Reducing Duplication Within the Education System?

In the interests of not derailing anymore threads as I normally do when the topic of education comes up Mick has let me post this blog (probably in the hope that it’ll finally shut me up).

My own views on ‘integrated’ education (now a seemingly bland yet toxic term) have changed somewhat since I started reading posts on Slugger. One of the things that strike me most is how the discussion is always thrown to the most extreme scenarios.

Someone might suggest that there is perhaps a link between groups of people having no interaction with each other and the increased likelihood of tensions between them.

Instead of exploring and dissecting this possibility we might find that someone else takes up the extreme stance of “SO! You want to close all Catholic schools and ruin the best education we have?!”

“Erm, no, just pointing out there might be a link and we should maybe explore it a b…”

Followed by…

“LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA!!!!!!”

Or the most popular one (from what I can see) is the ‘magic bullet’ argument; “Integrated education won’t solve all the ills of society so what’s the point?!”

NOTHING will solve all of Northern Ireland’s ills in one fell swoop, it’ll take many actions and many years before anything approaching such a vision could be possible, but it doesn’t mean that the potential routes for paving the way to such a goal shouldn’t be explored.

People are always quick to point out that Catholic schools exist in places like England, the USA and Switzerland and that they don’t suffer from the same sectarian problem.

Well quite, but it’s difficult to imagine teenagers in Zurich being beaten to death for being of a different religion, or being potholed with an airgun, so it’s a very bad comparison.

Also, many people see the discussion as an outright assault on the Catholic schools and that it insultingly implies that Catholics are taught to hate or be sectarian.

Quite simply, stop your jibber-jabber, no one is saying that (apart from perhaps the nuttier elements of the unionist community, but they too would be opposed to children of different backgrounds mingling) so quit angling the argument in that light.

It is simply that things being what they are in Northern Ireland, having a Catholic school system offers an extra opportunity for people to choose where to send their kids and in most cases they choose the course that effectively separates them from the other group.

Hence, division and the breeding potential for ill-informed dogma and consequence-free, bigoted opinions (much harder to make derogatory remarks about the GAA ‘terrorist lovers’ when you’re in the same class as a temperamental hurler…) are given a helping hand.

Not to mention the additional cost of having two small primary schools in a village where one bigger would suffice, this state of affairs could also fall into the ‘buzzword of the moment’ as far as the united Ireland argument is concerned; ‘duplication of services’.

So, in the spirit of extreme scenarios, why not start off with the extreme proposals?

Scenario 1: The death of the Catholic Controlled Schools

This is always how the topic is derailed to begin with, that the topic of non-segregated integration by its definition must involve the dissolution of the Catholic schools and the lining up of priests against the walls and other exaggerated conclusions…

If this very unlikely scenario were to come to pass, then what would be the advantages and disadvantages?

Well, it’s possible that any ‘forced mingling’ might be offset by the understandable amount of resentment and hurt that would come about from having the entire system closed/forced out.

It would result in the closure (or merger) of many of the land’s top schools, force some people into the private school sector (not cheap) and realistically wouldn’t affect the religious make up of a large number of schools in and around the land (really, how many Catholic schools in West Belfast or Derry’s cityside would see an influx of Protestants?) So, what’s the point?

While it might be easier on the treasury and at last have the potential for mixing in mixed areas, it’s nonetheless a tall order, almost impossible to pull off and it would be bad news for some of the best schools in the land.

Scenario 2: “Build Integrated Schools and They Shall Come”

As pointed out by Zeno, this is not necessarily the case:

In my experience the people who send their kids to Integrated Schools and on Cross Community schemes are the ones who don’t really need to.They are the already enlightened.

Bitter sectarian Parents are never going to send or allow their children to participate in cross community bridge building projects because they themselves are sectarian. They probably have the gift of seeing themselves as not even being bigots so again I say. The problem is not with children. It is with the Parents.

