Breaking The Mould: The Roles of Parents and Teachers in the Integrated Schools in Northern Ireland
Centre for the Study of Conflict
School of History, Philosophy and Politics,
Faculty of Humanities, University of Ulster

Breaking The Mould: The Roles of Parents and Teachers in the 
Integrated Schools in Northern Ireland frontispiece

Breaking The Mould: The Roles of Parents and Teachers in the Integrated Schools in Northern Ireland

by Valerie Morgan, Seamus Dunn, Ed Cairns and Grace Fraser
Published by the University of Ulster, Coleraine 199
ISBN 1 87120 643 X
Paperback 97 pp £3.00

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Breaking The Mould:
The Roles of Parents and Teachers
in the Integrated Schools in Northern Ireland

by Valerie Morgan, Seamus Dunn, Ed Cairns and Grace Fraser

Centre for the Study of Conflict
University of Ulster





Context and Background


The Development of the Integrated School Movement in Northern Ireland


Methodology of the Project


The Integrated Schools in Operation at the time of the Project


The Parents


The Teachers


Relationships between Parents and Teachers


General Issues






The Centre for the Study of Conflict welcomes this latest addition to its corpus of work on the role of education in a divided society. It is particularly grateful to Grace Fraser, the researcher on this project, and to Valerie Morgan who worked closely with her in all of the work, especially in the production of this final report.

We are also grateful to ESRC for funding the work, and to the principals and staffs, and many of the parents, associated with the integrated schools of Northern Ireland. Their cooperation and encouragement at all times were of great value to the work.

Before publishing a research report, the Centre for the Study of Conflict submits it to members of a panel of external referees. The current membership of the External Advisory Board comprises:

Dr Halla Beloff, Department of Psychology, University of Edinburgh;
Dr Paul Brennan, UER Des Pays Anglophones, University of Paris III;
Professor Ronnie Buchanan, Institute of Irish Studies, Queen's University Belfast;
Professor Kevin Boyle, Centre for the Study of International Human Rights Law, University of Essex;
Professor John Fulton, School of Education, Queen's University Belfast;
Dr Richard Jenkins, Department of Social Anthropology, University College Swansea;
Dr Peter Lemish, Department of Education, University of Haifa;
Professor Ron McAllister, College of Arts and Sciences, Boston, USA;
Dr Dominic Murray, Department of Education, University College Cork;
Professor James O'Connell, School of Peace Studies, University of Bradford;
Professor John Rex, Centre for Research in Ethnic Studies, University of Warwick;
Professor Peter Stringer, Centre for Social Research, Queen's University Belfast;
Professor Joseph Thompson, Department of Politics, University of Villanova, Pennsylvania.

Seamus Dunn
Director, Centre for the Study of Conflict
March 1992.

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The establishment, during the last decade, of a number of planned integrated schools in Northern Ireland has been one of the most important structural changes in the Northern Ireland education system since the foundation of the state (Dunn & Morgan, 1988). In a wider context these schools represent one manifestation of the upheavals and conflict which have dominated life in Northern Ireland for over twenty years. (Darby, 1976; Dunn, 1986b; Moxon-Browne, 1983).

The Centre for the Study of Conflict in the University of Ulster was initially established to record and investigate all aspects of local social conflict. The remit of the Centre has subsequently widened and taken on an international dimension. It was natural, therefore, that the Centre should, over many years, have taken a prominent part in attempting to analyse and understand the role of education in a divided society (Dunn, 1986a; Dunn & Smith, 1989b; Gallagher, 1989).

Against this background, and because they reflected the existence of social division, academics from the Centre took an interest in the development of the integrated schools from the outset. At first this posed problems since the schools were very new, few in number and small in size, and because there was a fear amongst some of those directly involved with their establishment that research interventions could be harmful or even dangerous. By 1987, when the formal proposals for this and other related studies were initiated, this phase seemed to have passed. There were then seven planned integrated schools (two secondary and five primary) and the researchers were aware of the danger that if investigations were not initiated quickly much information about the early stages of the integrated school movement might be lost. (Dunn & Darby, 1987; Cairns et al, 1989).

