Integrated and shared education help bridge decades-old divide

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — At the school in Magherafelt, about 30 miles outside of Belfast, they pushed the kids to embrace their identities and traditions, determined to overcome a history of conflict that has kept Catholics and Protestants divided and alienated from one another.

Then one boy brought sheep to school.

In full farmer gear, he walked into a presentation in which he was to showcase his passions before a panel and announced that he needed to open the side door. In came four sheep, and he showed off his speedy shearing skills.

Almost 40 years after Northern Ireland communities began to establish mixed educational spaces, only about 7 percent of the students in the British-ruled province get to exist in these spaces. The rest are in schools where the student body is either primarily Catholic or primarily Protestant.

But at schools like Sperrin Integrated College — the site of the sheep — Protestants, Catholics and everyone else are encouraged to celebrate and share their identities, even if those identities are tied up in contentious history — or involve bringing livestock into school.

“It should have grown massively in the last sort of 30 years, and it really hasn’t,” said Emma Butler, who was a teacher in the room when the boy sheared the sheep. “And that’s very disappointing. And it’s indicative of, even though Northern Ireland has come a long way with its peace process, the tribal politics are still there.”

Emma Butler, 41, has been both a teacher and a pupil at an integrated school in Northern Ireland. Currently, she teaches at Priory Integrated College in Holywood, Northern Ireland. Photo by Alexa Chryssovergis

Spanning from the late 1960s through the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the death toll from an ethno-nationalistic conflict referred to as “the Troubles” reached higher than 3,600 with thousands more injured. The history of bloodletting at the hands of armed militants determined to either keep the province British or forge Irish unity shapes the identity of Northern Ireland’s communities today.

Much of Belfast is a patchwork quilt of small neighborhoods alternating between Protestants and Catholics, so it’s not uncommon for one area of town to contain a Catholic school and a controlled school within a very small circumference, where the student bodies are primarily Catholic and Protestant, respectively. Often these schools will teach similar curriculum, and they might be underperforming, underfunded, understaffed, undersubscribed.

And historically, if children have found themselves outside of their safe communities, surrounded by “the enemy,” they have felt fear. They have been bullied, taunted for their school uniforms, which clearly identified them as part of one side or the other. They’ve endured hateful slurs, and sometimes worse things. In the case of the Holy Cross dispute, girls at a Catholic primary school located in north Belfast in a Protestant loyalist area became the targets of a myriad of abuses, including thrown bricks and urine-filled balloons.

Physical and emotional abuse aside, advocates of so-called “integrated” schools like Sperrin, which intentionally blend together students of different faiths, believe that school segregation forces children to grow up in isolated communities, and then to continue to perpetuate these isolated communities as adults. The integrated school movement came about to try and correct this isolation to bring children together.

“It demystifies the other side,” Butler said.

Growing up, Butler also went to an integrated school, and she said they were constantly told that being in the classroom with those from different backgrounds would ensure that “the constant bombings and killings would end and not return.”

Now Butler is a teacher at Priory Integrated College, one of the 62 grant-aided schools in Northern Ireland in the 2014-15 year.

According to the website of the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education, an organization that promotes efforts to create or transform existing campuses into integrated schools, in order for a school to be officially classified as “integrated” it must strive to have at least 40 percent of its pupils come from a Catholic background and 40 percent from a Protestant background. Students also might practice another faith entirely, or none at all.

Many advocates fear the stagnation of the program, and with the Assembly in Northern Ireland currently having been suspended since January 2017 due to disagreements between republican and union party leaders, it’s clear that not much civic change is happening — let alone the promotion of integrated education.

“You have to look at the fact that we don’t have a government at the minute. A year-and-a-half later,” Butler said. “As a young person who went through [the Troubles], I thought that my generation would wake up more and not vote along traditional party lines.”

More recently, a new approach to schooling in Northern Ireland has begun to take over: the Shared Education initiative.

This program is meant to bring together students who may find themselves within walking distance of a school just like theirs, with the one exception being that its school body is made up of a majority of students of a different religious denomination.
Teachers at integrated schools create curriculum with the intention of explicitly talking about Northern Ireland’s troublesome past, because they say difficult issues shouldn’t be shoved under the rug. But schools that participate in the shared education project seem to avoid talking directly about ideological differences, and instead are making much smaller steps to integrate society’s youths in a still-divided society.

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At St. Bernard’s Primary School on a Thursday morning in March, students prance around dressed as their favorite fictional characters to celebrate World Book Day. Even the principal is participating too, in full costume as Mr. McGregor from “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.”

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Some of the students at the Catholic primary school participate in Shared Education project activities where they meet up with students from two controlled schools in the very near vicinity.

One day per month, 550 students aged 7-11 from the three schools meet up to participate in these group activities, clustered into groups of 30.

St. Bernard’s is located in southeast Belfast, one of the more affluent areas in the city. Harsher discrimination and violence has traditionally been known to take place in more working class areas of the north side, but that doesn’t mean children in affluent areas don’t still have prejudices, said James Moyna, the leader of St. Bernard’s shared education program.

“The need for shared education goes across all social and economic backgrounds within this city,” Moyna said.

Every 12 weeks, the teachers from each of the three schools — St. Bernard’s, Lisnasharragh and Cregagh Primary Schools — get together to plan a new activity for the students. They’ve practiced film and animation, coding and programing, podcasting, hip-hop.

