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Education: Schooling in the mix in Northern Ireland

20 September 2019

Integrated schooling was introduced in Northern Ireland in the 1980s as a way to help break down the religious divide. Tim Wyatt asks how it has worked


A picture of a Catholic student with a Protestant student at Lagan Community College, Belfast, in the days when the interdenominational school buildings were prefabs

A picture of a Catholic student with a Protestant student at Lagan Community College, Belfast, in the days when the interdenominational school buildin...

ON AN otherwise unremarkable day in early September 1981, 28 children and seven teachers filed into a repurposed Scout hut beside the River Lagan, in south Belfast, to start a new school term in a brand-new school.

Despite its inauspicious beginnings, Lagan College was a trailblazer for a movement to intentionally educate Roman Catholic and Protestant children together in Northern Ireland.

Today, the college is a thriving, oversubscribed school of 1200 pupils in gleaming, purpose-built facilities. It also produces some of the best exam results in Northern Ireland. And the integrated sector that it gave birth to almost 40 years ago has gone through a similar transformation: there are now 65 integrated schools in the country, meaning that one child in every 14 now attends a school that is not seen as Roman Catholic or Protestant but both.

The integrated-education movement was a response to the sectarian violence of the Troubles during the 1970s. But 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement, and as growth in the sector appears to stall, what does the future hold for mixed-denomination schooling in Northern Ireland?


IN NORTHERN IRELAND, as in England, most schools were initially set up by the Churches: mainly Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Methodist. But, shortly after the partition of Ireland, schools run by the Protestant denominations were transferred to state control (although the Churches retained the right to nominate governors), and are known as “controlled” schools. The Roman Catholic schools went down a different path, and became maintained: funded by the taxpayer but were still under the control of the church authorities.

This meant that, in effect, state schools, although open to everyone, without religious qualification, and technically non-denominational, remained de facto Protestant institutions, as the majority of RC families chose to send their children to their Church’s network of schools.

By the 1970s, when sectarian terrorist atrocities exposed the deep division between the two communities, almost all children were being educated exclusively alongside those of their own faith.

Attempting to break down this ignorance and mistrust, a group of parents and activists launched a campaign for mixed schooling. The Churches were mostly uninterested. In 1981, therefore, the advocates decided to set up Lagan College with their own money.

For a few years, the college struggled along on donations and good will. As it became established, however, the authorities agreed to provide funding.

By the end of the ’80s, six further schools had been started, regulations to allow the transformation of existing schools to the integrated sector had been formulated, and the Department of Education (DofE) in Northern Ireland had been given a legal duty to “encourage and facilitate” the development of schooling for Protestants and Roman Catholics together.

Lagan Community College, Belfast

It also began supporting the newly established Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE), the body that helps parents either to start their own integrated school or transform an existing one.

The chief executive of NICIE, Roisin Marshall, said that the movement had gone from strength to strength since then, even as the violence of the Troubles wound down. The number of places in integrated schools had doubled since the Good Friday Agreement: almost 1500 places had been created in the past year alone. “I think we have been quite good at getting the message out there, and have seen a surge in parental demand for integrated education.”

Six schools in the past 12 months had held a ballot of parents on becoming a mixed Protestant-Catholic establishment. All six voted in favour.

Ms Marshall did concede, however, that the days of opening large numbers of brand-new schools were probably over. In the early years of the integrated movement, most of the growth had come from new institutions that were following in the footsteps of Lagan College. Over the past decade, however, almost all the progress had come by transferring existing schools into the integrated sector.

“I don’t think there would be the appetite, in times of rationalisation of the schools estate, for opening a large number of new schools,” Ms Marshall said. The educational authorities in Northern Ireland have long believed the country had too many schools, although it has proved difficult to amalgamate and close smaller schools regarded as unsustainable.

Ms Marshall also reported that the NICIE had excellent relations with the various Churches in Northern Ireland, something echoed by the RC Bishop of Derry, the Most Revd Dónal McKeown, a former teacher who leads the Church’s education work. The secretary to the Church of Ireland’s Board of Education for Northern Ireland, Dr Peter Hamill, said that his Church also worked closely with the integrated sector. “There’s never very much of ‘them’ and ‘us’ or anything like that. We certainly don’t see it as a conflict.”

