Catholic and Protestant students at Lagan College - Northern Ireland's first integrated school - in the 1990s
Students at Lagan College - Northern Ireland's first integrated school - in the 1990s. Credit: Alamy

In the early 1970s, I was a pupil at a Protestant primary school in working-class west Belfast. Considering the mayhem that was raging nearby – the rioting, bombings and shootings – the teachers did a remarkable job. The pupils flourished and, above all, the school felt safe. There was relatively little to show which community we belonged to, apart from a large portrait of the Queen that hung in the assembly hall flanked by a British union flag and a white Ulster flag.

Most of the kids I grew up with would never knowingly have met a Catholic but we knew where to find “them” – about 200 metres down the road from our school on the other side of a tall fence. Our playground chatter may have centred on George Best and The Banana Splits, but one particular comment stuck in my mind. “There is good Catholics, you know,” one of the boys ventured. It seems profoundly sad to me now, that a ten-year-old child should have felt the need to say this.

Fifty years on, Northern Ireland is a very different place. A generation has grown up without the threat of widespread violence. They study the conflict as part of the school history curriculum. Nightlife flourishes in Belfast and young people mix freely. The city has become a popular tourist destination. It would be disingenuous to ignore the many working-class estates where organised crime and drug dealing remain facts of life, much of it perpetrated by paramilitary groups that are a legacy of the conflict. But there are also a growing number of people who identify as Northern Irish rather than Irish or British. Society is changing.

Given these widespread changes, it is no surprise that the majority of people in Northern Ireland express support for integrated education, where pupils from both communities are educated together. They want their kids to get the best schooling and some want to actively encourage their children to make friends and associate with children from different backgrounds. However, it is still the case that the vast majority of schools remain segregated, keeping Catholic and Protestant children apart. Over 90 per cent of pupils attend schools which are effectively segregated along religious lines.

In April 2022, the Integrated Education Act was passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly, requiring the Department of Education to give more “support” to integrated education. In practice, this should help ensure that more parents have the choice to send their children to mixed schools, where religious or sectarian affiliation plays no official role in their education. It’s clear that more young people of different backgrounds growing up together and being schooled together will help to move Northern Ireland forward. But today, only about 8 per cent of Northern Ireland’s children are educated in formally integrated schools.

How did we get here, and why is it so challenging to offer integrated education to parents, a majority of whom would prefer it?

'People found it strange'

Looking back, it has been parents who have pushed for integrated education, recognising the harm caused to society and to their own children by educational segregation. The damage became increasingly obvious as the two communities retreated into separate neighbourhoods at the start of the armed conflict that became known as the Troubles, in the late 60s and early 70s. In 1973, a group of concerned parents formed All Children Together to campaign to “make it possible for parents who so wish to secure for their children an education in shared schools acceptable to all religious denominations and cultures”.

An act was passed at Westminster allowing for the development of integrated schools but it faced opposition from the churches. Ultimately, it took the actions of 15 parents to set up Lagan College, in 1981, an independent co-educational post-primary school, at a Scout hall in south Belfast. Twenty-eight children formed the first cohort of pupils.

Parents were often pushing against suspicion and outright hostility from some communities. I talked to Neil McNickle, who attended Lagan College in the early 1990s. He had to make a 35-mile round trip every day but his parents – one Protestant, the other Catholic – were keen for him to attend. Back then, he says, the children had little trouble integrating. “From what I remember, you’re kids and you just accept without question. I don’t remember religion being an issue once in my entire school career,” he said.

But some of the community beyond the school gates saw it differently. “The bus I used to get home in was attacked on maybe a fortnightly basis with a brick through the window,” McNickle says. “People found it a bit strange, kids being educated together. It was against the norm. That marked us out as a target for both sides.”

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement largely brought the conflict to an end. It set up the Northern Ireland Assembly and recognised the importance of educating children together. The agreement pledged continuing support for “initiatives to facilitate and encourage integrated education”. But there was nothing in law to compel the Executive, Northern Ireland’s government, to transform this aspiration into a reality. In the 2000s and 2010s the post of education minister was held by parties who were indifferent or even hostile to integration. The sector grew organically with the support of parents but active support from the authorities was lacking.

McNickle describes himself as “very, very passionate” on the subject and is a member of Integrated AlumNI, an organisation for former pupils in the sector. His own children attend integrated schools, in a climate where such a decision is not seen by the majority as suspicious or controversial. But despite this broad acceptance from the general population, there are still only 70 integrated schools across Northern Ireland: two nursery schools, 47 primary schools and 21 post-primary schools (for 11- to 18-year-olds). That’s out of a total of 1,079 schools of all types.

Part of what makes the move towards integration difficult is the baroque complexity of the Northern Irish education system. The vast majority of pupils at Northern Ireland’s state schools are Protestant. The Protestant churches still have a right to appoint their own governors to these schools as historically, many decades ago, some of them were run by the churches. It’s not unusual to have several Protestant clerics on a state school board of governors. Catholic Maintained schools are also state-funded but are run by the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS). Their ethos is based on the teachings of the church and pupils are prepared for the Catholic sacraments.

The schools are not only segmented by religion, but also by class, as academic selection remains in place, with 66 grammar schools and 126 non-grammar post-primary schools. There are grammar schools in both the state and Catholic sectors. Academic selection was officially abolished in 2008 but it continues to operate through exams set privately by the grammar schools. (Bizarrely, there were, until recently, two different sets of examinations, one mostly taken by Catholic children and the other mostly by Protestants.) The process of creaming off those deemed more academically inclined at age 11 explains why Northern Ireland remains at the top of the UK GCSE and A-level results tables, while large numbers of young people leave school with few or no qualifications.