A group of academics connected with the Centre for the Study of Conflict, therefore, initiated a series of investigations of the integrated schools. These covered aspects of the founding and management of the school; the involvement of teachers, parents and other groups (such as the churches) in their development; the evolution of the curriculum; and the effects of integrated education on the attitudes of the pupils. This particular study (funded by ESRC) was designed to investigate the roles of parents and teachers in the foundation and subsequent running of the integrated schools. It arose out of a long period of consultation with a number of teachers, parents and other individuals some of whom had been involved with the movement for integrated education from its inception and many of whom had been active in the founding and running of specific schools. Without their co-operation and generous provision of time and information, the project would not have been feasible.

The Aims of the Project

The overall aim of the investigation was 'to examine the roles of parents and teachers in the establishment and running of the set of planned integrated schools which have been established and are in the process of being established in Northern Ireland'.

Under the umbrella of this general aim a number of more specific issues were identified, and these have provided the framework for the actual research. They included:

  1. how parents become aware of and involved in the planned integrated school movement;

  2. the range of motives which parents put forward for choosing an integrated school for their children and an attempt to categorise these motives and to assess their relative importance;

  3. what parents hope will be the outcomes for themselves, their children and the wider community;

  4. what levels of commitment in terms of time and resources are required, and how these vary between the different schools, between individuals and for specific individuals over time;

  5. what aspects of the organisation and running of the schools parents feel most concerned to be involved in and why they regard these as legitimate areas of parental concern;

  6. how parents see the relationship between themselves and the teaching staff of the schools, including whether they are conscious of actual or possible areas of tension or difficulty;

  7. the reasons why teachers choose to move into the integrated school sector, including the relative importance of positive factors like the perceived attractiveness of the new schools, and negative factors like dissatisfaction with the types of schools in which they previously worked;

  8. how teachers see their roles and responsibilities, and the extent to which they are aware of differences from the patterns which obtain in other schools which they have experienced;

  9. how teachers see their career patterns developing as a result of their move into integrated schools and their views about the possibility of returning to other sectors;

  10. the relationship of parents and teachers connected with the planned integrated schools to other official bodies such as central and local government departments, the churches and the teaching unions.

In addition to providing information about the interactions of parents and teachers in the specific context of the integrated schools in Northern Ireland, we also hoped that the findings would make a useful contribution to the wider debate, currently in progress in the United Kingdom, about the organisation and control of schools and the implications of more extensive parental involvement and higher levels of teacher-parent interaction (Adler et al, 1989; Adler et al, 1990; Bottery, 1990a; Brown, 1990; Flude & Hammer, 1990; Maclure, 1989).

We have tried to keep all these objectives clearly in view throughout the project. Inevitably, as the empirical work progressed, it became clear that some of the issues initially identified are more significant than others, and this is reflected in the balance of the report. The last three years have also been a period of rapid educational change, both in the general education scene in Northern Ireland and further afield, and also in the specific area of integrated schools. This has meant that new factors, such as the impact of the provisions relating to integrated schools in the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 1989, had to be incorporated into the investigation and subsequently included in the report (DENI, 1988; DENI, 1990; HMSO, 1989).

The final structure of the report represents an attempt to organise the data collected in a way which reflects what we believe are the central issues concerning the involvement and interaction of parents and teachers in the integrated schools. After a short discussion of the historical background to the development of integrated schools, and a description of the methodology of the study, we have divided the main body of the report into three sections. In these we examine in turn the information we gained from parents, from teachers and about relationships between the two groups. The final part of the study examines a number of issues which we believe will be crucial to the future development of the integrated schools in Northern Ireland. Several of these can only be tentatively identified now, and will have to be investigated through further research over the next few years if their significance, both for education in Northern Ireland and also in a wider UK context, is to be fully understood.

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Out of the analysis of the parent and teacher interviews we have gained considerable insight into the attitudes and motivation of parents and teachers. In this final section of the report we want to reiterate and reinforce some of the general issues which seem crucial in understanding the development of the integrated schools to date and which are likely to have major implications for their future.