As well as the legal duty on the DofE to encourage the growth of the sector, polls consistently suggest that many people in Northern Ireland want their children to experience mixed education. Tony Gallagher, a professor of education at Queen’s University, Belfast, said that, for 30 years, polling had consistently suggested that about 60 per cent of parents wanted to send their children to an integrated school.


THE situation is not completely straightforward, however. Although parents tell polling organisations that they like integrated schooling, apart from a few outstanding options, such as Lagan College, many integrated schools are undersubscribed, Professor Gallagher said. Parents who, in theory, agreed that Northern Ireland would be better if Protestants and Catholics were educated together, tended to send their own children to non-integrated institutions.

He had done his own research with parents in Omagh, which showed that parents wanted a “guarantee that their child will get a good-quality education and [they are] reasonably flexible about how that will be provided”. Dr Hamill said that this reflected his own experience: “Parents are more and more looking just for good schools.” They were not so worried about which sector.

The education correspondent for The Irish News, Simon Doyle, who has been covering the integrated sector for years, agreed. He estimated that as many as two-thirds of Northern Ireland’s integrated schools would have some empty desks.

Roisin Marshall, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE)

Even those that were technically integrated, and had full student bodies, were far from genuinely diverse, he said. Thanks to their catchment areas, some had as many as 90 per cent Protestant pupils.

Professor Gallagher agreed: the DE was caught between its legal duty to promote integrated education and its policy of trying to close the province’s surplus schools.

The threat of closure has also brought politics into the mix. Three small RC primary schools are currently investigating whether they can become integrated schools. Mr Doyle and Bishop McKeown said that this was not out of any belief in mixed education but a tactic for survival.

Mr Doyle warned: “It’s not a ‘Get-out-of-jail-free’ card: if you’re not a sustainable school, you’re not a sustainable school, irrespective of the type of ethos you are offering.”

To complicate things further, there are controlled schools that are more mixed than their counterparts in the integrated sector. Overall, the figures show that about eight per cent of children in the state-controlled sector are Roman Catholic, although just one per cent of pupils at RC-maintained schools were Protestant.

In some instances, natural demographic changes, or good exam results, have led to diverse student bodies almost by accident. One of the few Belfast schools to have reached a 50-50 split is the Methodist College, a grammar school still run entirely by the Methodist Church as an explicitly one-denominational school.

Mr Doyle was critical of what he described as “empire-building” by NICIE and the integrated-education movement. “You don’t need to go around with a big branding iron and go, thump, that’s an integrated school. It is an integrated school, it’s just not with a capital ‘I’. Let them get on with the work, and that’s great.”

Bishop McKeown agreed: the RC Church believed that many different forms of school could be integrated without formally belonging to the integrated sector. One RC school in Bangor was also 50-50, he reported.


MS MARSHALL, however, rejected these suggestions. She said that NICIE, too, supported the organic development of schools towards integration, where demographics made it possible. But the statistics showing how few parents send their children to schools associated with the other community proved that there was still a need for both NICIE and a formal integrated sector. “Integrated education has been so successful because it has been carried out, in the main, by parents, and therefore it has been sustainable.”

Becoming integrated was much more than simply gaining a stamp of approval from the DE, she said: it was about reflecting on how inclusive a school was in the sports it played, the assemblies it held, the languages it taught, and the events that it celebrated.

The RC sector, in particular, could not rest on its laurels. For decades, bishops and others had been inviting Protestant families to send their children to RC schools, but it had hardly happened. “The sentiment is there, the willingness is there, but what can you actually do so that parents from the perceived Protestant community can say: ‘I trust you with the education of my children?’”

Regardless of how much effort is put into fostering good relations with the “other”, if children are educated separately from the age of four they will grow up believing that that is normal, she said. That was why she still believed that the integrated sector, with a capital “I”, was still as necessary today as it was in 1981, when Lagan College began.


IT IS this attitude which can prove difficult for some churchpeople involved in education in Northern Ireland. Although Ms Marshall and others in the integrated movement say that theirs is an invitational and “altruistic” sector, they can sometimes be perceived as critical. The subtext is: if children are sent to an RC or controlled school rather than an integrated one, they will be turned into “sectarian monsters”, Professor Gallagher noted.

