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Text: Grace Fraser and Valerie Morgan ... Page Design: Fionnuala McKenna
IN THE FRAME
Integrated Education in Northern Ireland:
the implications of expansion
Grace Fraser and Valerie Morgan
University of Ulster
Centre for the Study of Conflict
ISBN 1 85923 133 0
1999 Centre for the Study of Conflict
THE CURRENT SITUATION CRUCIAL EVENTS AND ISSUES
The major part of this project focused on how the development of integrated education and integrated schools was and is perceived. In the course of the analysis it has been necessary to examine the views and actions of a range of different groups involved in the Northern Ireland education system and as already suggested this may result in a somewhat fragmented picture. However, much of the dynamic of integrated education has resulted from the complex interaction of complementary and opposing interests operating within a changing political and economic climate. In order to highlight the importance of such interrelationships in this final section of the report we will examine some of the controversial issues/incidents which are currently causing concern to all the groups we interviewed and the outcome of which is likely to materially affect the future direction of developments in integrated education.
Although a number of specific strands can be identified, for example the problems surrounding the opening of new schools in autumn 1997, the controversy over the proposed criteria for ‘transformation’ and the Oakwood judicial review, all the difficulties are linked to the central and more general issue of expansion. Educational, ideological, political, religious, economic and logistic debate all focus around the reality of the interaction of a small, slowly evolving, carefully balanced education system and a new sector which sees growth and change as part of its ‘raison d’etre’. All the problems, and the tensions, which this interaction generates are clearly illustrated by the Oakwood judicial review.
In September 1996 three new integrated schools were opened. The two secondary level colleges, Slemish in Ballymena and North Coast in Coleraine, having received prior approval from DENI, were funded as grant-maintained schools from day one; but the primary school, Oakwood, in west Belfast, received no government funding. It had had its application for approval rejected by DENI on 17th June 1996 on the grounds that it had not met the Department’s criteria. The Oakwood proposal dated back to March 1995 when a public meeting was held in Lisburn for parents and others interested in establishing an integrated primary school in the Derriaghy area. But in September 1995 when the first Oakwood proposal went to DENI the South Eastem Education and Library Board had just submitted an alternative proposal. This was for the transformation to controlled integrated status of Hilden primary school, a school initially founded to serve the children of workers at a local textile mill which had traditionally had a mixed Catholic and Protestant intake. Hilden is situated 2.3 miles from the proposed site of Oakwood in Derriaghy. The Hilden and Oakwood proposals went to DENI on 5th and 26th September 1995 respectively. DENI rejected the Oakwood proposal on the grounds that demand for integrated primary education in the area could be met by Hilden and, therefore it would be wrong to commit resources to the funding of a new school. The Oakwood group disputed this view and put in a second proposal in March 1996, which was turned down by DENI in June 1996. This time DENI commented that ‘the general area’ (later explained in response to NICIE’s request for clarification as ‘the Lisburn/Malone Road-Lisburn town corridor including Finaghy, Dunmurry, Derriaghy, Twinbrook, Poleglass and Lambeg’) contained sufficient places to meet the demand for integrated education not only in Hilden but also in another school, Cranmore, a grant-maintained integrated primary school off the Malone Road, Belfast, which had opened in 1993.
Oakwood became the first integrated primary school to have been turned down by DENI after the 1989 Education Reform Order came into effect. NICIE’s development team writing in their 1995/6 report offered a version of events from their perspective.
‘Oakwood met all the conditions that NICIE had ever been informed of by the Department of Education. It had pre-enrolments in excess of CEDAR IFS which had been approved the previous year and, in addition, met the new revised criteria announced by Michael Ancram MP in July 1996. Only through the financial support of the JEF (Integrated Education Fund) did the school come into existence’ (Developments in Integrated Education, NICIE, 1996).