Time and skill requirements

Throughout the study we have been conscious of the immense time inputs which teachers and parents have had to put into the development of the schools. The time demands were at their maximum during the initial phases of the establishment of each school but they continue to be heavy. They arise from two main sources, the fact that parents and teachers have had to undertake so many of the responsibilities which would normally fall to a local authority or government department and also from schools' central philosophy of consultation.

This raises a number of questions which in the light of changes towards greater parental involvement and increased local management of all schools, have implications outside Northern Ireland (Halpin,1990; Howell,1990). A situation in which each individual school handles its own interactions with every outside agency does raise issues about efficiency. In the early stages it was probably inevitable that problems had to be tackled on an individual basis, but now the schools are beginning to think about possible structures which might enable them to co-ordinate some aspects of planning in order to cut down the volume of work for each set of governors, parents and teachers. On a very practical level can teachers, and especially teaching principals, be expected to undertake such a wide range of management tasks. The teachers themselves expressed concern about the effect on the quality of their teaching of having to do this over long periods of time. In some cases there may even be a risk to the physical health of those involved. In two of the integrated schools there was a change of principal just at the start of the life of the research project. Although such things are hard to quantify, in both cases it does seem that stress was one of the major factors involved. Similarly there must be uncertainty about whether large numbers of parents can be expected to input so much time and skill indefinitely. Our evidence suggests that parents want to be involved in their children's education but that for most this does not imply a wish or even a willingness to be heavily committed to meetings on a regular basis.

Commitment and motivation

Up to now in the integrated schools these very heavy requirements for time and skill inputs from parents and teachers have been sustained out of the very strong commitment to the concept of integration. Almost all of those strongly connected with the schools are anxious to improve community relations in Northern Ireland and see work for the integrated schools as one practical way of contributing to this process. For many in the core groups behind each school there is a strong link to their religious or political beliefs.

This again raises questions both for the future development of the schools and for wider issues relating to parental involvement in education. It must be questionable whether, in situations where a group was not driven by such a clear commitment and such strong underlying beliefs, parents or teachers would be prepared to put in so much time. Even in the integrated schools some of those who were active at the founding stage indicate that they now feel 'burnt out' and at the same time they are anxious that parents and teachers who are now coming into the schools may not be so ideologically committed and so may not be prepared to invest so much time and energy.

At the same time the very strength of commitment of some of the pioneers of integrated education could itself be problematic. It is not at all clear what are the long term consequences of a relatively small group of individuals with very strong views having a major input into the policy of a school. In the integrated schools the contribution of such individuals was crucial in the initial stages but it may now be posing some problems. The debate over the extent to which the schools should be 'Christian' in their ethos and how this should affect the attitude to the participation of teachers, parents and children of other religious backgrounds or none is related to this and is producing a range of strong opinions. This clearly echoes some of the debates currently surfacing in Britain about the place of religious education in multi-ethnic schools

Another aspect of the impact of individuals with strong commitments and views is the tension between long term and short term policy making. Schools as institutions usually have a long life, well in excess of the child-rearing span of any one family, but individual parents have a much shorter period of direct active participation in their family's education. In a situation where parents have a strong voice in the management of a school, a group of parents with a clear ideology may influence school policy in a particular direction only to be replaced in a relatively short period by another group who may have quite different aspirations for the school.

The integrated schools and official bodies

As was made clear in the first section of this report the integrated schools developed outside the formal religious, political and administrative structures of Northern Ireland. The churches, the political parties and government agencies did little to help the original groups who campaigned for integrated education and in some cases put obstacles in their way.

Once the first schools had been established the attitude shifted from one which could have been characterised as 'we don't want it, but it won't happen anyway' to one which saw the integrated school movement as unwelcome but too small to have to worry about. There has also been a problem for the 'establishment' institutions in that although they may disapprove of integrated schools it has been quite difficult to focus opposition. It is hard to object to parents' wish to influence their children's education or to condemn an organisation which has as one of its central aims the desire to improve community relations and end sectarian violence. This ambivalence is clearly seen in the attitude of the churches, particularly the Roman Catholic church, which on the one hand supports the right of parents to choose the appropriate education for their children but on the other seeks to ensure that all Catholic children are educated in Catholic schools.

