Why integrated education should be non-negotiable in Northern Ireland


How to bring together a community divided by civil war is a long, arduous and difficult process with no clear blueprint or one-size-fits-all remedy. However, there are certain policies a government can take that would be conducive to reconciling one section of its society with another. One such measure that seems blindingly obvious to me as a citizen of Northern Ireland, if not to my government, is integrated education. This article will deal directly with the role integrated education has played in Northern Ireland, being the only country in the world where it has been termed a “movement”.

Integrated education (in the Northern Irish context) has been defined by the Integrated Education Fund (IEF) as:

Bring[ing] together children and adults from Catholic, Protestant and other backgrounds in each school. The schools strive to achieve a religious balance of pupils, teachers and governors and acknowledge and respect the cultural diversity they represent. The integrated ethos is nurtured to ensure inclusion of people from different religions, cultures, genders, abilities and socio-economic backgrounds [and] encourages open-minded attitudes among pupils as well as building the confidence and ability to question, observe, listen and make informed decisions.

That integrated education could have the capacity for social change was revealed at the landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) in the United States where racially segregated schools were declared unconstitutional. In doing so, the U.S. Supreme Court provided a new framework for schooling in which these educational institutions had the potential to improve ethnic and racial relations by diversifying students’ social networks and thereby reducing prejudice.

In the Northern Irish case, the segregation at hand is religious. Since its foundation in 1921, Northern Ireland has had two separate, religiously based educational systems at both the primary and secondary level. The state-controlled system is attended by Protestants with a number of voluntary grammar schools also attended predominantly by Protestants. Meanwhile Catholics attend schools that are all free from state control and, though they are financed by the state, are operated by the Catholic Church.

The first education Act passed by the new Northern Ireland parliament in 1923 attempted to unify the education system and make it nondenominational, but it was opposed by both the Protestant and Catholic Churches with such virulence that by 1930 the government was forced to establish a de facto segregation system.

The most damaging effect of this ongoing segregation is that each side of society learns different versions of history. This has been highlighted by Gallager (2003), who found that, for decades, Catholic children have been taught Irish history with overtly political overtones while Protestant children were rarely taught about Irish history at all. This scenario has since been improved, though by no means resolved, with the introduction of a common (but voluntary) curriculum in 1990.

Coming from an integrated family, or mixed marriage as Dara Ó Briain’s sketch terms it (a Catholic mum and Protestant dad), I can attest to the fact that living in both traditions and knowing people from both sides makes it clear how little really divides us. I have also benefited from an integrated education at my primary school, a privilege that, even decades after the end of the Troubles, is yet to become the dominant experience in Northern Ireland. 

One must not confuse ‘integrated’ with ‘secular’. As far as my experience would suggest there is no such thing as a ‘secular’ school here, and regardless of which Christian denomination the school is affiliated with, everyone participates in the standard hymns, grace and nativity shebang. Nonetheless, the integrated aspect of my education was just as powerful. I remember being one of the three Catholic kids taken out of class in preparation for our Holy Communion. Our teachers (Catholic or not) attended the religious ceremony to represent the school’s support. There was a strong sense of acceptance, regardless of what denomination or background you came from. I also have distinct memories of our school partnering with a Catholic primary school in Belfast. Think tin whistles, tag rugby and a smidgen of Gaelic. I can’t say I remember it as a ground-breaking experience, but it did make an impression on me and was conducted with the intention of breaking down social divisions from an early age. 

At my secondary school, which was integrated in all but name, there was a similar sense of acceptance of the ‘other side’. Nonetheless, traces of division remained and it did not go unnoticed. In Northern Ireland, you can usually tell on which side of the religious/political line your school falls simply by the sports and languages offered. That we played rugby and hockey, and did not offer Gaelic as a subject, was an obvious enough sign of the school’s religious and political affiliation.

Meanwhile, my cousins took Irish to A-level and played gaelic or hurling. Seemingly surface-level differences like this perpetuate divisions, as the difference is marked immediately by something as trivial as the sports-top you wear. In other words, division and difference become instantly visible. This prevents us from bridging the community divide even on a social level, stunting what would otherwise be unifying activities (sports, studies). Needless to say, this all has long-lasting consequences in the political sphere. Divided children grow up to be a divided electorate, with tribal-like relationships with traditions, and formative experiences and cultural expectations that inform political alliances. 