In spite of this major setback the parents who had been involved with Oakwood refused to abandon their efforts to set up a school and obtained sufficient funds from private sources to enable them to open independently. The then chairman of NICIE, Colm Murray Cavanagh, paid tribute to them in terms which not only convey the intensity of feeling stirred up among integrationists by the government’s rejection but also reflect their confidence in their ability to overcome such obstacles.
‘That the Department of Education does not recognise it and it has to open as an independent school, brings us back almost full circle to 1981 when trail blazing parents opened Lagan College for 28 pupils in a scout hut. That fountain of all our new integrated schools is still an immensely important benchmark in Northern Ireland and the spirit of those 1981 parents is still alive and well in Derriaghy - only this time they have far more friends and are now part of what the Department of Education has referred to as a "maturing sector"’ (NICIE, 1996).
Before the implementation of the 1989 Education Reform (NI) Order new planned integrated schools had had to open without government funding. Founding parent groups had had little choice but to take responsibility for both the recurrent and capital costs of the school until its viability could be proved and grant maintained status was achieved. The 1989 Reform Order, however, provided a mechanism through which non-capital funding could be provided from day one provided criteria, which related primarily to proving a demand for the school, had been met. In the case of Oakwood, DENI identified a number of problems but their principal claim was that the parents had not adequately demonstrated that there was a need for a new integrated school in Derriaghy. Indeed DENI officials themselves ‘were convinced that there were enough integrated schools in west Belfast’. The existing integrated schools referred to were Cranmore and Hilden. ‘It would not be justified to commit any more resources to the creation of another integrated school when we already have Cranmore and Hilden’ , a DENI spokesman said, to a Sunday Times correspondent in November 1996. A comment from a NICIE spokesman interviewed in June 1997 provided an interesting alternative view on the question of resources. He believed that it was very important to get into perspective what DENI’s actual financial commitment to a new school means and argued that until a school’s viability has been fully established ‘DENI only commits itself to pay recurrent costs. NICIE carries the capital costs bill which is considerable. I cannot emphasise this enough’.
Oakwood parents, however, refused to accept DENI’s analysis of the limited need for integrated education in their area. They argued that their proposal had met the DENI criteria in terms of initial enrolment figures, projected future growth in numbers and religious balance. Furthermore, they argued, there was a clear need for a new integrated primary school on the Derriaghy site since Cranmore and Hilden were not viable alternatives. Cranmore was heavily oversubscribed and already faced severe accommodation problems. In January 1996, when the project Research Officer visited Cranmore serious problems of accommodation were indeed apparent. The school, then in its third year had a role of 101 with a large waiting list. With a restricted site in a heavily populated residential area, expansion seemed impossible and 19 alternative sites had already been considered with no success. The principal’s own classroom was so small that she could hardly move around to work with the children and had to stand at the front for most of the time. (Cranmore’s accommodation problems may now be solved with the prospect of a move to a new location). Hilden did have surplus places but it was situated in a predominantly loyalist part of Lisburn to which parents from the Catholic Twinbrook estate were ‘not prepared to send their children’. According to NIClE ‘the school was nice, the site is tiny and not capable of being expanded’. Oakwood on the other hand, ‘lay on a neutral site’ and was, therefore, ‘ideally placed for kids from both sides of the divide’, with the ability to draw on and serve the heavily populated areas of Derriaghy, Dunmurray, Twinbrook, Poleglass, Lambeg and Seymour Hill. In addition NICIE also claimed that DENI had done an analysis of Hilden’s catchment area using the postal addresses of pupils at the school and that when this was compared with the addresses of parents wishing to send their children to Qakwood it indicated two quite distinct catchment areas. ‘Hilden draws on a small local area. Oakwood can attract children from both communities in Twinbrook, Poleglass and Dunmurry whose parents want them to receive an integrated education’. Urging the government ‘to put its money where its mouth is’ regarding integrated education, the Oakwood parents decided to mount a legal challenge to the government’s decision via a judicial review. Their decision was fully backed by NICIE whose chief executive, Michael Wardlow, spelled out the significance of the impending legal review:
‘our new primary school started as an independent school, having been refused Government approval twice, despite fulfilling all the previous year’s viability tests. Whilst applauding the parents and teachers who proceeded to open Oakwood primary school in Derriaghy, with the support of the JEF (Integrated Education Fund) we find the reasons offered for the refusal to be totally unacceptable. If the decision is allowed to stand unchallenged, a new element will be added to all future viability tests, that of a priority being afforded by the Minister to those existing controlled transforming schools, which may still have available places, whatever their stage of development, or whether or not they have had prior contact with NICIE’.
