The Unlikely History of Integrated Schools in Northern Ireland

3 Nov 2021 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 3 Nov 2021

This week marks the 190th anniversary of the first attempt to introduce integrated education in Northern Ireland. Colm Cavanagh charts a sorry history.


Integrated Education and Mixed Housing were specified in the 1998 Belfast Good Friday Agreement as “an essential aspect of the reconciliation process”.

But to this day well over 80% of pupils in Northern Ireland are educated in schools attended almost entirely by pupils and staff of their own tradition. And many neighbourhoods are almost entirely segregated - including over 90% of public housing.

Yet Northern Ireland has been warned by the 2009 (Eames-Bradley) “Report of the Consultative Group on the Past”: “Any society moving forward from conflict has no choice but to address the separations that exist between its people. These separations are negative and destructive when they exist in housing, employment and social life. Specifically the arguments about the ethos or quality of education provided in the faith based sectors have to be balanced against the reality that reconciliation may never be achieved if our children continue to attend separated schools”.

So why does Northern Ireland have two parallel systems of ‘de facto’ Protestant and Catholic schools - since three different governments over the past two centuries have tried to create a non-denominational school system?

1831: Attempt by the Whig Government

In 1831 all of Ireland was ruled from London. The Chief Secretary of Ireland, the Whig MP Edward Stanley, allocated finance to subsidise a single national school system to be attended together by all children. His aim was crystal-clear. Joint applications for funding made by Protestants and Catholics would be preferred; and religious education had to be kept rigidly separate from the "3Rs".

The Catholic bishops largely agreed.

The Church of Ireland did not agree. Many of its members had theological difficulties with the proposal; and there was also the thought that if it, the Established Church, did not manage the new system, the Church of Ireland should not participate in it.

The Presbyterian Church did not agree. It also had theological difficulties with the Government’s proposal; and with its own strong, historical drive for education so that people could read the scriptures, its evangelical wing refused to accept a school system that even partly excluded access to the bible. Evangelicals protested and held large public meetings - and some even attacked schools of fellow Presbyterians who had accepted the new school system.

Eventually the Government conceded what were in effect Presbyterian schools.

So Presbyterian children attended these Presbyterian-sponsored schools. Church of Ireland children largely continued to attend their own Church of Ireland schools. So the Catholic children mostly went to schools attended only by other Catholic children.

Denominational schooling, financed by the public purse, was now firmly in place.

1923: Attempt by the Unionist Government

In 1923, following the creation of Northern Ireland, the Unionist Minister for Education Lord Londonderry guided through the new NI Parliament an Education Act, provisions of which forbade the use, in education authority schools, of religious criteria in appointing teachers; and also forbade denominational RE teaching during compulsory school hours. But in 1925, his own Government yielded to pressure from a newly formed “United Education Committee of the Protestant Churches” (Methodist, Church of Ireland and Presbyterian) and repealed those provisions. The Catholic Church had never transferred its church-managed schools to the government and continued with its own denominational schools. Separate denominational schooling remained intact.

1974: Attempt by the first NI Power-Sharing Executive

The first (Unionist-SDLP-Alliance Party) power-sharing executive included integrated education in its Programme for Government.

The Executive began on 1 Jan 1974 but was brought down within five months by the Ulster Workers’ Council strike.

This failure of power-sharing government was followed by 24 years of direct rule from Westminster and some 2,000 further “Troubles” killings.

1981: Parent Power Begins - “All Children Together”

Finally a group of parents, in the face of indifference or hostility from most politicians and churches, opened Lagan College in 1981.

Without any government funding, those parents created Stanley’s system exactly 150 years after his failure. From that one school with 28 pupils in 1981, there are now 68 formally integrated schools across Northern Ireland, educating some 25,000 pupils - approximately 1 in 13 of all pupils.

Most of the Department of Education’s £2.2 billion budget is spent servicing two parallel school systems which thus maintain the separation of Protestant and Catholic children.

A Million a Week

Two professional studies have estimated the cost of having a divided school system in N Ireland:-

1): UU Economic Policy Centre ("Cost of Division" 2016). See on the UU website:

2): Deloitte ("Research into the Financial Cost of the NI Divide" 2007). See on the CAIN website:

Each report gives a median estimate that the additional cost of our divided Education system is in the upper £50 millions per year – more than £1 million per week.

At the same time, to counteract this separation, the Education Authority’s report on “Shared Education” records that in the years 2017 and 2018 some £285 million was spent on encouraging contact between Protestant and Catholic schools.

Teachers are specifically exempt from the Fair Employment laws. (The law allows all schools to discriminate on religious grounds in their recruitment of teachers).

The Government funds a separate Catholic teacher training college and a ‘de facto’ teacher training college for Protestants.

The Government funds its Education Authority and also a separate Council for Catholic Maintained Schools.

The Government does fund the NI Council for Integrated Education. But this “essential aspect of the reconciliation process” of educating Protestant and Catholic children together, is largely left to individual parents and charitable fund-raising. (The Integrated Education Fund charity has to date raised some £25 million to support parents who want their children to have an integrated


One is reminded of the words of Mitchell B. Reiss, US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland, in 2004:

“After taking on this assignment, I was astonished to learn that roughly 95% of Northern Ireland schoolchildren are educated in segregated schools. As Americans, we have first-hand experience with segregation, not so long ago. And we know it doesn't work. Segregation short-changes the students by denying them exposure to one half their society. And it weakens the country by embedding misunderstanding and distrust”.

He was right.

Colm Cavanagh was co-author of the 2016 “Independent Review of Integrated Education” for the NI Minister for Education. A former chair of the NI Council for Integrated Education, he and his wife Anne were members of the group of families that founded, and their children attended, Oakgrove Integrated Primary School (1991) and Oakgrove Integrated College (1992) in Derry/Londonderry.

The opinions, views or comments in this article do not necessarily reflect any views or policies of NICVA.

Join the Conversation...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Join us on Twitter and join the conversation today.

Join Our Newsletter

Get the latest edition of ScopeNI delivered to your inbox.