Time to embrace true integrated education?

educationDave Thompson has been a teacher in Forge Integrated Primary School for over 18 years. 

Here are two facts about myself. I firmly believe in the importance of Integrated education. I also like irony; I frequently have a wry smile on my face. Sometimes these facts merge. For example, when local opinion polls show overwhelming support for Integrated education, yet, even when an Integrated option is available, most people don’t choose Integrated schools first. This is a little unfair, I know, the reasons for this are varied and complex, but here’s another one. Several years back, I attended an award ceremony for a competition among Integrated schools. The Minister, in her address to a room full of school representatives, spoke of how important the sector was. She went on to talk about how the other three sectors were important too. They are of course; it was just amusing that she made special mention of, well, everybody.

The ‘Integrated’ label definitely has more value now than ever before. One single sex grammar school actually advertises that it is ‘integrated’ on the home page of its web site. Yep, there’s irony again. No matter what way you want to define ‘integrated’, surely an all boy school that only selects certain pupils cannot be ‘integrated’!?

So what are Integrated schools actually about? Yes, they are (legally) about intake; they must have a mixed intake of pupils -though as society changes that legislation will become more problematic. But more importantly, Integrated schools are important because of their ethos; they promote diversity and help children and young people to have a clear sense of their own identity, as well as appreciating the identity of others. Integrated schools are certainly not ‘neutral’ spaces. This is problematic too, because there are many schools out there that aren’t “Integrated” that understand this very well. If I was forced to state one fault with the whole Integrated movement I would say that sometimes we come across as pious; unfortunately sounding as if we are the only people making the world a better place. That plainly isn’t true.

Let me try to tease ‘ethos’ out a little. An argument often put to me is that a school is now integrated because it used to be mainly Protestant/Unionist in intake, but now has lots of Catholics in it too. Therefore, it’s an integrated school. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pleased it has a mixed intake, but that isn’t anywhere near enough.

Let me give you an example from the ‘Protestant’ school I attended. When I was enrolled there in the eighties and very early nineties, a sizeable proportion of the school’s intake was Catholic. I don’t know the figures, but if you pushed me I’d say it was probably at least 20%. Yet, despite its integrated intake, Holy Communion was celebrated at the end of every term with a rotating Methodist, Presbyterian and Anglican service. A Catholic service was never offered. A union flag sometimes flew from the flag pole, and we sang the national anthem every prize day.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against singing anthems and flying flags, but (at least to my knowledge) there was no dialogue with the students, no explanation of why we did these things or any discussion about your sense of identity if you didn’t want to sing the British national anthem. Small things in some ways, I know, but if you want your students to integrate, then teaching them how to make sense of the world by gaining a better understanding of themselves and other people has to come near the top of your list of  priorities.

The Integrated primary school that I have been fortunate enough to work in for the last number of years has a mixed intake, (though as the tribal lines soften this can be tricky for us) but more importantly we have a superb ethos. I can’t list everything, but here are some aspects of school life.

We offer sacramental preparation to our Catholic pupils who want to go through confession, communion and confirmation. To all our pupils we offer the chance to learn factually not just about Christianity, but many major world religions, and to have the opportunity to be able to discuss their own values and beliefs.

In an age appropriate way, we try to unpack the local headlines. At upper primary at least, we will talk about flag protests, marches and riots, and political disagreements. (Some of the most interesting times I have spent in a classroom, were spent unpacking ‘Holy Cross’.) At election times, we will discuss, in child friendly ways, what our political parties stand for.

We try to ensure that every pupil feels that they are valued, as is the family that they have come from no matter whether that family is single-parented, multi-parented, from beyond Northern Ireland originally, hetero or homosexual, a single child or from a large blended family. “Normal” doesn’t exist; it’s just a setting on your hair dryer.

We are a school started by parents thirty years ago, and even though we are now a ‘controlled’ school, the role of parents is still important. Parents can contact their child’s teacher easily and we will do our best to break down the ‘them and us’ barriers that sometimes grow up between teachers and parents.

As I said earlier, there are many schools and teachers who are not Integrated, but are working in integrated ways such as these because they know life is not about neutrality. Despite the uniforms, schools should never be places where everyone pretends to be like everyone else. As far as possible they should be diverse spaces where students begin to consider the kinds of people they are, and who they might become. The ‘Integrated’ school label is only important because it is one route leading to an integrated society, where people are sufficiently secure in their own identity to be unthreatened by anyone else’s.

Let me close with a hypothetical possibility (and a small amount of whimsy). If Belfast’s councillors had all attended schools with not just an integrated intake but an integrated ethos, what would council business be like? Let me suggest that the councillors would still, to some degree, have their respective constitutional allegiances, because their integrated education didn’t strip them of their political identity. But would they have voted to take down the union flag? I don’t think so.

The nationalists, in my fantasy world, would have said that the City Hall needed to reflect a greater breadth of culture, but that taking down a flag that was important to some people, (though lots of people never actually noticed it) wasn’t the place to start. My fantasy world unionists would have agreed, but they would also be more accommodating in making changes to the building because they realised that allowing greater diversity in a public space, doesn’t mean that you’re losing any of your own identity. In fact, the greater the amount of integration and diversity, the richer we all are together.

Not just in education, we all need a vision of societal integration for this part of the world; we all need to consider a change in our ethos that we are, numerically at least, just too small to consider ourselves as two communities. I have found it more helpful to think that we are actually one divided one.

Dave Thompson was a primary school teacher for twenty years, but now works freelance for different organisations focussing on facilitation, training, writing resources and research. Further details can be found on his blog at overthewall.blog