A Lagan College birthday: The story of integrated education in Northern Ireland

A Lagan College birthday: The story of integrated education in Northern Ireland
by Allan LEONARD for Northern Ireland Foundation
11 November 2016

Just past the reception desk is a small, black-and-white photography of the simple and utilitarian building that housed the first enrolment of students at Lagan College in 1981; today, celebrating its 35th birthday, the impressive expanse is testimony to the successful development of not only this school, but of integrated education in Northern Ireland.

A few dozen of us sat upstairs in the library, where Lorna McAlpine (Senior Development Officer, Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education) welcomed all and introduced the first speakers — story tellers.

Cecil Linehan was co-founder of All Children Together (1972), which was a parent-led movement for the development of integrated schools in Northern Ireland.

Linehan began her story by commemorating “special people” for their work in this movement: Basil McIvor, Thelma Shiel, Henry Dunleath, Sister Anna, Lord Hewitt, Roy Houston, Wallace Johnston, Doleen Budd, Chris Moffatt, and others.

She described how it all began, with a letter to the editor, published in a newspaper, asking to hear from other parents who wanted their Catholic children learn about their faith in a non-Catholic school environment. The reaction from a Catholic church altar in spring 1973 was that any Catholic not attending a Catholic school will have the sacrament of their confirmation withheld. This received international attention in an article published by the Belfast Telegraph in March 1974. Yet it was publicity by the Irish press, notably an article by Conor O’Cleary in 1977 that strongly attacked bishops denying the sacraments, that led to a pragmatic resolution within the Catholic church.

Awareness was significantly increased by participating in radio and tv programmes, as part of a community broadcasting remit. She showed screen stills from the “Open Door” tv show in 1976. At this time, the illustrator Rowel Friers created a set of cartoons (some on display in the school corridor now).

Further progress was their publication of a template on what shared schools would look like — “All Children Together: ACT on Shared Schools” (1976) — as well as the passage of the Education (NI) Act 1978 (“the Dunleath Act”, Linehan called it).

Linehan spoke of “a big meeting” on 23rd March 1981, which discussed a proposal to open an integrated post-primary college for boys and girls in South Belfast by that September. Councillor Peter Robinson feigned safety concerns for the children, as fellow Councillor Addie Morrow challenged by noting many more children come together for other occasions.

As we know, the school building was erected (although the first three years required sending pupils to different mini-campuses).

Linehan concluded with homage to Sheila Greenfield, the first principal of Lagan College.

* * *

Anne Odling-Smee discussed her background and experiences in India in the 1960s, where she discovered that mixed-religion marriages didn’t matter, but the caste system did (as the major social cleavage there).

Odling-Smee told a personal story about her Catholic daughter’s encounter with sectarianism in Northern Ireland, when her daughter invited a Protestant friend to her home, but the next day at school discovered that she no longer had her as a friend. This wasn’t due to anything the two children said or did at the home, but likely the Protestant friend’s mother advising her own daughter that one can’t be friendly to ‘the other’.

For Odling-Smee, the basis for bringing people together is to challenge bigotry, prejudice and stereotypes. To achieve this, she continued, you need to give everyone, teachers and students, the skills to do this.

* * *

Paddy Smyth (former Head Boy, Lagan College) shared his positive experience of integrated education and how it has benefitted his life.

It began with a determination more by his parents, as he was losing patience stuck in a traffic jam whist en route to the gates of Lagan College for Open Day; an escape to McDonalds was on his mind.

“Fortunately, we managed to get through … and that was the beginning of my adventure. And here I am!” Smyth said.

He described how much the environment facilitated conversations with people from all sorts of cultures and backgrounds, to see another person’s viewpoint, and to learn about places in Belfast that he never knew existed.

“It’s been great to have forged lifelong friendships with people from across all areas of Belfast — north, south, east and west — and beyond!”