On 13 January 1997, the judicial review began in the High Court, Belfast with Lord Justice Kerr presiding. The formal request for a review had been brought by one Oakwood parent, Rosena Murray, on behalf of her son, then a five year old pupil at Oakwood and was supported by NICIE and the Oakwood Board of Governors. Given the lengthy and complex nature of the legal arguments presented, this account offers only an outline of what we consider to be the crucial issues underpinning the proceedings, namely those of parental choice and public funding.
The Oakwood case was that the founding group’s proposals had been made in the light of DENI criteria as they were understood to be ‘within the framework then applying’. In such circumstances if DENI refused approval they must have done so because they had changed the criteria. In this sense Oakwood had been treated ‘differently’ by the ‘caprice of government’. The barrister representing Rosena Murray suggested the cost factor as the basic explanation of DENI ‘s conduct and cited a DENI minute of 2 April 1996 which claimed that the demand for integrated education in the area could be met by one new school. If this were the case he argued, then there could be little doubt but that the obligation laid on DENI by the 1989 Order to ‘encourage and facilitate the development of integrated education’ had been ‘abandoned in favour of saving expense’. On this reading, DENI’s decision to withhold approval from Oakwood was ‘untenable’. It ‘flew in the face of the evidence’ and ‘ignored a variety of factors’. To some extent, however, this argument had been pre-empted by Lord Justice Kerr’s opening remarks on the second day of the hearing:
‘public resources are not limitless, one cannot expect government to be prepared for every possibility which might arise:
The clear implication was that public needs had to be balanced against parental wishes, even if, as the Oakwood barrister had maintained, the ordinary citizen had certain expectations of government ministers in relation to the implementation of policy.
DENI’s lawyers strenuously denied that there had been any change in the criteria then applying to the granting of conditional approval to proposals for new integrated schools. They insisted that DENI always has an obligation as a responsible department of government to consider costs. Demand and economics were in fact ‘twin issues’ when educational provision was being considered. The Oakwood governors, it was argued, were aware of this from the start and should have taken it into account in planning their actions. DENI, on the other hand, had discharged their obligations ‘in the light of all the circumstances’. Moreover, there was nothing in the 1989 legislation which stated that DENI had to ‘succumb, surrender to parental choice’. Not surprisingly the Oakwood ‘side’ disagreed, and introduced a series of issues relating to the relationship between DENI and the minister. Had DENI misled the minister into thinking that the Oakwood proposal was unreasonable? Had the minister (Michael Ancram) misinterpreted what DENI officials had said? From this side of the argument the chain of events was difficult to unravel but the issue was clear. Turning down Oakwood was a ‘restriction of parental choice. It was a deliberate attempt on the part of DENI to curb this’. The application for a judicial review lasted three days and ended on 15 January 1997.