Throughout the development of the schools one of the strengths of the movement has been that it has been very difficult to 'tie' the integrated schools to any faction in the community conflict. A common way of defusing cross community movements and peace initiatives in Northern Ireland has been to try to link them to the political aspirations of one faction and hence to undermine their credibility with other elements in the community and destroy their effectiveness as reconciling agents. In the case of the integrated school movement to find and exploit any such weakness has been very difficult since they received no help or support from any official groups or organisations on either side of the community - they could not be portrayed as agents of either Unionism, Nationalism or British government policy.

This may have changed with the Education Reform Order, since this does give a measure of government support to integrated schools. Since financing the establishment of each school has been such a difficult undertaking, the order seeks to provide a financial structure which will assist parents wishing to set up new schools and also provides incentives for turning existing schools into integrated schools. This has clear advantages for the integrated school movement but it does alter their perceived position in the community. What began as a 'grassroots' movement outside all official structures now has government support. In many contexts this could simply be interpreted as government policy reflecting the wishes of the governed in the best traditions of democracy. But in a situation of civil unrest, such as exists in Northern Ireland, it can also be interpreted as government taking over and using an initiative for political ends. Any official support or recognition carries dangers in Northern Ireland and the integrated school movement will have to come to terms with the delicate task of establishing a relationship with DENI whilst at the same time preserving a high level of visible independence.

The structure of the integrated school 'movement'

During its early phases integrated education developed in a very 'ad hoc' fashion. Groups of interested parents met in private homes to begin discussing the issues, planning campaigns for change and eventually organising the establishment of schools. ACT and BELTIE subsequently developed as umbrella organisations to try to co-ordinate the campaign for integrated schooling and exert pressure on government for support, but they have not developed a clear structure and policy nor can they claim to represent all the schools. Individual schools have continued to be established as a result of the work of local pressure groups and there has been no planned sequence in the opening of schools and no general policy concerning the geographical distribution of schools. The effective control on the opening of the next school has usually been the availability of finance, in the form of either grants or loans from the major foundations

After almost ten years and with fourteen schools in operation (1992) there is now considerable pressure both from the foundations and the government for the development of a more coherent policy and organisational structure. The foundations do not wish to continue to be asked to respond to individual local initiatives and government have to try to operate the new legislation in the Education Reform Order relating to integrated schools. Both would like some central body through which negotiations could be carried on. NICIE would seem to be the natural organisation to take on this role but this is currently proving problematic for a number of reasons. One of the things which originally attracted many of the founders to become involved with integrated schools was the 'grassroots' nature of the enterprise and the freedom from a central bureaucracy. Some of those early pioneers are averse to any suggestion that there is an integrated schools 'movement' for them there are just individual integrated schools which may have no more in common with one another than they have with any other schools in Northern Ireland. To move to a position where a body such as NICIE could speak on behalf of the schools or negotiate for them would be seen by many parents and teachers as undermining their roles. At the same time integrated schooling may well now have reached a stage where some thought will have to be given to the development of a medium term strategy for coordinated planning for the opening of new schools and the growth of existing ones.

The future pattern of Integrated schooling

This question of forward planning is clearly linked to the various possible future patterns of and roles for integrated education within the Northern Irish education system. At present both parents and teachers seem to see the future mainly in terms of the expansion of the school they are connected with, plus a general interest in seeing 'more schools' in other parts of the province. The wider issues tend to be seen through rather specific concerns. The teachers see the growth in the number of schools as giving them more flexibility in terms of promotion and career development, whilst the parents are interested in seeing more schools open so that travel will be less of a problem and secondary schooling will be available outside Belfast.