Smyth remarked that at the age of eleven he didn’t know what a Catholic was, and how bizarre that sounds. He said that he is now so passionate and eager for young people to be educated in an integrated school:

“Since leaving the College, I’ve always tried to promote its values, which were instilled in me throughout the last seven years: to be open, friendly, loyal and to treat everyone the same, regardless of where they come from and what they believe in.”

He also explained how attending an integrated school did not dilute his religious faith:

“For young people, having a faith at school is incredibly different, but I felt that [at Lagan College], this was never an issue and was always encouraged, which is … such a wonderful thing.”

* * *

Kellie Armstrong MLA began by paying tribute to the parents and others who established integrated education in Northern Ireland.

She described herself as a passionate advocate of integrated education, a mother who sends her child to an integrated school.

Armstrong explained her Private Member’s Bill at the Northern Ireland Assembly.

She repeatedly asserted that this bill is not about devaluing any other education sector, but enabling every parent who wishes to send their child to an integrated school, to do so.

In advance of the bill be brought before the Assembly, there is a public survey that Armstrong has organised, in two forms: one for young people and another for adults; the survey is open to all, whether having attended an integrated school or not.

Armstrong explained that she will lose control of the bill, as it advances through the consideration states. There may well be amendments, or it could even be killed by the Petition of Concern mechanism. Because of this, she implored everyone to encourage others to participate in the survey, in order to collect as much evidence to ensure the best popular defence:


She is thankful for the investment of £500 million for integrated and shared education capital projects over the next ten years, as pledged in the Fresh Start Agreement. Armstrong noted, though, that this money will come from Westminster, not the Northern Ireland budget:

“This is how important the UK Government sees integrated education; they are investing new money where the Northern Ireland Executive is not.”

Indeed, Armstrong continued, the Northern Ireland Executive has no intention of producing any legislation in this mandate to support integrated education, nor any intention of enabling funding to support it. This was why a bill is needed, she argued.

Clauses in her introduced bill include:

  • Setting minimum targets for children being educated in integrated schools within the next decade (DE)
  • Amending the current statutory duty on DE ‘to promote’ integrated education (beyond current ‘to facilitate’)
  • Requiring DE to develop a strategy to implement the bill
  • Reviewing the transformation process into integrated sector
  • Auditing communities to assess the demand for integrated education

On the last point, she discovered that no one tracks where children who are denied a place at an integrated school subsequently go: “This isn’t good enough.”

Armstrong reflected that she never had an opportunity to attend an integrated school, but is a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly with the likes of Claire Bailey MLA, who was one of the first.

“I have found the integrated experience for my child enlightening and inspiring. Looking wider, Northern Ireland is becoming more culturally diverse, and an increasing number of parents and children want to attend an integrated school.

“The best way to pay tribute to the pioneers of Lagan College and other trailblazers is to ensure they have the opportunity to do just that,” Armstrong concluded.

Originally published: https://northernireland.foundation/2016/11/21/a-lagan-college-birthday-the-story-of-integrated-education-in-northern-ireland/


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

[UPDATED 27/22/2016: Corrected paragraph in regards to Anne ODLING-SMEE daughter anecdote.]

Allan LEONARD is a peacebuilder. I do this through my personal and professional vocations, with learning, exploring, and reporting. My specialism is the politics of Northern Ireland, whose people and land I love and where I have made my home. I believe in the power of the arts for conflict transformation, through vision, sound, and performance. I work for a shared society and a #sharedfuture Views expressed here may not represent those of current or previous employers or associations.

  • Maximum Overdrive
  • Am Ghobsmacht

    On these threads it’s only a matter of time before someone mentions ‘no GAA’ so let’s just nip it in the bud in this particular case: http://www.lagancollege.com/2014/10/lagan-college-wins-first-ever-gaa-match/

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    And that the Shoukri brothers went there (disputedly) – and let’s not leave out the old chestnut “whose history will be taught?”

    Almost as good as predictive texting or is it groundhog day again?