In September 1997, nine months after the judicial review hearing took place, a new school year began and the findings of the review were still not available. But developments in relation to other aspects of integrated education had not stood still. The funding and possibly the fate of Oakwood remained uncertain and its parents had to seek outside funding for another session. Although Slemish and North Coast Integrated Colleges were approved by DENI in September 1996, three further secondary level integrated schools - East Antrim (later named Ulidia), Strangford and Malone - whose founding groups had joined NICIE’s support programme for groups involved in setting up new schools in January 1996 with the aim of opening in September 1997, were turned down. In the cases of East Antrim (Ulidia) and Strangford, revised plans had been produced after DENI vetoed the original schemes in February 1997, but, even with the changes, the proposals were judged as unacceptable in terms of accommodation and long term enrolment potential and were rejected in June 1997. Malone which had been given approval conditional on securing a permanent site by 14 March 1997 had had this withdrawn on 18th March after frantic attempts to secure a site at Musgrave Park Playing Fields failed. Previously a number of new integrated schools had opened on temporary sites whilst negotiations for a permanent location continued but DENI ruled that it was no longer acceptable. DENI explained:
‘to facilitate the open enrolment process, a decision regarding the opening of the school had to be taken by 14 March. Under the Transfer procedure arrangements, secondary schools have to be notified by 21 March of the parental preferences expressed on the Transfer Report forms so that they can consider which pupils to admit in September’ (Northern Ireland Office Information Service 18.3.97).
These three rejections further soured the relationship between the integrated movement and government. ACT-LETT bitterly condemned DENI for turning down Strangford and East Antrim (Ulidia) on the grounds that it was unlikely that they would achieve an acceptable religious balance between the two communities whilst at the same time giving approval to five existing schools wishing to transform from controlled to integrated status, ‘without much evidence that they would be able to achieve a long term enrolment from the local minority tradition’ (ACT-LETT, 1997). The comments of the new minister (Tony Worthington) at this stage provided clear evidence of the direction which government thinking was taking:
‘the integrated sector continues to grow, with four new integrated schools approved since the beginning of the year. These are existing schools which are transforming to integrated status and it is pleasing to see the growing interest from schools in transformation, which represents the most practical and cost-effective way of extending the opportunity for integrated education to a greater number of parents. Government remains committed to integrated education and I have invited the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education to meet with me to discuss how we can continue to encourage and facilitate further development of the sector within the limits of affordability’ (MO Information Service, 4.6.97).
In fact the whole history of the applications from Strangford, East Antrim and Malone had created friction and ill feeling. The three Parent Steering Groups had joined NICIE’s support programme for groups involved in setting up new schools in January 1996 with the expectation that they would follow a well mapped out path to fully funded opening. But in July 1996 the Minister (Michael Ancram) announced that an initial enrolment of 100 pupils, rather than the previous 60, would be necessary for new secondary integrated schools. This was seen as DENI ‘moving the goalposts’ and NICIE staff were of the opinion that it would work against all proposals for new colleges in areas outside the Belfast conurbation because of the relatively low population density over much of Northern Ireland. Almost immediately after rejecting the new integrated secondary schools, on 1 August 1997, the government gave the go-ahead for the transformation of Down Academy, a co-ed controlled secondary school formed in 1991 from the amalgamation of three controlled schools in Downpatrick, to controlled integrated status to take effect from September 1998, a move which suggested that, whilst new schools were unacceptable, transformation was favoured. This was reinforced by later decisions to grant conditional approval for the transformation of Bangor Central Primary School, two further secondary schools - Priory College (Holywood High School) and Forthill High School (Lisburn).
Against this background and copying Oakwood’s example the three founding groups whose proposals had been rejected went ahead without government support and opened their schools for the 1997/8 session. The total cost for the first year was estimated at £2 million and this was raised from various private sources including IEF. It seems clear that this pattern cannot continue indefinitely and both NICIE and DENI did seem to be aware that negotiation of some new formula was essential. NICIE appreciate that the number of new integrated primary and secondary schools required will be finite and than sooner or later the integrated education movement will have expanded to the point where parental demand is satisfied. It is also clear that DENI’s favoured policy - to encourage existing schools to ‘transform’ - is one way of supporting and encouraging integrated education without committing so large a proportion of available resources to the new integrated schools that other schools are, or just as important believe they are, disadvantaged.
