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The Children of Northern Ireland Should Grow Up Together

A girl walks across a street
A schoolgirl walks past a paramilitary mural in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on September 21, 2015. © Charles McQuillan/Getty

Since the state’s foundation in 1921, Northern Ireland’s education system has been characterized by religious separation. But in the early 1970s, small yet determined groups of parents began pressing for a new approach to their children’s schooling, one they called “integrated education.”

They advocated that all students—regardless of their faith—be taught in an atmosphere of inclusion and mutual respect. Their thesis was straightforward: because Northern Ireland was profoundly divided along sectarian lines, if its people were ever to have reconciliation and peace, future generations would need to grow up together.

Sixteen years ago, I became one of those parents. I was living in rural Northern Ireland, raising three children, and I wanted them to have been educated alongside children from different backgrounds. I joined other like-minded mothers and fathers, and together we formed a parents group. Through organizing and hard work, we helped launch a school, Sperrin Integrated College, which educates some 520 children, and where people from all across the Mid Ulster area are employed.

Overall, about seven percent of Northern Ireland’s school population is in integrated education; that’s about 23,000 children. Because many in the political and religious establishments of Northern Ireland still resist bringing all of its people together, every single one of its 65 or so integrated schools was established by parents. Considering limited government support—for every successful attempt to launch an integrated school, there are multiple efforts that are stymied by intractable opposition—these are remarkable achievements.

Unfortunately, despite this progress and the nearly 20 years that have elapsed since the Good Friday Agreements, Northern Ireland today seems more polarized than ever. Power sharing between Catholics and Protestants is in abeyance; our earlier optimism has curdled into a toxic mishmash of cynicism and frustration.

Under the terms of the 1989 Education Reform Order and the 1998 Agreements, the Department of Education is obliged to “encourage and facilitate” integrated education—yet government officials often reject attempts to make schools integrated or expand those that are integrated already. 

With government authorities continuing to stand in the way, the onus is still on parents to take the lead and integrate more of Northern Ireland’s schools. But even though turning already existing schools into integrated ones is the easiest path—and more sensible, too, given the excessive number of schools which have resulted from segregation—few parents are aware that any school in Northern Ireland can do so if it wishes. Fewer still know that the support of just 20 percent of parents is needed to begin the transition’s exploratory process.

A new initiative from the Integrated Education Fund is trying to change that. In the 25 years since it was launched, the fund has raised over £20 million to invest in integrated schools. However, the fund’s new effort, a campaign and digital platform called Integrate My School, is designed to help parents circumvent Northern Ireland’s broken traditional system. While the campaign raises awareness—thanks in no small part to its association with the legendary Irish actor Liam Neeson—the platform will provide vital, pragmatic support to parents who want to make their school integrated.

At the heart of Integrate My School is a digital platform which includes all the information parents will need to launch the transformation process. The platform lets parents register their school and explains how the system works. And once the process has started, Integrate My School guides parents through each and every step.

According to a 2013 survey from the Belfast Telegraph, no fewer than 79 percent of parents want to send their child to an integrated school. Yet only approximately 13 percent know that they can change their school, and only 6 percent understand how to do it.

What these figures suggests is that there is a constituency for turning more of Northern Ireland’s schools into integrated ones. There are many parents like me, parents who passionately believe that the path to a better and more unified Northern Ireland will be built—brick by brick, school by school, class by class, and child by child—by future generations, working together.

I have no doubt that integrated education can help make that future come true. It’s time to create a Northern Ireland where everyone is equal and together, not equal but apart.

The Integrated Education Fund is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

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