  • Granni Trixie

    For the record, the two people key in the list of getting integrated schools going were not mentioned above. I refer to Tony Spencer, a QUB sociology lecturer and Murial Pritchard on BCC. They were part of ACT and hence can be credited with establishing Lagan but also around 1983 set up Belfast Trust for Integrated Education(BELTIE) which established 2 schools at Hazlehood. Beltie also established NI Council for I.E. Tony Spencer in particular was a powerhouse of information which was disseminated throughout NI to help parents wanting to set up new integrated schools.

  • Croiteir

    The social engineers at play. This is sinister stuff. The fact that they get special funding from the Govt over others is somehow seen as a social good, it is not, it is nothing but bias against other forms of equally viable educational choices.

    The survey drips of the usual soft antagonism to Catholic education we have come to expect from the Alliance Party.

    Question 4 – Citizenship Education – In other words we will tell you what is required to be a good citizen, not your parents or your family, but us, the Alliance Party, for we know better. Your parents clearly do not, the probability is that they don’t even vote for us, we cannot convince them so we shall start on the children.

    Question 5 – Diversity Inclusion For Teachers – Again the teachers are simply not doing there job, and we need to tell them what it is. Except for Catholic education, that is taking diversity too far now.

    Question 6 – Repeats Question 3 and perhaps reveals an obsession with parental choice for some reason, (must be got rid off you know, they cant be trusted to make the right choice).

    Question 10 – Dept. of Education to promote rather than facilitate and encourage. What does promote mean, as the encouraging hasn’t worked, (and that is too far), the Alliance Party wants to promote one form of education over others, perhaps a better word was direct. They also do not explain the form of this promotion? ore cash, cutting cash from the others, refusing to build schools unless they are integrated?

    Question 11 – Dept. of Education to have a duty to plan for Int. Education. Again we see the sense of entitlement and bias that goes hand in hand with the proponent of the integrated sector. No mention of any duty to plan for other sectors, just the integrated one, discriminating against the others. What happens if the plan is judged as not good enough, too ambitious, not ambitous enough? What happens if it fails?

    The Department of Education should have strictly hands off approach favouring nothing but serving all equally. In the world of Alliance they are more equal than others.

    Question 12 – a Continuation of 11 asking if the plan would help achieve “further” development and growth of Int. Education. Well if it wouldn’t there would be little point having it. If it did would the practical consequences on other sectors and would a plan e in place to help them grow?

    Question 13 – Should planning for integrated education set minimum targets. This question presupposes that the Dept. of Educ. should be planning for Int. Educ. I would have thought that there would be some measure of failure or success in a plan. However that was not is being asked, what is really being asked is if we fail to meet targets, (and purposely setting impossibly high targets), should we get more resources, (money), until we do?

    Question 14 – This is a clinker, in order to get around the fact that many schools do not get enough Catholics to maintain their Int. Educ. status they are trying to get away from the normal method of measurement, whether you are from the Catholic/Protestant community. Instead they want to measure mixed, other or none. If they do this they are saying that the split here is not along political lines but religious lines. They are effectively blaming the Churches rather than the politics of the hundreds of years. Think about the implications of that.

    Question 15 – What difference would this make? If none why mention it?

    Question 16 – Basically what they are asking is should the school reflect the religious makeup of its catchment area. So if a school was in a Catholic area it still would be Catholic in attendance but not ethos and vice versa for one on the Shankill. In other words we want to drive religious ethos out of schooling. Doesn’t get plainer than that folks.

    Question 17 – Should a complete review o be held of the sector. For what purpose. These questions are clearly set to entice a YES response to then allow the Alliance Party to say what the responder was saying yes to later. Very dishonest.

    Question 18 – A more proactive role by the proactive approach by government to encourage and facilitate discussions between schools in different sectors that may wish to explore amalgamation? – Again the answer to this should be no. The Govt. is overstepping its role to do so. It is. or should be, a disinterested party. Note that there is no description of what this proactive role is to be.

    Question 19 – Should there be financial incentives for schools to transform to integrated status? – Again discriminating against other sectors. Bit never worry – here is your soup.