On the other hand the transformation policy currently runs the risk of pleasing no-one in any way connected with the integration movement. The ‘purists’ amongst the supporters of integration favour the tabula rasa approach i.e. starting up new integrated schools with no links to pre-existing foundations - since they believe that this provides the best chance of producing a school which fully respects both traditions. At the same time they are realists, they are well aware of the financial constraints now bedevilling all aspects of education. Such awareness means that transformation has to be looked at seriously by those favouring integrated education. But the current procedures for managing the process do not satisfy many of those who are not opposed in principle. They believe that there are inadequate requirements for achieving a balance in the enrolment and insufficient allocation of resources to support the transformation process e.g. to allow extra staff from the minority tradition to be appointed during transition. Again this has to be seen against a background of ad hoc pronouncements and apparent policy shifts which have led to a lack of confidence in government’s understanding of the complexity of changing the ethos of schools which transform. For example, DENI initially suggested that a school with 1% of pupil enrolment from the minority community could transform and be referred to as an integrated school. This was later modified to a requirement for 5% and in the document ‘Framework for Transformation’ published in mid 1997 a figure of 10% is suggested:
‘In line with those arrangements, approval is conditional upon the school achieving a minimum of 10% of its first year intake from the minority religion (Catholic or Protestant) in its form 1 intake on the date specified’ (DENI, 1997).
Even this falls far short of the ‘balance’ - ideally within the 60%-40% range and only exceptionally falling to 70%-30% - favoured by NICIE. The controversy over percentages is, however, more significant as yet another indicator of the lack of agreement and understanding between the parties.
The very end of 1997, however, saw further events which did not make compromise seem nearer. On 5 December the findings of the Oakwood judicial review were made public. The judge upheld DENI’s decision not to fund the integrated primary school. He stated that although the Oakwood proposal had met the formal criteria in terms of initial enrolment DENI had also been seeking to protect the two nearest integrated primary schools, Cranmore and Hilden, from what the Department perceived to be a danger to their rolls. In addition Lord Justice Kerr said he believed that DENI was entitled to have regard to the impact of such proposals on public expenditure. Nor could DENI’s rejection of Oakwood be regarded as a departure from established policy because the ‘so-called framework document of1990’ which the applicant argued should have governed DENI’s decisions did not in his opinion ‘establish a series of immutable rules’. In his opinion, therefore, DENI had acted correctly. The decision was perhaps not unexpected but the Oakwood Board of Governors and NICIE in particular had hoped that at the very least DENI would have had to face a public reprimand which would have made them much more circumspect in their dealings with the integrated sector in the future. It seems clear from Lord Justice Kerr’s concluding remarks that although he appeared to have some sympathy for the Oakwood group whose proposal had indeed met the then enrolment and viability criteria, he considered it did not lie within the remit of a judicial review ‘to challenge the merits of a decision, merely the procedure by which it is reached’ (Kerr 1997).
Almost immediately DENI made an announcement - just as schools closed for the Christmas holidays. This began with a statement that the Education Minister had given conditional approval for Kilbroney Primary School, a controlled co-educational primary school in the County Down village of Rostrevor, to transform to controlled integrated status from September 1998. The same announcement went on to say that the proposal for grant maintained integrated status for Oakwood Independent Integrated School had been turned down again on the grounds of ‘insufficient evidence of the school’s potential to achieve the necessary religious balance in its enrolments in the long term’. The Minister, Tony Worthington concluded:
‘I can understand the disappointment this will bring to the parents of the children at Oakwood Independent Integrated School. However, in considering the proposal I could not be satisfied, from the information on enrolments provided by the school, that it would be able to sustain the required level of religious integration in a long-term enrolment of 150 - 1 75 pupils. I also have to take account of the availability of places at Hilden Controlled Integrated School and the potential adverse impact that approval of another integrated school in the area might have on its transformation’ (NIO Information Service, 17.12.97).
This was not all, however, since at the same time DENI announced decisions on the three secondary schools which had been operating without government support since September. Conditional approval was given by the Minister for the Malone College proposal. After the standard comments about the proposal having met the necessary criteria, there came the following statement, clearly designed to counter suggestions that DENI was placing obstacle after obstacle in the way of the opening of new - i.e. not transformed - integrated schools.