Dr Matthew Milliken worked on a series of Transforming Education research papers at Ulster University’s Unesco Centre. He explained how the division within the school system manifests itself on the streets:

“The kids wear different uniforms. The Catholic school uniforms are likely to be identifiable by the use of Celtic crosses, the use, perhaps, of the Irish language in the school motto. The state school and non-denominational grammar schools [which mostly have a majority of Protestant pupils] are likely to feature crowns, red hands [a unionist symbol] and they often have darker uniform colours. And those kids walking through the streets are instantly recognisable by their school uniforms.”

A significant victory

Some progress has occurred in recent years. Work carried out by Milliken and his colleagues was influential in the removal, in 2022, of the “teacher exemption”. The exemption allowed schools to circumvent Northern Ireland’s fair employment laws and appoint one applicant for a teaching post ahead of another based purely on their religion. As recently as two years ago, therefore, a teacher could be refused a job because they were perceived as having the “wrong” faith. Questions about religion could be asked at interview or on the application form.

As with integrated schools, the establishment was well behind the curve of public opinion. There had been opposition to the exemption from parents and the general public for some time, but an attempt to remove it a decade ago was strongly opposed by the Catholic bishops and was defeated in the Northern Ireland Assembly by Sinn Féin and the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party.

By 2022, though, there had been a change of heart about the teacher exemption rule within Sinn Féin, which – although unionists would beg to differ – has always defined itself as a non-sectarian party. “Sinn Féin in particular identified that this was an unsustainable stance to hold. They changed their outlook, and even the bishops changed their outlook,” says Milliken.

But making significant changes to the education system is bound to encounter resistance from the churches and political parties. The Integrated Education Act was brought forward by a politician from the Alliance Party, Kellie Armstrong, who has talked about the challenges of pushing through the legislation. Alliance is the party representing the centre ground in Northern Ireland and gets support from moderates in both communities. Armstrong told me she supported parents having a choice to send their children to whatever type of school they preferred, but that she wanted to address the growing number of pupils who wished to attend an integrated school but were being turned away and left with no alternative but to go to Catholic or Protestant schools.

She encountered resistance from the two main bodies, the Education Authority and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, who she says were “making sure that controlled [state] and maintained [Catholic] schools were protected”. The political establishment also wasn’t happy. “One party called me about 20 minutes before the first [parliamentary] debate and said to me, ‘Everybody’s voted against this, Kellie. Why don’t you pull the bill now and save yourself the hassle?’” She received letters from the heads of churches, teachers’ bodies and the sectors themselves. “The minister herself [the DUP’s Michelle McIlveen] was extraordinarily opposed to integrated education,” Armstrong adds. She described the atmosphere throughout the progress of the bill as “very unpleasant”. But she stuck to her guns, and the law was passed following a series of long, bitterly fought debates.

It was a significant victory. Work to implement the act continues, despite the collapse of the Assembly more than a year ago, following disagreements over post-Brexit trade arrangements. But progress is painfully slow. The integration of schools presents a significant threat to the power of the Protestant and Catholic churches, whose influence is already on the decline. “[They] are holding on for grim death to schools because it’s one of the few areas of influence they have,” says Milliken.

The political establishment also won’t give up without a fight. “The unionist and nationalist parties are sustained by community division and the model of a more creative, greater cohesion between the two sides doesn’t necessarily favour that.”

Vested interests

One new concept that has emerged in the sector is that of “shared education”. Rather than aiming to see pupils from all communities educated together in the same school, this entails developing cooperation between the existing school sectors. A Protestant and a Catholic school might share certain lessons or sports facilities, for example. Shared education has been adopted with open arms by some political parties, including the DUP and Sinn Féin. Proponents see it as a pragmatic way of allowing children from the two communities to spend time together. Separate schooling is not about to disappear overnight and there are also some financial advantages to be had in the sharing of facilities.

But while the concept is well-meaning, it runs the risk of being counter-productive: a way to protect the status quo while appearing to adopt a more liberal attitude to education. In practice, it has led to the absurdity of shared education campuses, like the Strule campus in Omagh, County Tyrone. Built on the footprint of a former British Army base, the campus aims to educate 4,000 children in six separate schools that are Catholic and Protestant, grammar and secondary. Work began on the site in 2013. In 2021, the BBC reported that costs had soared from £168.9m to £228m, with only one school, Arvalee Special School, having been completed.

The example of Strule serves to illustrate another factor in Northern Ireland’s education system: the cost of division. In a medium-sized town it’s possible to have Catholic and Protestant secondary schools, a parallel set of grammar schools and a smattering of primary schools of various hues, all paid for by the state.

In April 2023, in a paper issued as part of the Transforming Education project at Ulster University, Stephen Roulston and Milliken asserted that the divided nature of the education system was costing the taxpayer £226 million extra per year. The paper led to an absurd political tussle. Firstly, the findings were rejected by the educational establishment, including the Department of Education. It was then disowned by Ulster University, which stated that it was “not reflective of the views of the university”. The vice-chancellor then intervened in defence of the paper, issuing a public apology to the two researchers on behalf of the university. This back-and-forth highlights the challenge of making progress, when the basic facts of the current system are in dispute.

It’s been a dramatic couple of years for education in Northern Ireland, but the vast majority of children will continue to be educated in separate schools for the foreseeable future. Challenging continued academic selection also remains important. It’s an easy presumption to make that more progressive attitudes in society will automatically lead to the withering away of the divided education system. But parents voting with their feet will not be enough.

The Integrated Education Act is a start, but addressing the fundamental problem of division will take sustained legislative action into the future. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s current crop of politicians don’t seem to be in any hurry to take on the vested interests of the educational establishment.

This article is from New Humanist's winter 2023 issue. Subscribe now.