Is integrated education even possible in Northern Ireland?

Perhaps it says more about my prejudices than anyone else’s but If I had to bet, I’d wager that many Belfast Telegraph Editorial Page readers understand the concept of integrated education as both simple and agreeable.

The simple part: Abolish CCMS, i.e. Catholic schools.

The agreeable part: Assimilate Catholic students into the Northern Ireland’s version of British state schools and, hey presto, that’s sectarianism largely sorted.

As someone who favors at least some concept of integrated education – though not at the price of massive social experiments, or the outright ending of freedom of choice for parents – such an approach vexes and not only because of its obvious sectarianism. It’s the uncritical laziness propping up such a smug outlook that gets me.

Self-confident self-reverence – the key social goal of Northern Ireland’s grammar system – is a dangerous habit at the best of times; employing this trait in a debate about education reform is as risible as it is unhelpful.

Such contented condescension and passive aggressive pity for ‘the other lot’ is far from one-way traffic in Belfast. After all, isn’t attaining this very disposition more or less the theological goal of CCMS’ much vaunted ethos?

All of which is just a convoluted way of saying what everyone already knows. Breaking news: Deeply divided society is divided over root causes of division; The two main groups tend to attribute sectarian attitudes as more deeply entrenched and problematic in the other group.

My point is this. This week’s news of a secondary school teacher fleeing her post at a Belfast school following threats from a coalition of the usual suspects is attracting all the wrong questions.

For example, praise and coverage has rightly focused on the decency of the Boys’ Model’s pupils’ supportive response. Some attention will inevitably focus on the identities and “grievances” of the merry band of unelected sidewalk gatherers whose diligence in finding new sources of perceived oppression may have been better applied to the classrooms they now profess to care so deeply about.

Some attention may even meander its way to eventually asking why the threats have not been condemned in a more full-throated chorus of ecumenical unity. But all of that is to miss what the Americans like to call, quite fittingly in this case, “a teachable moment”.

The Model Boys incident has presented an opportunity to frame the integrated education debate in the necessarily uncomfortable terms that are long overdue. Are we even serious about integrated education, or not?

Should threatening teachers whose political identity feels threatening emerge as a pattern, then the prospects for real and far-reaching integrated education taking off will quickly crash against yet another brick in the north’s entrenched sectarian walls.

Yet integrated education faces a more corrosive and formidable threat than the worst the Facebook fascists are capable of. We simply need to listen, even casually, to the softer tones of Belfast’s more polite suburbs to hear the greatest threat any sustainable vision of integrated education continues to face: the quietly potent and under-examined prejudices of Northern Ireland’s middle classes.

How many unionist parents would be happy to have their kids taught English Literature, or cultural and arts classes, by elected representatives of Sinn Fein or the SDLP?

How many middle-class liberal Catholics are willing to have their kids taught the history of the state by members of the Orange Order or the UUP?

How many people who “support integrated education” are content for a radical overhaul of the secondary school curriculum?

What should inform, guide, and monitor the process for agreeing the newly integrated lessons’ focus and emphasis? Is the imprimatur of a Nelson McCausland type appropriate or, worse, necessary? How about the blessing of Catholic hierarchy? Everyone okay with that?

If your answer is that educational priorities must come before politics then what are we even talking about in the first place?

Belief in integrated education is thrown around like a badge of honour for the “right-thinking” classes.

It could be a noble concept and goal, sure – at least for those who don’t see it as political cleansing by stealth and assimilation.

But is not the reason we have moved so little towards large-scale integration because, not-so-deep down, most of us don’t really want to integrate much at all?

When former SDLP negotiator Sean Farren asked former UUP leader David Trimble what he wanted for “his people”, during the talks leading up to Good Friday’s Belfast Agreement, Trimble is reported to have said, “to be left alone”.

I once read Trimble’s answer as hopelessly irresponsible and, given the tiny size of the place, completely unrealistic.

But perhaps Trimble was onto how many of us see each other. We’ll gladly live peacefully, and even on equal terms, but, in the end, separately.

Most people may not be bigots but how many of us take an active interest in the past-times and perspectives of our neighbours? If we were serious about integrated education, wouldn’t we be starting right there?

I hope not but the contrary evidence is hardly encouraging.

To date, the report card assessing the bona fides of Northern Ireland’s professed support for integrated education reads: “Few marks: Too little contribution to class discussion.”

Strategic Communications Consultant, located in Washington, D.C.