Schools should look forwards, not back

1 Dec 2021 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 1 Dec 2021

Lagan College at 40: (l-r) Principal Amanda McNamee, head boy Jude Hinds, head girl Rosa Day, Education Minister Michelle McIlveen, former pupils Richard Sherry and Clare Bailey MLA
Lagan College at 40: (l-r) Principal Amanda McNamee, head boy Jude Hinds, head girl Rosa Day, Education Minister Michelle McIlveen, former pupils Richard Sherry and Clare Bailey MLA

These days, Northern Ireland’s schools system is arguably more segregated than the society it serves. This has to change.


Northern Ireland has come a long way. In 2021, society probably has fewer sectarian barriers than ever before – but fewer does not mean none.

The green/orange lens through which local society used to be viewed no longer fits well. Northern Ireland has more immigrants, yes, but the bigger change is the growing number of people who do not consider themselves as a protestant or a Catholic, as orange or as green.

However, the fact that the semi-official, semi-accurate term for such people is “other” shows that, while we may be shifting away from the traditional binary, we are not past it yet.

Nonetheless, society is changing. This change is slower in some places than in others.

These days, the schools system is perhaps one of the most sectarian aspects of Northern Ireland – a fact that is as downright weird as it is astonishing or unfortunate.

Last week saw the latest publication in the Transforming Education series from Ulster University’s UNESCO Centre for Education. Same Difference? Shared Education and Integrated Education examines the two main approaches to educational change put forward in political and policy discussions.

The briefing paper is measured in its examination of the strengths and weaknesses of both integration and sharing. It also points out that these are not mutually exclusive systems and, indeed, that some integrated schools currently take part in sharing programmes.

The paper is much more forthright, however, in making clear that things need to change.


Per the report: “Around 93% of children in Northern Ireland attend schools that are largely segregated along religious/ethnic lines. It has been calculated that as much as £1bn may have been spent over the last decade on educational initiatives that seek to address the implications of this segregation.”

This is supported by recent figures from the Department of Education - along with analysis from the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE) - that only 143 out of around 1,000 total schools in NI have at least 10% of their pupils from a Protestant background and at least 10% from a Catholic background.

In 287 schools, there are either no Protestant or no Catholic pupils whatsoever, while further analysis from NICIE suggested that over two thirds of NI schoolchildren have less than a 5% chance of meeting a pupil from the other main religious tradition.

These numbers are absurd.

No-one should expect that having a more representative mixture of young people in more schools will fix all local social problems. However, schools should at least be places that might help with these issues, rather than potentially hinder them.

As the UNESCO Centre briefing paper states: “Political leaders need to step out from behind their respective flags and demonstrate the courage and ambition required to radically change the system - preserving the status quo by shoring up the current system is neither fiscally nor socially prudent.”

What should this change look like?

Integrated ideal

Same Difference? paints integrated education as a more idealistic (and perhaps ultimately better) aim than shared education, saying it is “organic and parent-led” and that such schools “form combined communities not reliant on another school to enable reconciliation”.

However, Lagan College was the first integrated school in Northern Ireland and this year it celebrated its 40th anniversary.

Integrated education has been around for generations now, and yet systemic segregation persists.

There are many reasons for this. Proponents of integration could fairly point out that integrated education has massive public support (polling in July found that 71% of all parents would prefer the entire system to be integrated), that demand for places in integrated schools is way above capacity, and that the reason the integrated sector remains relatively small is because of political blockages that have stymied the creation of new integrated schools.

“The ruling parties in Northern Ireland are, at best, ambivalent towards the further development of Integrated Education and the largest Unionist/Loyalist party (Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)) and the largest Nationalist/Republican party (Sinn Féin (SF)) have both demonstrated antipathy or ambivalence towards supporting the growth of Integrated Education.

“In July 2021 the draft Integrated Education Bill presented to the NI Assembly was criticised as “unwelcome and unhelpful” by the DUP Minister for Education and as “doing nothing to promote Irishness” by a former SF Minister for Education… Without the backing of the ‘Big Two’ (currently the DUP and SF) it is difficult to see how further growth can be achieved…

“Opinion polls and surveys have consistently found that a majority of parents favour Integrated Education, and wish it to be more widely available in Northern Ireland… However, sceptics point to the slow growth of Integrated schools, implying that these measures of the public mood are somehow inaccurate. And yet, there are no contrary studies.

“To suggest that a slowing of the growth of Integrated schools indicates a lack of community support ignores the pressures on Integrated education with political opposition from most sides and lukewarm, at best, support from churches. The existing educational structures were always open about the threat to their position as numbers attending Integrated schools grew, and politicians took every opportunity to support ‘their’ schools.

“Where Integrated education is available, those schools are often oversubscribed so pupils cannot find places. Additionally, there are wide areas of Northern Ireland which have yet to establish any Integrated provision, making it impossible for many learners to choose that option.”

Sharing as pragmatism

The report says that shared education “is a pragmatic response to slow growth of Integrated schooling” that is based on technocratic development “grounded in empirical research”. Perhaps most importantly, it has broad political support.

It says further that, while schools involved in shared education are reliant on one another for pupil mixing and to provide a de-sectarianised experience, these programmes are promoted and supported by the Education Authority, guided by school leaders and endorsed by boards of governors.

Shared education simply does not face the same barriers of officialdom that sit in front of integrated education, because it has solid political support and the support of agencies and the bureaucracy that sits below the power of the NI Executive.

Which is not to suggest that sharing is necessarily a barrier to integration. Per the report: “Integrated and Shared Education are fundamentally different, but they are not necessarily mutually incompatible. Numerous Shared Education programmes feature schools that are Integrated. DE have also suggested that Shared Education may provide a stepping stone on the path to establishing a fully integrated school.”

The biggest issue for sharing, however, is that it might not work.

Same Difference? cites the shared education programmes ongoing in Bosnia and Herzegovina which, as a post-conflict reasons with ethnic and religious divides, is a decent comparison for NI.

“Research into this system has concluded that “the continued separation of youth based on ethnicity hinders the education of future generations for democracy.” Furthermore, it has been suggested that this model may “hinder student achievements, suppress respect for diversity, and fail to foster innovation and collaboration among future generations of citizens and leaders” and that consequently “‘Two schools under one roof’ are producing generations of young people whose identities are founded upon the belief that differences between people are irreconcilable and that divisions in all spheres of life are thus justified, instead of learning about the benefits of living in a diverse society”.”

Just because something perhaps is not working elsewhere does not mean we cannot create a different version that is suited to Northern Ireland and which ultimately works. However, such warnings should give proponents of sharing some pause.

Do something

Education in Northern Ireland may not quite stand at a fork in the road, but it cannot afford to stand still.

Reform is not easy but the status quo is unacceptable. Thankfully, fundamental questions are currently being asked about the shape of local schooling.

Within the next year or two, at the culmination of the Independent Review of Education, NI might be in a position to commit to some vision of radical change that means that local schoolchildren mix together in circumstances that reflect what we want for Northern Ireland now and in the future, rather than how it used to be.

Per the UNESCO paper: “The system of education that emerged 100 years ago no longer represents the aspirations and visions held by many.

“While Shared Education may have created increased opportunities for closer co-operation and collaboration between schools and their pupils, the divided and divisive structure of education has not been addressed.

“It is to be hoped that the Independent Review of Education, the members of which were announced in September 2021, will examine the divisions within NI’s education provision and recommend action which tackles the outcomes of such divisions in fundamental ways.”

Of course, between now and the completion of this review is an Assembly election. Hopefully local politics proves itself fit and well enough to implement change, and soon.

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