How could a child of biter sectarian Parents handle of the conflict and contradictions of meeting and liking people from the other side when their own parents hate and detest them?

There is indeed an element of preaching to the converted in that the demographic of people who send their children to integrated schools are unlikely to be movers and shakers in the Orange Order, SF, loyalist bands, DUP, TUV or anyone else who has a hand in stirring the pot.

(Though, no doubt, there might be the odd exception).

Furthermore, for people who enjoy playing Gaelic games at school and enjoy learning Irish I am given to understand that state-built integrated schools are less than appealing.

Not to mention the tightrope that these schools have to walk, they can lose indignant parents at the drop of an O’Neills hat.

So while it’s nice to have the option, especially for those of us in ‘mixed marriages’  as Zeno alluded to is it really going to broaden the horizons of those who could perhaps benefit from them the most?

And even then, there’s no guarantee that once they come out the other side they’ll be free of sectarianism, as highlighted by one of Harry Flashman’s amusing anecdotes:

I once went out with a nominally Catholic woman of impeccable liberal credentials, middle-class professional, single mum with a school-age daughter.

Determined that her kid was going to represent the future of the new Northern Ireland she decided that not only would she not put her daughter forward for the 11-plus she would send her to the local integrated school.

Sure enough most of the girl’s friends were protestant, great stuff think I and her ma, that’s the way to the nice new multi-culti, liberal, all-must-have-prizes future.

Well that’s what we thought until the time when I discovered her in Ferryquay Street watching the Apprentice Boys march, all dolled up in her Rangers scarf, “UVF Simply the Best” badges and shouting abuse, with her buddies, at them fenian-loving cops.

I’d have wept if it wasn’t so freaking funny.

Integrated education is not the panacea for Northern Ireland’s ills, the Catholic schools are not the cause of the divided society in Northern Ireland.

Scenario 3: Merging Schools Where Falling Attendance Rates or Budget Cuts Necessitate/Permit

This is one that I reel off continually as it is the closest thing to a pragmatic compromise that I can find.

Using my own Mid-Ulster stomping ground as an example, there is a way that the fantastic records of Catholic Schools can be maintained, the costs reduced and the potential for proper mixing can be created:

Five Become Three

Magherafelt has five secondary schools; St Mary’s, the Rainey Endowed (mixed), St Pius X, Magherafelt High School and the Sperrin Integrated College. (Again, ‘duplicity duplication’ springs to mind).

Now, in the past decade or so, St Pius (situated on the Moneymore Road) has had a re-fit of sorts. A few years later the crumbling Magherafelt High School (situated 100m away on the other side of the same Moneymore Road) was bequeathed a nice new shiny replacement school.

In the meantime, the integrated school was built.

This was millions of pounds thrown at three schools, in the same town, two of which are almost within ‘spitting’ distance of each other (emphasis on spitting).

Now, imagine a scenario where the money used on building the integrated college and re-building/refurbishing the other two was used to build a split campus school on the sites of St Pius and MHS. (NOT along the same lines of the merged campus primary schools in Omagh which are still separate schools but an actual merged school, split only in terms of junior and senior blocks).

There are numerous Catholic schools nearby for any parent who seeks the religious aspect for their child’s education (St Mary’s, St Patrick’s Maghera, St Paul’s Kilrea).

If Irish was offered as an elective along with Gaelic sports teams and suitable arrangements were made for the various religious classes then who would lose from this set up?

No doubt some unionist hardliners would be appalled, but in this instance they would have chosen to send their children to a state school and in this particular case there is a need for the state to provide the facilities for some additional sports and topics.

If they are so very appalled they could then send their kids to Ballymena or form a private school.

The suggestion of offering Irish and Gaelic sports would no doubt act as a focal point of demarcation to begin with, but it only takes a few of the ‘cooler’ kids to dabble with the dark arts of Gaelic football and Irish before it is accepted or tolerated by some of the others.

