‘Undeniable’ demand for integrated schools, but challenges remain 25 years after the Belfast Accord – The Irish Times

Hugh Odling-Smee well remembers the special meeting held at his integrated school after Enniskillen was bombed by the IRA in 1987, killing 11 people.

The day after the attack on a Remembrance Sunday gathering in the town of Co Fermanagh, teenage students and staff at Lagan College in Belfast gathered to discuss the atrocities.

“There was a feeling that it was hit head-on,” he said. “Such a challenge, such an atrocity, was really difficult. Because we had people in school who were Republicans, people who were nationalists, unionists, loyalists, and neither, people like me.

“And how do we talk about it? How do we try to process what happened?

“And I think that has repeatedly made me aware of the challenge of integrated education in such a society, but also the opportunities.”

Olding-Smee, who is now an arts manager, attended Lagan College, Northern Ireland’s first integrated school, in the 1980s.

At that time, only a small proportion of the students in the North went to integrated schools, where Catholic and Protestant students were taught together.

His daughter Martha (12) has completed her education in integrated schools – first at Lough View Integrated Primary in Belfast and now at Lagan College.

Twenty-five years ago, only 56 percent of those surveyed said they would rather send their children to co-religious schools. But according to the latest Life and Times Northern Ireland survey, which aims to track demographic changes, that number has now risen to 69 per cent.

Despite changing public opinion, the number of pupils attending integrated schools has slowly increased – from 2.4 per cent in 1998, the year the Belfast Agreement was signed, to 8 per cent now.

There are apparently many myths surrounding integrated schools. There were concerns that Protestant children would be refused entry and that other groups would be given preferential treatment

The agreement promised to “facilitate and promote integrated education” as an essential part of creating “a culture of tolerance at all levels of society.”

However, most schools in the North are still divided into two categories: “supervised” schools, which have ties to the Catholic Church and cater primarily to Catholic students, and “controlled” schools, which are state-run and cater primarily to Protestant students turn around.

Thousands of youth also attend selective “gymnasium” schools, which are usually segregated for religious reasons.

Canadian-born Meg Hoyt said she and her husband considered integrated education but sent their four children to the nearest government school, Cavehill Primary in north Belfast.

“That exceeded the desire to put them in an integrated school, we really wanted them to be able to walk (to school),” she said.

Because the school was already “demographically integrated,” Hoyt said, a group of parents wanted it to be an integrated institution.

“To be honest, it became quite a tense conversation. There are apparently many myths surrounding integrated schools. There were concerns that Protestant children would be refused entry and other groups would be given preferential treatment,” she said.

“Covid happened and then all talk kind of stopped. We didn’t have a chance to process all the feelings that had surfaced.”

However, she said discussions about possible integration had “shifted some things”.

“For the first time in my memory, they were celebrating St. Patrick’s Day,” she said, and there was also some debate about wearing poppies on Memorial Day.

“We have to make sure the teachers say, ‘People wear poppies and people don’t wear poppies, and that’s okay.’ The school has taken steps in that direction without becoming an integrated school.”

In 1998 there were 33 integrated schools in the North, now there are 68. While integrated schools are overcrowded, dozens of separate schools across Northern Ireland are at risk of closure due to under-enrollment.

When I was growing up it was “Where are you from? What school did you go to? …. I really hope that attending integrated education will make this question irrelevant for my children

Several schools – including state-owned Gillygooley Primary in Omagh, Co Tyrone, Straid Primary in Ballyclare, Co Antrim, and St Anne’s Primary in Donaghadee, Co Down – are trying to integrate to avoid closure.

The state-run Bangor Academy, one of the North’s largest schools with 1,835 students, will vote with parents in June on whether to integrate it, saying the move is “an endorsement of our current ethos and values”.

Only one Catholic school was incorporated – Seaview Primary in Glenarm, Co. Antrim.

Former teacher Yvonne Day, 54, from Belfast was educated at a selective high school in the city. As one of only two Catholics at the school, she found the experience difficult and wanted another option for her own children – all four attended Lagan College.


“Growing up, it was certainly, ‘Where are you from? What school did you go to?’ So all of a sudden you’re in this issue, you’re tagging someone,” she told Belfast-based investigative website The Detail.

“I really hope that this question becomes irrelevant for my children when they go to integrated education.”

She said some parents are unable to send their children to integrated schools because they are overbooked.

“I suppose when people have tried their best to be integrated and then are forced to send their children to non-integrated secondary education, it’s annoying for people, it’s against their principles,” she said.

For decades, integrated education has primarily been an option for middle-class families. However, 10 of the 50 most disadvantaged secondary schools, including in Belfast, Derry and Craigavon, are integrated.

School deprivation is measured by the number of students entitled to free school meals. On average, 30.5 percent of students in integrated schools receive free school meals, compared to 27 percent in separate schools.

In March 2016, £500 million (€569 million) in UK Government funding for collaborative and integrated education was announced as part of the Fresh Start Agreement, which aimed to ensure full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement.

Six years later, just over 10 per cent (£51.3m) of those funds had been spent.

When asked about the low spending, a spokesman for the Department of Education said: “Spending to date is as expected and the Department expects all funds will be used.”

Gráinne Clarke of the Integrated Education Fund (IEF), a charity set up in 1992 to support the growth of the sector in Northern Ireland, said: “In many ways parents and society are much further ahead than our politicians”.

“The demand for integrated education is indisputable here, and we need our political institutions to meet this demand and to use the opportunities that arise,” she said.

The department, she said, must plan new integrated schools and “proactively address the segregation that still exists in our education system.”

A small number of state or Catholic schools have a similar mix of Catholic and Evangelical students as integrated schools. 18 such institutions have at least 25 percent of the enrollment of Catholic and Protestant students.

But Clarke said integrated education “requires so much more”.

“Integrated education is by design, it’s proactive planning and a celebration of cultural differences in the diversity that exists in our society,” she said. “And 25 years after the Good Friday Agreement, it’s an important way to address some of the division and segregation that still exists in our society.”

Schools are also facing major demographic changes.

Census figures show that the percentage of people who identify as “other” — neither Catholic nor Protestant — has increased from about 3 percent in 2001 to 21 percent in 2021.

In 1998, 51 percent of the students were Catholics, 42 percent Protestants and 6.5 percent “Other”. Today, the proportion of Catholic students (50 percent) has remained about the same, but Protestants make up just 30 percent, and the proportion identifying as “Other” has risen to 19 percent.

Prof Tony Gallagher, education expert at Queen’s University Belfast, said the increase in the ‘Other’ category was significant.

According to the Integrated Education Council of Northern Ireland, which encourages the development of integrated education, integrated schools should aim to have at least 40 per cent Catholic students and an equal number of Protestant students each year.

Only one integrated school – New-Bridge Integrated College in Banbridge, Co Down – meets these guidelines. Just over a third of integrated schools — 26 — have either less than 20 percent Catholic or Protestant students.

Prof Galllager said the numbers raise important questions.

“One of the challenges for Catholic or controlled schools is that even if you’re committed to working in community relations, it’s very difficult to do that if you don’t have the other voice in the room,” he said .

“The same applies to an integrated school. Because if you have a group that is a small minority in an institution, the minority may be less willing to engage openly.”

Luke Butterly is an investigative reporter at The Detail, based in Belfast.

Dais Johnston

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