‘While I hope that the emphasis in the integrated sector in the future will continue to be on the transformation of existing schools, this approval demonstrates that new integrated schools can be approved provided that they meet the necessary criteria and it underlines the balanced approach which my department is taking to facilitate and support the development of integrated education.’
Ulidia and Strangford Colleges, however, shared the fate of Qakwood. Their proposals were rejected for the third time and apparently for the same reason as before - failure to convince DENI that they could ‘achieve the necessary religious balance in enrolments in the long term’. In addition, citing grounds similar to those used in relation to Oakwood ‘s possible impact on Hilden, Strangford was also turned down because its development could adversely affect ‘the efforts of Priory College in Holywood to transform successfully to integrated status’. Interviewed that day for Radio Ulster, Tony Worthington defended what he had announced. As a government minister, he was obliged to act sensibly where public money was concerned. He could not sanction the spending of large sums of money for the building of new schools in the integrated sector whilst at the same time there were many existing schools in need of repair. Whilst he recognised that the path to integrated education was ‘hard’ and whilst he had ‘enormous admiration for all those concerned with integrated schools’ he had to consider that 50% of his capita for the next three years was committed to integrated schools which served only 2% of the school population. With no mention of problems surrounding transformation such as religious balance or ethos, the issue of funding seemed paramount.
So the relationship between government ministers and DENI on the one hand and NICIE and the integrated schools on the other has been and continues to be problematic. The disappearance of the Integrated Schools branch with the recent restructuring of DENI has not helped to retain good workable links or forge new ones. To the authors of this report the legal action over Oakwood appeared to mark a tragic all-time low in the relationship between DENI and NICIE symbolised in the two groups of representatives, ostensibly with shared interests, seated in frosty isolation at opposite sides of Belfast’s High Court. This inevitably begs the question, could such an expensive, time consuming and embittering action have been avoided? NICIE would argue that a stand had to be made on the criteria for grant maintained integrated status ‘if grant maintained status schools were not to be virtually hounded out of the picture’. It was also claimed that such a stand would focus attention on what NICIE called the ‘tokenism’ of allowing one school (Hilden) to transform on the basis of a small minority representation but rejecting a new school (Oakwood) which already met the more stringent criteria for religious balance applying to new integrated schools. If the future is to lie with DENI’s transformation mode of integration, NICIE know that they will have to work with this and try to influence its application as far as they can. It seems that NICIE is already taking up this challenge but they have no power base as a statutory body and transforming schools are not obliged to consult them. Their previous pattern of activity has been concerned in the main with assisting in the establishment of new schools which have opened at a rate which has kept NICIE staff extremely busy. Consequently there has been limited time to develop in other directions, such as work with existing integrated schools or the processes involved in operationalising transformation. At the same time NICIE has a huge reservoir of expertise and if DENI were to marginalise them in pushing for transformation this would have both practical and symbolic significance. It would squander experience built up over the last ten years and strengthen the voices of those who claim that integrated education was hi-jacked by government in 1989.
CONCLUSIONS AND POSSIBLE WAYS FORWARD
Whether mass education in Ireland should be provided on a religiously segregated or denominationally integrated basis has been a controversial issue since the early nineteenth century. In other words the late twentieth century debate about integrated schools in Northern Ireland must be set in a long historical context. Seen in such a perspective and against the background of almost thirty years of serious political violence the complex and sometimes convoluted relationships between education, religion, politics and economics, which the development of integrated education has highlighted, are hardly surprising.
The initial pioneers of integrated education were anxious to emphasise that the development of the new schools was not a political move, indeed there was a conscious desire to stand outside the established political structures and see this as one possible alternative approach to handling Northern Ireland’s community divisions. Whilst there were only a few schools this was to a considerable extent possible, partially because the major educational players did not see the integrated schools as a serious challenge to existing structures. With expansion, however, has come the inevitability of being drawn into the complex religious, social and economic politics of Northern Ireland. As a result every action by any of the schools or by NICIE is scrutinised for its implications by all the other groups involved in education and similarly the schools are sensitive to the slightest nuances of government policy and professional and public opinion.
