Centre for the Study of Conflict
School of History, Philosophy and Politics,
Faculty of Humanities, University of Ulster
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Integrated Schools: Information For Parents
by Dorothy Wilson and Seamus Dunn
Out of Print
by Dorothy Wilson and Seamus Dunn
Centre for the Study of Conflict
There are now a number of new INTEGRATED schools in Northern Ireland. Many parents have questions to ask about them, especially since they can read all sorts of things about them in the newspapers. Questions like:
This short booklet will try to answer these and other questions by describing the background to the growth of integrated schools and what they hope to achieve.
The purpose of the new integrated schools is to allow Protestant and Catholic children in Northern Ireland to be educated together, without either group becoming any less Protestant or any less Catholic. The schools place great emphasis on the need for children to learn to respect the traditions and views of both communities, and this emphasis is reflected in every aspect of the schools' activities. In particular the curriculum is designed specifically to take account of the existence of two traditions.
There is a long-standing, violent conflict in Northern Ireland and the two sides involved in the conflict often know very little about each other. Part of the underlying philosophy of the new schools is the view that, if children went to school together, some of this mutual ignorance might be dissolved. There is no suggestion that existing schools are by themselves to blame for the conflict. There is no evidence to support such a view. However, it can be argued that, at best, the lack of contact between young people from the two sides during school hours does not help. At worst, it means that stereotypes and distorted images of the 'other side' are allowed to survive and grow without challenge. It is hoped that integrated schools will help by influencing the children, but also that the attitudes acquired at school will also affect their parents and the rest of their families.
Most schools in Northern Ireland are attended mainly by Catholics or mainly by Protestants. There are all sorts of reasons for this, some of them historical, some arising from genuinely held convictions and some resulting from old suspicions. The people involved in the new schools are not in any way opposed to these existing schools. Most religions and most societies agree that parents have the right to decide how and where their children will be educated. So those parents who wish to send their children to schools where their own religion and culture are central are entitled to do so, and the integrated schools would support them if anyone tried to oppose their right to do so. It is also accepted that these schools have made and are making important contributions to their communities and to the life of Northern Ireland.
It is also the case that there are parents who do not wish to send their children to such schools, and they too have rights. Over the years these rights have been difficult to achieve, leading to a sense of frustration and injustice. The refusal to take seriously the need for integrated schools has, in the past, been justified on the grounds that parents in general did not want to change, that they were satisfied with the existing separated and church-based systems, and that those who spoke of integrated schools were a tiny minority. These views may have been true in the past, although it must also be said that no serious attempt has ever been made in Northern Ireland to find out the views of parents, so it was impossible to know how widespread the support for integration was.
The argument began to be tested in 1974 when the All Children Together (ACT) movement was established. ACT was a group of parents and others interested in integrated education. They met together to discuss and study the issues, and acted as a pressure group in support of integrated schools. Even then it was not the intention of ACT to create new schools. It was thought that some existing schools could be persuaded to change themselves into integrated schools, especially when a series of national opinion polls indicated a considerable body of opinion in Northern Ireland in favour of some form of integration.
It proved very difficult to persuade existing schools and their associated churches to do anything so dramatic as to convert their schools into integrated schools, and eventually it was decided to establish a new school as an example of what an integrated school could be. This school was Lagan College, which opened in 1981. A second pressure group was established in 1984 called the Belfast Trust for Integrated Education (BELTIE). Together the two groups were responsible for the creation in 1985 of three new integrated schools in Belfast: Forge Primary, Hazelwood Primary and Hazelwood College. Six other new primary schools have since opened. Indeed developments have been so rapid and successful that the Department of Education for Northern Ireland has included in its new Educational Reform Order a number of articles in support of integrated education including a statutory responsibility to encourage its growth.
All of these schools have been created by groups of parents who wished to have available a different form of school for their own and their neighbour's children. In various parts of the province groups of parents met together, often in their own homes, and worked at the problems of how to create a new school. So the schools were not the work of the Government, or the churches, or any other large and powerful group in the community. To begin with the parents had no access to Government money at all and had no buildings, no desks or books, and no salaries for teachers. They had to face the task of finding resources, and then trying to understand a great many complex legal and financial matters. For money they had to rely on the help of charitable foundations and trusts, and on voluntary contributions. In time a pool of expertise was built up about all these matters, and this expertise has been made available to all the new groups as they have emerged.
Because the integrated schools have resulted directly from the initiative and work of parents, the relationships between the schools and the parents are different from many other schools. The parents have a sense of shared ownership of the school; they feel responsible for it and they have a stake in many of the decisions made about it. This relationship is discussed more fully later.
A complete list of new integrated schools, with other useful information, is given in Appendix 2. However, this list represents only part of the picture since a number of other schools are at various stages of development, and the overall picture is continually changing. We now turn to the question, what exactly is an INTEGRATED school?
Research has shown that there is a range of opinion about what constitutes an integrated school. Some people would argue that there are already many integrated schools in Northern Ireland, that there always have been and that the new schools are unnecessary. For example, it is argued that all Controlled schools are integrated in that they are open to any pupil, regardless of religion. Others dispute that Controlled schools are truly integrated on the grounds that they are really Protestant schools and that their Protestantism is reflected in their management bodies and their general atmosphere. Many, when pressed, make it clear that for them an integrated school is simply one where both Catholic and Protestant children can be found. And if this simple criterion is accepted then there are indeed many schools in Northern Ireland where a minority of the 'other' community attend.
However, the new integrated schools argue that to have both communities represented in such a way is not enough in itself, and that, if a school is to be properly integrated, it must try to take account of three important issues.
These are to do with:
It must also be pointed out that the schools are new and are in a state of evolution, so some aspects of these issues will change and develop as time goes on. Any attempt at a complete analysis at this early stage is therefore bound to be modified in the future.
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