NICIE says that it does not believe that integrated schools are automatically better than their non-integrated counterparts; but the bad feeling remains. “There is a certain resentment on part of the state sector and maintained sector that only the integrated sector is seen as diverse, and everyone else is some kind of sectarian and divisive,” Bishop McKeown said. In 2014, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools even told the then Stormont government that it should abandon its legal commitment to the integrated sector.

Dr Hamill suggested that members of the younger generation currently in schools sometimes could not understand their parents’ obsession with carving out formal mixed identities. “In many ways, the young people are going past the divisions; they don’t have the same problems as maybe their parents do,” he said. “The children are wondering what all the fuss is about, whereas some of the adults are getting excited about all of this.”

While the RC Church supported the idea of integrated education, Bishop McKeown said, it believed that its own schools were part of the solution, not the problem; mixing children together must be done without watering down the distinctiveness and excellence of the RC sector.

“The strength of Catholic education is that it tends to outperform all the other sectors. Nobody is going to say, ‘I will send my child to an integrated school purely for ideological reasons if it’s not delivering a quality outcome.’”

Historically, RC schools dominate league tables in Northern Ireland. For A levels last year, only one non-RC school featured in the top ten highest-performing schools. Both Mr Doyle and Professor Gallagher said that this was one of the barriers to deepening integration. Supporters of RC education fear that more formal integration would dilute the strong brand which their sector had established over many decades.

Professor Gallagher said that the RC authorities believed that their schools existed not just for the current crop of parents, who might vote in favour of integration, but to maintain a faith community in that neighbourhood in perpetuity. Historically, RC schools were also some of the few places in Northern Ireland where Irishness was allowed to flourish, in an era when the country was ruled by a Unionist government, and Nationalism was treated as suspect.

Pupils at St Bede’s Redhill in the covered area outside the canteen

The RC Church has even indicated, in the past, that if one of its schools did transform, they would open another RC one in the same area to ensure that the community still had the choice.

Even though, technically, the high-performing RC schools were open to Protestants, for most parents it remained a “big leap” to send their children to them for these reasons, Mr Doyle said. “If you can ignore all of that, and accept it for the education it provides, the kid will do very well; but you typically don’t get a lot of non-Catholics going to them.”

Bishop McKeown conceded that this was the reality in a still divided Northern Ireland. In Derry, where he lived, none of the city’s Protestants would feel able to send their children across the River Foyle and the confessional divide so that they could attend an RC school, regardless of improved results.


THE Churches are also keen to push alternatives to NICIE’s vision of formally integrated schools. In recent years, “shared education” has become the new buzzword. This means that children from neighbouring controlled and RC schools share classes, sports teams, and sometimes teaching staff, without actually amalgamating. It can even involve the two schools sharing a single campus site, as has occurred in Dalkeith, in Scotland.

Dr Hamill said that, although this initiative had slowed because of a lack of funding in recent years, it was still a success. In his own town, the four secondary schools all took part, allowing pupils to attend other campuses for particular subjects that the other schools may be better at teaching. The DE now has a legal duty to facilitate shared education alongside its continuing responsibility to encourage integration.

“There has been a whole range of situations from places where it can develop as an organic thing: lots of sharing together, teachers and classes; but each proud of their identity while still working together,” Bishop McKeown said.

All the main Churches, Professor Gallagher said, had publicly thrown their weight behind shared education, as a way of showing that they were in favour of reconciliation and integration without implying that their currently non-integrated schools were sectarian or divisive.

The other route sought by the Churches in their aim to integrate outside NICIE is to set up jointly managed church schools. These would be single schools with children from both denominations present, but, instead of being run as state-controlled institutions, as most integrated schools are, they would be governed directly by a trustee body formed of representatives from the Churches. Similar schools exist in Scotland and England, and the DofE in Northern Ireland has published proposals to create the legal framework for them to be set up, although none currently exist.

They would not try, Dr Hamill said, to replace integrated or existing schools, but serve as another option in the ever-expanding menu of school types in Northern Ireland. “It could potentially be a brand-new school, or it could be another school brought together,” he explained, saying that all the Churches were exploring the issue, but had hit legal complications.

Bishop McKeown was keen to emphasise that this was an initiative from the Churches, not the government, and welcomed it as evidence of their desire to pursue integration, albeit in a different manner to NICIE. Joint church schools would be “explicitly Christian”, he said, although the denominations had yet to work out the “semiotics and the symbolism”.