Alternatives to the present process of opening completely new schools also have to be considered in any future planning. The Education Reform Order sets out procedures through which existing schools can change their status to become integrated. In the present social and political climate of Northern Ireland such changes currently seem fraught with difficulty but it is conceivable that in the future they may be more acceptable. This would raise a whole new set of questions for the parents and teachers involved in the original integrated schools, as they would have to consider their relationship with a set of schools approaching integration with a completely different history and possibly totally different underlying aims and values. This raises the further question of whether in the long term the main contribution of integrated schools will be through the establishment of a new structure which will run in parallel with the two existing sets of schools or whether the main effect will be through subtly changing the educational climate and the relationships and expectations of both parents and teachers in the controlled and maintained schools.

With this range of possibilities and the current uncertain but relatively open agenda, there is an urgent need for some more detailed analysis of the possible patterns which may emerge over the next 10 or 15 years. This would have to take into account the demographic and geographical constraints which in a relatively sparsely populated and still predominantly rural community are crucial. If the integrated schools can develop an effective organisational structure, such an analysis might be one of its priorities but at present there does not seem to be a forum through which such questions can be addressed and this may have damaging consequences in the medium or long term.

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This research has tried to examine a social and educational phenomenon which is at a relatively early stage of development and which is changing rapidly. This means that we can only provide a snapshot of where the integrated schools were at a particular moment. During the two years of the project there were major changes, the provisions of the Education Reform Order and the introduction of the Common Curriculum altered the framework within which the schools operate, four new schools opened, new parents and teachers became involved with the schools and long established figures moved out. At the same time in retrospect we believe even more firmly than we did at the outset that it was essential to carry out an investigation at this stage. To have delayed in the interests of 'letting the situation settle' or 'letting the schools find their feet' would have meant that many of the formative early experiences of both teachers and parents would have been forgotten and lost.

The central impression which comes out for us is one of complexity. The phrase parental involvement' is used so often and so glibly in many educational contexts today, as if everyone knew what it entailed and as if its benefits were obvious. The reality is much more clouded. The potential is there, but both parents and teachers are struggling towards a definition of what they mean by and want from involvement. At they same time, although the objectives are still unclear, they are having to try to create mechanisms which will allow them to interact productively without threatening or intimidating one another.

The study had both a specific contextual remit to examine the integrated schools in Northern Ireland and also a wider aim of illuminating the general area of parent-teacher interaction. Against this background the main conclusions are in two groups, those relating directly to the situation in Northern Ireland and those which are pertinent to integrated schools but also have implications for schools throughout the United kingdom. As is perhaps inevitable in research of this sort the report raises as many questions as it answers, so the concluding summary also constitutes an agenda for further research.

Specific Issues for the Integrated Schools In Northern Ireland

(a) The development of structures

It is clear that the integrated schooling sprang from a real grass-roots' initiative which had no links with any of the established religious or political factions in Northern Ireland. This was its great strength during the early period since it protected it from identification with one community and easy attack from the other. A point has now been reached, however, where existing patterns should be re-evaluated and additional structures may be needed. There is uncertainty about whether the parents' councils are fulfilling their function of involving all parents and providing a clear channel for contact with staff. Liaison between the schools could be assisted if there was a forum which all the schools felt able to use to exchange experiences and co-ordinate future planning. Government agencies and the funding bodies are also putting on pressure for the establishment of a structure through which they can interact with the schools collectively. In all these areas structures are needed but there is a clear tension between the high levels of individual initiative characteristic of the founding period and the new demands for more corporate action. The outcomes are still very unclear but one danger is that if the parents and teachers themselves do not evolve structures they may be imposed from outside in formats which might well be at odds with the philosophy of those directly involved.

(b) Moving from primary to secondary school

The primary-secondary interface is a crucial area which is likely to affect the development of integrated education. As an issue it is only just beginning to surface as it is only now that considerable numbers of children are reaching the end of an integrated primary education and their parents are having to decide where they should go for their secondary education. Outside Belfast this is a difficult and sometimes distressing experience for parents and children. The possibilities which must be considered include, the setting up of at least some integrated secondary schools outside Belfast. weekly boarding or negotiation with existing secondary schools to see whether some of them could make any specific provision for an intake of pupils from an integrated primary background. If some thought is not given to this transition it could be that anxiety about what is to happen when the child is 11 could be a factor which might deter some parents from using the schools. From a research perspective it would be very valuable if information could be collected about children leaving integrated primary schools who go into each of the secondary sectors - integrated, catholic, Protestant, grammar, intermediate and comprehensive. Such an investigation merits a research study in its own right.

