Interestingly, none of the major parties oppose integrated education. Yet, in a storm, few are prepared to back it either. Even the government, which highlights the segregated nature of Northern Irish society in its A Shared Future initiative seems to have abandoned it in the face of dropping rolls in the state and maintained school sectors and the ensuing fight for finite resources.Contrary to the idea that integrated education is a middle class affair, some schools like Hazelwood College (celebrating it’s twentieth anniversary last September) primarily serve working class kids who would otherwise never meet, never mind establish serious friendship with people from the ‘other side’ in a notoriously fractured North Belfast. Indeed they only established themselves in the teeth of some very nasty opposition.
That’s not to say that mixing does not occur outside the integrated sector. Indeed, according to some original research being carried out by Dr David Russel, a Research Fellow at the School of Education at Queens University at least one state primary school has virtually 50/50 Protestant and Catholic children attending. Indeed, there are several state (often erroneously term ‘Protestant’) Primary schools which have a clear majority of Catholic children in attendance.
There are a number of post primary state schools that have more than 30% Catholics in their population, including Strabane Grammar, Limavady Grammar and Crumlin High, which has a near even split between Catholic and Protestants and a very high percentage of others. Rainey Endowed in Magherafelt and Dominican College in Portstewart cross the line – but are both in the Voluntary sector.
St Columbanus and one its feeder schools, St Malachi’s in Bangor has 30% or more Protestants in attendance. It’s said that they have followed best practice, whilst retaining the Catholic ethos of the school, they have ensured that parents of students from right across the school population are involved in the management and care of the school.
But generally, there seems to be very little mixing in the Catholic school sector. And mixing in general terms is rare outside those few we’ve mentioned above and the nursery and special school sectors, where the government has traditionally refused to cater for religious differences.
At a time when Tony Blair is pushing the value of faith schools in Britain, no junior minister will force the dismantling of the Catholic school education system. At the same time, there are few enough policy instruments that will allow the government to address a problem highlighted in its own Shared Future document, which in a number of areas, not least housing (less than 10% of social housing in NI is mixed) indicates a weak and fragmented, not to mention fearful society.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty