of Ms. Ramsey as she makes the point of why does there have to be two or more of everything in Northern Ireland when this only wastes money whereas a sharing of such facilities makes much more sense. Moreover, such a plan is not only a chance to deliver better facilities but as highlighted by Mr Durkan, the site itself is strategically situated between the communities due to its former role as a military base and so provides an excellent opportunity to bring the communities together. Furthermore, there are additional derelict sites scattered across Northern Ireland which could be similarly transformed should the Lisanelly project prove to be a success.

A Stepping Stone that needs more...

The difficulty of striking a balance between integration and the respecting of difference and the acceptance of the need to address suspicion among each religious group cannot be highlighted enough. Any such transformation will be a prolonged and difficult one. This fact has been highlighted once more with the violence that has erupted since the motion was passed to limit the flying of the Union Jack over Belfast City Hall to seventeen days a year. Since the passing of this motion twenty-one police officers have been injured, another was lucky to avoid death when her car was attacked by a group of fifteen loyalists armed with iron bars and petrol bombs, and the only Alliance MP – Naomi Long – has received death threats along with two senior DUP members.

Secondly it must be noted that although education could be a very useful tool for ameliorating social and political cleavages, integration and reconciliation on a grander scale is not exclusively limited to just integrated schools.

Although it is most definitely a starting point, and for that reason alone integrated schools, mixed schools and potential shared campuses are deserving of their funding. However, more work needs to be done by civil society as a whole while the Assembly must continue to make strides forward as the members of the Assembly are, and shall continue to be the most influential role models in Northern Ireland.