(c) The career patterns of teachers

The effect of teaching in an integrated school on the medium and long term career patterns of the teachers also needs to be analysed. Most of the teachers came from the segregated school sectors into the integrated schools but there is as yet little evidence that moves in the reverse direction will become common. If in the future teachers do move freely it could have a considerable effect on the whole profession but if the teachers in the integrated schools are isolated they may become frustrated and disillusioned. Again this is an area which should be monitored over the next few years.

(d) Integrated education and parents in mixed marriages

One group of parents for whom the schools have particular importance are those in 'mixed Roman Catholic/Protestant marriages. When we began this research we knew that there was anecdotal evidence that many parents in mixed marriages were involved with the schools. As the study progressed the evidence clearly supported this view and it also became apparent what importance these parents attached to the availability of the schools.

People in mixed marriages can feel isolated and vulnerable in a polarised society such as Northern Ireland. Support from their families may be at best qualified and many social contexts can be awkward. In the integrated school movement they seem to find a setting in which they are not only fully accepted but their particular experience is valued. A connection with the schools therefore seems to have a wider significance for this group and would be very valuable if a more detailed study could be made of in this area. At present there are studies of the demographic aspects of mixed marriages, their incidence, geographical distribution etc. but there is very little information about the social implications.

Wider Issues Arising

Our second set of conclusions raises a number of wider questions relating to parent - teacher interaction which we believe have significance for schools through out the United kingdom. The issues have been analysed in detail in the main sections of the report but to reiterate the central conclusions:-

(a) There are considerable difficulties in sustaining parental involvement after the initial period of innovation. A new initiative generates enormous enthusiasm and commitment, individuals and groups are prepared to give very large amounts of time and expertise in order to achieve a clearly defined objective such as opening a school by a specific date. It is less easy to sustain on-going enthusiasm and interest in the running of an on-going institution. This appears to be true even when there is strong ideological and religious motivation as is the case with the integrated schools in Northern Ireland. In contexts where the issues are less emotive it may be even more difficult.

(b) The formation of actual or perceived cliques is very difficult to avoid. Such groups may well be seen by others as wielding power and influence and also as 'closed'. This perception of exclusiveness seems to be worrying since it may inhibit the process of ensuring that 'new' parents continually come forward to sustain an ongoing but evolving relationship between parents and teachers.

(c) It seems clear that individuals or small groups with strong opinions can exert great influence. This can significantly affect school policy and have far reaching implications. The potential effects this could have if particular social, political or religious groups gained control of schools raises fundamental questions about society's views on the formulation and direction of educational policy.

(d) The evolution of structures which allow a range of levels of interaction between and amongst parents and teachers without any group feeling under threat is crucial This covers mechanisms for strengthening individual parent teacher interactions, and provision of contexts in which discussion within the parent group and amongst the staff group can be facilitated as well as strengthened structures for the two groups to exchange views and co-operate.

(e) The general labels 'parental involvement' and 'parent-teacher co-operation' are oversimplified. Both processes are multi-layered and there is an urgent both to investigate these layers further and also try to support parents and teachers as they try to develop structures to make interaction at all levels more productive.

Much of this concluding section may sound pessimistic and negative, focusing as it does on areas which raise issues needing further analysis because of their complexity. We would be anxious not to conclude on such a note. The integrated schools represent one of the most exciting and innovative developments in education in the United Kingdom.

Throughout our interaction with the schools, the parents and the teachers we have been struck by the energy, enthusiasm and thoughtfulness of those involved and by the strong underlying commitment to providing the best possible education for the children who attend the schools. Changes in almost all aspects of their operation face schools throughout the United Kingdom. The integrated schools have already gone further along some of these paths than others and they can therefore continue to provide valuable case study material to illuminate the next stages for others.

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