A great example of the prejudice perpetuated by segregated education has been brilliantly highlighted in recent popular culture. In the first episode of the second season of Irish comedy series, Derry Girls, the priest asks a group of (segregated) students to list differences and similarities between Catholics and Protestants. Personal highlights from the episode include ‘Protestants like to march and Catholics like to walk’ and the well-known fact that ‘Protestants hate ABBA.’ It is a humorous take on the real myths and distrust that have been fostered by keeping children separated in a segregated education system. Such untruths learnt when young are much harder to shake when older. Conversely, children can often be very accepting of difference and will continue to be so as they grow up, but only if such acceptance is encouraged and facilitated by their environment.

The integrated education movement in Northern Ireland first found success in the 1978 Dunleath Act which allowed Catholic and Protestant schools, which existed in complete segregation at this time, to transform into integrated schools. It laid the groundwork for the ‘Transformed schools’ we have today that are considered an accepted step forward for Northern Ireland as we move on from the Troubles. Encouragingly, over 35% of Northern Irish integrated schools today have achieved integration thanks to the Act. 

This form of education has also been promoted by the Integrated Education Fund (IEF), which was established in 1992 as a financial foundation for the development and growth of integrated education. It seeks to bridge the financial gap between founding integrated schools and securing full government funding and support; today 65 schools have been formally integrated through this fund. Despite the progress, many are oversubscribed and there are vast areas where there is no integrated provision at all. In many ways it is shocking that it has taken a charity to support the integration initiative, and that it still needs to exist to this day in spite of the commitment for the provision of integration education in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 (Section 13).

Today’s reality in Northern Ireland begs the question: why should integrated education be opposed by politicians in Northern Ireland at all? Or rather, why is it not actively sought? Surely our biggest parties wish for the future success and unity of the people of Northern Ireland? The lack of genuine political will highlights the harsh truth that when the DUP or Sinn Fein say they wish for Northern Irish people to succeed, they often only have in mind their voters, their half of the population.

It is precisely because both parties know that their monopoly on political discourse in the country may weaken if the myths and lies they spout about the ‘other side’ are undermined by lived experience that they appear distinctly apathetic to unity. Electoral campaigns here inspire a specific kind of voting behaviour. Rather than supporting a given party based on trust and inspiring policies, you vote for the party that is the antithesis of the one you detest. Thus, in this vicious circle of negative voting, the DUP and Sinn Fein profit from school separation that encourages the intolerance they feed off.

Criticism must also be directed at the Catholic Church in its maintenance of religious schools at the expense of an integrated offering. Although the Church has not directly spoken out against integration since 1923, the controlling grip the Church has over the Catholic community and its reticence vis-à-vis integrated education is undeniable. By 2001, only a dozen schools in Northern Ireland has embarked on the route to integrated education, all of which had been previously Protestant state-controlled schools. Moreover, in Hayes, McAllister and Dowds’ 2007 paper it was found that Protestants were significantly more likely to have attended a nonsegregated school within a fairly-mixed setting than their Catholic counterparts.

Approximately 90% of pupils from Protestant and Catholic families remain in schools that largely or exclusively educate only one side of the community, despite the fact that an opinion poll carried out in 2013 showed that 66% of all people surveyed believe integrated schools should be the main model of education. The research, as well my own childhood experiences, demonstrates that an integrated education system has a significant and positive social influence on the lives of those who experience it. Specifically, it helps to reduce prejudicial attitudes and fosters cross-community friendships. The gap between popular demand for integrated schools in Northern Ireland and the current lack of provision for integrated education shows that the government (and politicians) needs to be held to account for its failing to fulfil its legal and moral obligation. Children are our future; how we educate them, and with whom they are educated, is crucial to the direction of any nation, and could be revolutionary in places as socially-fragmented as my homeland.

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All views expressed are the writer’s own.

Article Image Credit: Allan Leonard

3 responses to “Why integrated education should be non-negotiable in Northern Ireland”

  1. Unfortunately though, a lot does divide us. Catholics shouldn’t be expected to make amends with the descendants of the people who colonised us, nor should we be shamed for not attending schools that don’t teach a major part of our history and culture. This isn’t the case that both sides hatred for each other is equal. One side murdered, oppressed and colonised the other – and it takes more than niceties to fix that.


  2. With respect to the writer. Integrated education is becoming an obsession with the Middle Classes as if it is a panacea for all ills. There are two distinct nationalities in Northern Ireland and no amount of blurring the distinction will change this . It’s perfectly possible to live and work with people from a different background in fact most of us manage this quite well. Hate begins at home


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