The children who are participating in the project wouldn’t normally meet socially, Moyna said. They might never know each other, even though they might live less than five minutes from one another and share the same supermarket.

“It is a very forced regime,” he said. “We are forcing these children to meet up once per month.”

But it seems to be making a difference, Moyna said. The students can now recognize kids from different schools out at the supermarket, and wave hello. It’s a small change, but it’s something.

Politically, the parents are still voting to the extremes, Moyna said, but that’s not something they have hope of changing long-term. The shared education project is primarily focused on changing the children’s ingrained partisanship and hoping they’ll carry a more open-minded philosophy into future generations.

Erin, 10, a student at St. Bernard’s, was dressed up on World Book Day as an owl from “Owl Babies.” She said she likes the activities with kids from other schools because she get to meet other people, but sometimes seeing the kids from the other schools can be intimidating.

“I feel a bit shy and then I go over and say hello, and then they’re friendly,” Erin said.

“Every time you come back to see them, you feel shy,” said Erin’s classmate Donal, who was dressed up as the pea from “The Princess and the Pea.” “But when you’re with them for a while, you feel fine.”

“It gets easier every time,” said Rosie, also dressed up as an owl baby.

Moyna said they don’t discuss the Troubles or ideological differences at the regular meetings because it’s above their pay grade. He also said he doesn’t believe the shared education program can progress much further than what it is now because of the time and resources it consumes.

Tony Gallagher, a professor at Queen’s University Belfast and a leader in the shared education movement, says his goal with the program is for every school in Northern Ireland to eventually be a participant to some extent. At the moment, Gallagher said about 320 schools are involved.

Tony Gallagher, a leader in the shared education project, sits in his office at Queen’s University Belfast. | Alexa Chryssovergis

Gallagher said integrated schools have an important role to play. He said he believes there should be more of them, but some people are still hostile toward the idea of integration in Northern Ireland.

Gallagher said he believes the project has made a huge difference in Northern Ireland so far. The changes he sees caused by the project are small ones, but that doesn’t make them unimportant. For example, he said that now kids feel safer wearing their school uniforms — uniforms that will almost instantaneously out them as either Catholic or Protestant — without fear of being bullied by people of differing faiths.

“In education, people keep searching for silver bullets that solve every problem. The real problem is the silver bullets don’t exist,” Gallagher said. “These issues have got to be constantly addressed.”

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To Laura McCance, the shared education project is “nonsense.”

“It’s really just appeasing the masses, and it’s not going to work,” McCance said.

McCance, 18, is an alum of an integrated primary and secondary school and a big proponent of the integrated style of education. She’s part of a networking group called Integrated AlumNI, along with her colleague, Stuart Irwin, who also went to an integrated secondary school growing up.

Shared education is more like “a step across rather than a step forward,” Irwin, 30, said.

Both Irwin and McCance swear by the integrated educations they received, saying the mixed demographic background and the focus on discussing conflict and differences gave them skills that helped them adjust to life post-secondary education.

“We’re able to joke and to just know when there’s a line,” McCance said.

McCance and Irwin were both able to secure spots in integrated schools, but not everyone is so lucky, seeing as the schools are massively oversubscribed.

Last year, NICIE opened up 1,210 new slots for students in integrated spaces, according to Denise Morgan, a development officer at the organization. But there are still students every year that will be denied a spot due to lack of space.

Irwin said that some skeptics dub integrated schools as white-collar pet projects that dilute students’ identities due to the ethos that is heavily focused on tolerance of a multiplicity of religious and ideological backgrounds.

Michael McKnight, the principal at Lough View Integrated Primary School, said that discussing this multiplicity all students bring to the classroom is an important step in working past conflict.

Inside Lough View, located on the southeast side of the city like St. Bernard’s, every brick of the school’s walls seemed to be filled with color: handmade artwork, decorated mission statements and photographs of outstanding students.

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Integrated schools put an emphasis on talking about not just religious or ideological identity conflicts, but identity conflicts of all natures, McKnight said.

“The integrated movement, I think, fundamentally has to be the school sector that is pluralist,” McKnight said. “It should reflect the dynamics of society and including everybody.”

For example, last year, a boy at Lough View told another boy with two moms that he didn’t have a “real family.” The school proactively responded by having a session in class about what constituted a family, and encouraging children to be more open-minded.

“People need to be able to walk into other people’s shoes and get a sense of who they are,” McKnightly said. “You’ve gotta talk about the difficult stuff.”

At Lough View, there are physical reminders of the school’s mission to be inclusive and to maintain a space where everyone can feel comfortable, regardless of anything that could alienate them in their community.

There are decorations on the walls, like a poster that says “Respect Everyone’s Rights” in big, colorful block letters, or a sign that says “Welcome” in a multitude of languages, or a map of the world with little thumbtacks, showing where students have come from.

On one particular day in March, the students were gathering for an assembly. A girl performed an Irish dancing routine in front of her classmates, who sat cross-legged on the floor to watch.

Then an assembly of students gathered at the front of the gymnasium, where they began to sing a version of a poem by Patrick Kavanagh for their classmates.

“On Grafton Street where old ghosts meet,
We tripped lightly along the ledge
Of a deep ravine where can be seen
The worst of passions pledged.”

Their classmates sat and listened, their personal histories invisible. Differences aside, they all gathered under the same roof and shared together.