    Question 20 and 21 – Alliance obviously want a dedicated team to “inspect” and help “develop” the integrated ethos. In other words jobs for the boys and more money to schools that have failed to meet the criteria due to lack of local support. No Integrated school a failed school apparently, just aa school which has not been bankrolled enough

    Question 22 – Not sure what is meant – seems to be a rehash of 20 and 21 above, but don’t worry , more money for the social experiment on your children

    Question 23 – Should there be dedicated funding for the Int. Educ. – the answer surely is no more than any other sector.

    Question 24 – Again they plump for more money, in addition to the above they want to top it by additional funding, to the detriment of other sectors, for Int. Educ. alone. Some more equal than others.

    Question 25 – the demand for integrated education is not assessed, should an audit be done to effectively plan and budget for integrated education? – The answer is certainly, and for all sectors also, we need to know what to plan for and what is more appropriate.

    Question 26 – Who should be responsible for conducting the audit? Obviously a disinterested body who would then plan accordingly in a fair manner appropriate to the audit. But we know from earlier questions that the Alliance Party want the Dept. et al to be championing Int. Educ. so can I suggest the CCMS for balance?

    Question 27 – Should teaching be exempt from Art 71 of the Fair Employment law? Yes, absolutely without any hesitancy. It protects the ethos of the school and respects the wishes off the parents.

    Question 28 – Following on from above would repeal encourage a more integrated workforce? Hardly in percentage terms. But that is not the point. The point is that schools are there to represent an ethos be that integrated or Catholic or State or whatever and the school should be protected from anything that undermines or threatens or compromises that ethos. Imagine a teacher in an integrated school saying he did not accept that ethos. How much respect for his/her views would guarantee his/her job security.

    Question 29 – How do you think the proposed legislation will impact on human rights? Obviously it will have a negative impact on human rights as it will skew funding disproportionately from other sectors which will unavoidably hinder the pupils who attend the schools, this is clearly shown in the manner in which Catholic Education has performed once it was given the same financial support as state schools in the north. What this legislation will achieve is the return to the days that Catholics sit on the back of the school budget bus only now they will be joined by the State sector schoolkids and the new elite at the Int. Educ. will be at the front. It also threatens the human right of the parental right to choose the education that is right for them and their child.

    Question 30 – How do you think the proposed legislation will impact on equality of opportunity? – again negatively. If those children at the none integrated sector are getting less resources, and they will under this legislation, then they will suffer from less life opportunities.

    Question 31 Do you have any comments on the likely savings/financial implications of the proposed legislation? Yes – they cost a fortune and create a two tiered education system.

    Question 32 Do you have any other comments on the proposed legislation? Yes – forget it – about as needed as Claire Hanna’s Suckling Bill (or whatever she wants to call that).

  • doopa

    Religions have no place running schools. You don’t have to be in the Alliance Party to think that the Catholic Church shouldn’t be running schools.

  • Ryan A

    If you wish to indoctrinate your child you do it on your own time through your preferred church or you pay for it out of your own pocket like the Free P system.

  • Croiteir

    No you do not have to be but thanks for the covert confirmation of the Alliance Party agenda.

    However schools have the place that the parents want, unless of course you believe that the parents have no say and we are all subject to the state.

  • Croiteir

    Well you may wish to allow the state to do the indoctrination and tax us for it, but I wish the parents to have their choice of indoctrination paramount.

  • Ryan A

    No one is saying you shouldn’t be able to send your children to a faith school of your choice; Just the fact that the days when you can expect to do so at the cost of the NI (edit: And indeed British) taxpayer (yes, I know you likely pay tax – as do I, as do those without children) should come to an end. If like the Free P’s (accounting for less than 1% of the population) you have no confidence in state run institutions fine; but you pick up the bill.

  • Korhomme

    If paid for by the State—the taxpayer—, there should be no place for religion in schools; education should be entirely secular.

    Meanwhile, why don’t we look at how the Finns do education? We could learn a lot from them.

  • Croiteir

    But why should they come to an end – because you say so?

  • Ryan A

    Because the majority of NI wants it to – as found by every poll on the issue, some by as much as 70%.