During the early years the first schools were extremely isolated but in a way their numerical insignificance and lack of official support, especially financial support, gave them independence and made it harder to attack them. Now over forty schools constitute a significant grouping and the recurrent and capital funding which all, but the newest wave, receive means that they constitute a considerable item in the education budget. One result is that since at least the late 1980s the future of integrated education has been closely linked to political developments, shifting political policies and priorities and even perhaps the ambitions of politicians. Indeed it has been argued that the changes in financial arrangements of the late 1 980s and the provisions relating to integrated education in the 1989 Education Reform (NI) Order reflect in considerable measure the influence of ministers, especially Dr Brian Mawhinney.
The picture is indeed complex at all levels although some of the developments were perhaps predictable. In ‘Breaking the Mould’ (1992) we recorded the efforts and aspirations of those parents who had struggled to establish some of the early integrated schools and of those teachers who had opted to teach in them. At that point it would have been difficult to predict the effect of the 1989 Reform Order on the growth of integrated education. Now it seems obvious that without the legislation fewer schools would have been opened each year and the cost to government, especially for the provision of secondary schools, would have been less. But the potential pressure for expansion was clearly there since what was more natural than for parents of pupils in integrated primary schools to want their children to continue to be educated in similar structures at secondary level. When we spoke to parents with children in integrated primary schools in the late 1980s and early 1990s there was some anxiety about what would transpire at the end of their children’s primary career but also a feeling that at least they would have experienced an integrated environment at a significant stage in their education. However the rapid growth in the number of pupils in integrated primary schools reaching the 11+ transition during the early 1 990s increased the pressure at an extent we had perhaps not anticipated.
At the same time the move from an integrated primary school to an integrated college is not necessarily automatic when the option is available. Interviews with integrated college principals indicate that a straightforward transfer of the whole class from a neighbouring integrated primary school is far too simplistic a model. There is clear evidence that even parents who have played a major role in the original primary school founder group have then gone on to choose non-integrated second-level schools for their children in preference to an accessible integrated college. This apparent inconsistency, we believe, highlights the fact that the nature of the decision parents make for their children at the age of 11 is fundamentally different from the one they made when the child was aged 4 or 5. By the age of transfer the range of variables to be considered is likely to have widened and the balance of priorities shifted. Secondary schools are frequently judged primarily in terms of how well they perform in preparing their pupils for public examinations and access to higher education. The competition between schools for pupils, which government policy of the 1980s and early 90s encouraged, occurs principally at secondary level. In this league table world it takes time for a school to become established, a new integrated college just starting up with a small staff in buildings which frequently compare unfavourably with established schools has to build up a reputation from scratch. For some parents, therefore, it seems easier and more sensible to opt for the nearest well-established secondary level school, especially if their child achieves a grade in the transfer tests which makes an offer of a place at a selective school likely. Local pride in a town’s grammar schools is often a factor influencing choice. In contrast a ‘leap of faith’ may be needed if parents decide to stay in the integrated sector. There may be a leap of faith and also one of imagination for a parent and/or a child trying to gain some impression of a school’s potential over the next seven years when they are faced not with substantial stone buildings, extensive playing fields, high-tech labs and computer suites but with grey ‘portakabins’ strewn across a muddy field at the end of a lane. Here the integration issue is interacting with the equally controversial debate about the retention of selective secondary education in Northern Ireland and the way this affects the allocation of resources and the pattern of achievement.