After a generation of pupils there could (potentially) be the hitherto unseen (?) image of Protestants playing Gaelic games in South Derry.

Almost in a stroke we will have seen savings to the budget (and therefore would have removed some of the ‘duplication egg’ from some faces) as well as the potential for Protestants to be exposed to aspects of Gaelic culture.

Although the Protestants might not participate in any great way they may at least tolerate these aspects and accord them the respect they are due, the lack of this respect is something that some nationalist commentators on this very site bemoan.

Cynics would of course poo-poo this possibility but on this very site it has been highlighted in numerous instances that there is an increasing acceptance of Gaelic games amongst Protestant children.

So an encouraging ‘nudge’ and convenient opportunity to embrace it (i.e. thrown on their lap) may be no bad thing.

No doubt the reality would yield a spectrum of reactions with hostility, resentment and indignation from some Protestants at one end and acceptance if not enthusiasm at the other.

Money for the Irish Language Kitty

For those who would like to see the old Maghera High School site turned into an Irish language school, well, with the above merger (and subsequent sell-off of excess assets) the local education board would be in a greater financial position to make this possible, so that would be a potential boost to that particular campaign.

Scenario three covers most of the points that are raised during discussions on this topic:

  • Is there still a choice of Catholic education for those who wish their children to receive it? Yes
  • Does it offer the chance for children from both sides of the community to grow up together and be exposed to one another’s culture (GAA, Irish, marching bands) as opposed to the current culture that can shelter ignorance and suspicion? Yes
  • Does it remove some of the instances of  duplication of services? Yes
  • Does it save money? Yes
  • Could this freed-up money be used to prop up the Irish language schools? Possibly
  • Does it retain academically excellent schools such as St Mary’s and St Patrick’s? Yes
  • Does it affect schools in areas where there are no significant population of ‘themuns’? No
  • Is it a magical overnight fix? No
  • Will it guarantee that children don’t segregate themselves? No

But it is worth asking the following question:

Even with the misfortune of having bigoted parents who encourage sectarian views, which child is more likely to be bigoted?

  1. Someone whose bigoted parents fill his/her head full of sectarian rubbish and goes through 5 -12+ years of education without hardly ever speaking to one of themuns.
  2. Someone whose bigoted parents fill his/her head full of sectarian rubbish but goes through 5 -12+ years of mixed education and has therefore potentially sat beside themuns, spoke to them, fancied them, fought them, fought alongside them, played sports with them, acted in a play with them, been invited to their birthdays, gone on holidays/excursions with them, been invited to their sports games, family occasions….

Do you really think it would be 50-50 or no change whatsoever?

As I have mentioned before, there was a culture of Loyalist bands and marching at my state (Protestant) school.

I joined a loyalist band (just like my friends).

My brothers and cousins who went to a mixed school did not join loyalist bands. Yes, it’s anecdotal, but is it really just a coincidence?

Does it stand up to logical reasoning that a loyalist culture could prevail or be anywhere near as strong in a mixed school?

Or could there be link between loyalist bands and exclusively Protestant environments and their relative absence in mixed environments?

“Do you know why we can’t hear any loyalist bands? Because there are no loyalist bands to hearrrrr…” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pFvXQtqybYQ)

I for one found it harder to march in mixed areas once I came to know some of the people living there (and I almost certainly would have met them sooner had we not went to different schools on account of our different religions).

Do integrated schools or mixed grammar schools have loyalist alumni registers equal to those of entirely Protestant schools?

It’s possible, but is it probable?

From my experience, ignorance and segregation add fuel to the sectarian fire.

If we are truly appalled by what we see on 11th night bonfires, parades and daubed on walls then are we not obliged to remove these fuel sources wherever and whenever it’s possible?

Talking, blogging* and tweeting about it will do nothing, exposing kids to whom they have to live with potentially will.

*Yes, rich coming from me, I know.