  • Croiteir

    Can you show me a poll that says that?

  • Ryan A
  • Croiteir

    They are reports – have you a link to the poll? We all know that these polls are often skewed in there phraseology and choice of question, I would have doubts over this one which was commissioned by the IEF.

  • Croiteir

    It is already significant that the integrated campaign is not being waged under the device of “religious liberty” or “freedom of conscience”; neither of these two positive, intelligible formulas would suit the purpose. Rather, the banner bears the slogan, “separation of Church and State”— that negative, ill-defined, basically un-democratic formula, with all its overtones of religious prejudice. This fact affords a preliminary insight into the ultimate forces that are inspiring the campaign; they are the forces of emotion and religious rivalry, not of reason and democratic sentiment.
    In America the call this the “wall” But the wall was never designed to keep the Church out of the State. It was designed to do the very opposite. Keep the State out of the Church. From that the liberty of the citizen to pursue his civil and religious liberty flows. The State cannot curtail the freedom of conscience, and the religious conviction that may frame it, it cannot breach that wall. That is the way of oppression, the State does have any legitimate right to know about them. It is none of its business. It therefor follows that the State cannot compel anyone to attend any school apart from the one the parent chooses, the State is always subservient to the people on these choices if you believe in the true interpretation of the separation of Church and State. Now some try the argument if the want a school let them pay for it. again this is contrary to the dictum of separation of the Church and State.
    The next argument that the integrated supporters come out with is that if people wish to send their schools to non state schools then they should pay. The reasoning is that the state is providing schools therefore the state should not be obliged to pay for those that do not avail of them. But this is a breach of freedom of conscience once again. If the state obliges the parent to educate the child, (which I have little problem with), the compulsion obliges the parent to make a choice. It is an imposition but a just one. Again flowing from the reasoning in the previous paragraph the parent must be allowed to make the choice in keeping with his conscience, the reasons for that choice is not the business of the state, what is the business of the state is that the parent complies in educating the child. Therefore for the state to penalise the parent making the imposed choice that the state obliges is an oppression and a breach of freedom. The state is breaching the wall. The state admits this at present by funding parochial schools as they are playing their role in following the law. The state understands, even if those who proffer this argument do not, that those who send children to non state schools do not cut themselves of from state funding by free choice, but are in fact sending their children to the school to comply with state imposition.
    To argue for the separation of Church and State and then discriminate against the child and its parents for exercising the right which flows from that is a perversion of the principle. If you say that it means that the state should not fund non state schools you have erected the wall in the wrong place. And it is no good to say that the Government does not interfere with religious schools. The issue is not interference vs. non-interference. The issue is support vs. non-support, at a moment when government is facing its responsibility for extending equal educational opportunities to all children. In such a context, non-support is only a mitigated form of legal suppression.

  • Séamus

    Are you including integrated schools as faith schools?

    NICIE’s statement of priniciples says clearly that “the integrated school provides a Christian based rather than a secular approach”.

  • Granni Trixie

    My understanding is that their mantra is that Integrated schools are “for all religions and none”

  • Ryan A

    They are reports featuring polls and polls conducted independently (by LucidTalk I believe) at that. I found them in less than a minute searching google – Why don’t you find me a ‘report’ that says different?

  • Ryan A

    All well and good but that is your opinion/perspective and not likely majority opinion/perspective at that.

  • Croiteir

    I am not making the claim – you are and the burden is you, if you found them link them.

  • Croiteir

    Again this majority business, with no proof. and again no discussion, Just a reply that would not tax someone with the attention span to read a tweet. I had hoped a real argument would engender a real response, but no, just a tweet saying a survey said so and that’s that.

  • Ryan A

    I’d call it me being as dismissive of your opinion as you are of the polls I’ve already linked in your direction. In your post you open with “It is already significant that the integrated campaign is not being waged under the device of “religious liberty” or “freedom of conscience”; neither of these two positive, intelligible formulas would suit the purpose”

    We all know the key driver for the integrated movement in Northern Ireland and its disingenuous to suggest otherwise. NI is a divided society in which we currently further entrench division by the separation of the population from ages 4-18 on the basis of religious denomination. Failure to grasp that really doesn’t encourage me to argue the rest of your post any further.