Finally account must be taken of the political uncertainty which overshadows any area of public policy in Northern Ireland. With major changes in the political landscape quite possible during the life of the current Labour administration another set of variables is introduced and it is almost impossible to predict how the situation will develop. A particularly important question is what would be the impact of any form of devolved local administration. The local political parties have not formulated detailed policies in social areas such as education and are not willing to commit themselves on the outline of their approaches to integrated education. But it is not difficult to envisage the possibility of serious problems and major adjustments if integrated education was part of the responsibility of a regional government run by local politicians with strong roots in their own section of the community and close links to its segregated institutions.
At more practical and immediate level, many features of the debate about integrated education currently seem to be driven primarily by economic considerations. Issues such as the opening of new schools, the building of pennanent premises and the balance of advantage between green-field site schools and transformation of existing institutions entail a range of educational, social and financial considerations but at present the approach of government and DENI in particular appears to be focused on cost. At the same time it seems clear that to continue to develop a whole new set of schools without undertaking a serious review of the whole structure and of the impact of features of the system such as the selective secondary system is increasing problems of fragmentation and duplication of facilities.
The major upheavals and the long period of readjustment which resulted from the 1989 Reform Order are still very fresh in the memory of educational professionals at all levels, so to suggest that a further radical review may be necessary is not likely to be welcome. However, it is hard to see how some of the current issues, such as transformation, can be resolved unless the whole pattern of school provision in Northern Ireland is re-analysed. But even to suggest the possibility of change is contentious since it implies a willingness to revisit the delicate balances and compromises negotiated over the 75 years of the state’s existence. And here there is much more than cost and economy at stake. Thus, for example, to ask people from across all sectors of education to become engaged in a serious analysis of transformation would be very difficult because of the implied acceptance of change to structures of control, structures which have become bound up with the identity of all sections of the community. In such a situation in a deeply divided society, the line between change and retreat is tenuous.
This in a way raises perhaps the most difficult of all the fundamental questions. Much of the data we gathered, from all sides of the debate, was framed in the language of equity, choice, educational quality and economic value. This laid bare the educational, religious, economic and political considerations on which decisions about integrated education are being and will have to be based. But there it was also clear that deeply held perceptions and beliefs were also important for many respondents. Such beliefs remain widespread in Northern Ireland and make it difficult to avoid the possibility that there is an element of sectarianism underlying some of the reactions to integrated education. The difficult reality of prejudice as an element in debates such as these still has to be accepted and taken into account.
Possible Ways Forward
Whatever the basis of the opinions held, the approaches suggested and the policies developed, Northern Ireland’s education system is very unlikely to return to its pre 1982 pattern. It must now accommodate a wider range of parental aspirations. For the foreseeable future the majority of parents will probably want their children to be educated in schools which either provide a Catholic education or reflect a predominantly Protestant ethos but there will also be a sizeable minority who will want alternatives, currently presented under the umbrella of integrated education. How will the system evolve to handle this? With so much current political and economic uncertainty it is impossible to predict but the possibilities include:
- an ongoing tripartite system of controlled (de facto Protestant), Catholic and integrated schools,
- a gradual dilution of the distinctiveness of the integrated sector as a result of forms of transformation which do not safeguard numerical balance and parity of esteem,
- a large scale transformation of controlled schools (the only type which have transformed to date) leading to changed balance possibly state/integrated schools and Catholic schools,
- a large scale transformation of both controlled and maintained schools giving three sectors with a more even balance,
- a fully integrated system with or without inputs from all religious groups,
- any or all of these could be linked to shifts in arrangements relating to transfer between primary and secondary education and the provision of selective and non-selective schools.
A few of these possibilities seem possible, most currently appear highly improbable, even impossible. But less than twenty years ago a suggestion that integrated education would become a serious practical option in Northern Ireland would have seemed far fetched. The integrated schools ‘broke the mould’ but the new mould of a tripartite system is unstable and the growth of integrated schools is now part of a wider debate about the social issues facing a divided society. As this progresses and possibly finds political and structural expression through all-party negotiations the integrated schools are as likely to face as many changes as the rest of the education system.
© Centre for the Study of Conflict and the Author(s)
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