“We want that to be a possibility here. We are quite clear: there is not just one model for integration, there are many of them, and we want to keep faith in education at the forefront.”

Professor Gallagher sounded a note of caution. On several occasions, the Churches had got close to starting a joint church school, but, at the last minute, the project had been postponed. “No one is entirely clear why that has happened,” he said.


IT SEEMS that there is a concern among the Churches that formally integrated schools would lose their Christian ethos; but Ms Marshall said that this could not be further from the case. “NICIE’s mission never has been to get rid of religion out of schools or education, but very much the opposite: to embrace everyone’s religion. I like the term ‘multi-denominational’ — there has to be room for everyone.” Integration was not about ignoring the differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics, and subsuming them into some mushy secularism, but, instead, saying that these differences should not prevent children from being educated together.

She also said that initiatives such as shared education were positive steps, and in no way an enemy of integration. “We need shared education, for sure, and for schools to collaborate and at least not see each other as the enemy; but we also need to make sure we have the opportunity for schools to become integrated through the legal process.” Mixing students in certain classes or sports teams rarely, in her experience, overrode the sense of a school’s fundamental identity as Protestant or Roman Catholic.


NORTHERN IRELAND has now been without a government in Stormont for two-and-a-half years. Many of those working in, and observing, the education sector conceded that, although civil servants at the DofE were working hard, the lack of ministers had stalled progress. Technical issues, such as the prospect of the first-ever Catholic maintained school’s becoming integrated, or the first jointly managed church school, had become bogged down or put on hold.

Some critics, including Mr Doyle, said that it would be better, perhaps, if schools were permitted to integrate by themselves “organically”, driven by changing demography and parental choice rather than being pushed to change from the top.

None the less, Ms Marshall said: “The reality is we do have a divided society in Northern Ireland. Anybody who denies that is not really being totally honest. Maybe education is ahead of the game. We are trying to keep that flame alight.”


Over the sea

THERE are several schools in England which are mixed Protestant and Roman Catholic. One is St Bede’s, in Redhill, Surrey, which was set up in the mid-1970s when an Anglican and an RC school, each threatened with closure, decided to join forces. The executive head of St Bede’s, Stephen Crabtree, speaking last month, said that it was a reaction to the worst of the Troubles.

This year’s Year 7 pupils at St Bede’s School, in Redhill, in assembly

“Because of the difficulties in Northern Ireland, the two sides said: ‘Well, wouldn’t it great to be a beacon and join together?’” Mr Crabtree said. In the 1990s, it grew into a fully ecumenical school — the only one in the country — when Free Churches were added to its foundation. Today, anyone who worships in a congregation recognised by Churches Together in England and Wales is eligible to send their child to St Bede’s.

Besides recruiting chaplains from each denomination, the school also holds regular RC and non-RC eucharists. In its compulsory daily acts of worship, the approach is ecumenical, and features a Bible reading, prayer, and themes from the lectionary. Mr Crabtree, who first taught at St Bede’s in the 1980s, said that the cross-denominational approach made sense, particularly to the students.

“If you spoke to the kids at the school, they would be amazed there are Anglican and Catholic schools around the place. They would think: ‘What on earth would you want to do that for?’ They like the fact that it is a Christian school [but] nobody goes around with a badge saying ‘I’m a Baptist’ or ‘I’m an Anglican’. They are St Bede’s pupils, and they make friends.”

In fact, he said, the Christian ethos was much more significant at St Bede’s than at many other Anglican schools, because all their children came from practising Christian families.

The school remains popular in Redhill — although, Mr Crabtree conceded, this was mostly because of its excellent exam results. But, he remarked: “The ecumenical movement in the Church in my experience has stalled. . . There is very little appetite for combining schools.” Both the local RC and Church of England dioceses saw St Bede’s as a “problem school”, he said, or, at least, as an anomaly that did not fit in with the rest of their network.

There were also tensions: the Roman Catholic hierarchy saw schools as a place to pass on the faith. Mr Crabtree is uncomfortable with this in the ecumenical atmosphere at St Bede’s.

“I’m pretty clear we wouldn’t be allowed to be set up today,” he concluded. “I don’t think the current hierarchy would go for it, on either side. It’s a shame, but then I’m typically Anglican, and I think we ought to be working together. The Church has enough problems in this country without all the differences.”

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