  • Croiteir

    Firstly I will address the polls issue. You have not given me any links to the polls in spite of being invited to, you have given me links to reports on polls.
    Secondly we have seen how polls are often not accurate
    Thirdly the polls are at a divergence from reality. People are choosing not sending their children to these schools in droves. That is better than any poll, that is on the ground actuality.
    Fourthly people such as me also support integrated education. I even send two of my children to an integrated school, but not one that recognised as such by the dept. of educ., but we do not support unfair bias in favour of it. We do not care which sector the parents choose, if the school meets the criteria for eligibility then it should be supported.
    We do all know that many of the people who support integrated education do so for various reasons, one of which is the unproved assertion that it will end division in NI(sic). But there are other very sinister motives which I have heard aired at meetings on the subject.
    It is disingenuous to present a single motive as the driver. It is also dismissive, because I suspect that it is unarguable, to say otherwise. The fact that you refused to engage in the argument indicates that you have no argument against it.

  • Katyusha

    I disagree. My Catholic education served me well and I would very much prefer my children were taught in a Catholic school as well. God forbid that the state ran all education, causing it to blow in the wind with every passing election and the whims of every new education secretary, resulting in the kind of disaster that the English comprehensive system has become. I’d far rather guarantee an excellent standard of education for our children rather than use or schools as an instrument of social engineering to fit the worldview of whoever won the last election.

    There’s nothing unusual about the Church providing education, it does so all over the globe Perhaps more pointedly, and I didn’t really register this until I left the UK, is why the Church doesn’t run any universities in the UK. I presume it’s barred from doing so?

  • Séamus

    Isn’t that the de facto case with every sector?

  • Granni Trixie

    Could well be….In theory anybody can access any school but what makes the difference is the culture within the school. I attended as a pupil and taught in a Catholic school for instance and couldn’t imagine anyone other than catholics fitting in ( this may be peculiar to Ni experience) . some Catholics attend Protestant grammars but I have heard stories suggesting there is not adjustment for difference. One young man told me for instance that teachers would not use e Irish form of his name, the name by which he was known. He hated the school.

    And we haven’t even mentioned class differences yet!

  • John Collins

    You are dead right.When the religious ran hospitals there was not half the problems in them than there are now.

  • anne odling-smee

    Grannie Trixie you are quite right. Tony and Muriel were key and both Cecil and I , , spoke of them in our talks as you will find if you click on the tapes. Allan’s resume is a feather touch. Thank you for your very accurate account of that part of history. I worked with Tony in QUB. A man of great courage and vision.

  • Korhomme

    See Anne Odling-Smee’s reply to you which is below my comment.

  • Granni Trixie

    Thanks Anne.

  • anne odling-smee

    I agree Ryan. The driver was always about allowing children to be educated together and learn about belief and cultures other than their own. Those of other faiths or none were always part of the mix. Space and respect for all. Interaction without flaunting
    was essential. Ignorance through segregation is indefensible and has led to fear and bigotry and sectarianism.

  • anne odling-smee

    The majority of Integrated schools are over subscribed. So the droves are being turned away not by passing them. The lack of choice is for those wanting an integrated school. No one has been forced to go to one. Many have been forced to go to maintained/controlled because there was no Int school or it was full.

  • Croiteir

    I am not too sure about that being the full picture. From 3 yr old figures I see that 17% of post primary integrated school places were unfilled.

    Now that Int Ed benefits from positive discrimination, if there was a demand in the numbers which the people who advocate for this sector, the growth of the Int Ed sector would be phenomenal. It isn’t expanding as the market is not there in the numbers the advocates say.

    As for forcing. That can be described to all sectors. I was forced to send my children to a non grammar as there are no grammars within reasonable distance from me. Many have been forced to send children to schools other than their preferred choice.