High Schools: Casualty of a new Northern Ireland?

My son attends the local high school. This seemed like a logical choice when he was in P.7. The school is on our street. Petrol is a finite resource.

If you’ve been out of the education loop for a number of years, rest assured that we have a good education system here in Northern Ireland. The number of choices, however, is mind-boggling for parents, stress-inducing for children and not great for the planet.

I grew up in a ‘mixed’ working class housing estate in Larne, a town with a local district population of 32,000 and a religious make up of 70% Protestant, 25% Catholic and 5% Other. Although we went to separate primary schools, my friends — the Catholics, Protestants and Others — all came home and played together on the street. Despite appearances projected by a summer flag war, Larne has positive community relations and a high number of mixed marriages. It’s rare to meet a Protestant who doesn’t have a Catholic granny. It’s rare to go to a Catholic funeral without half the congregation being asked if theyd like to be blessed.

I’m going to give you some examples of the conversations I’ve had with parents about the transfer procedure. If youre thinking — is that me? — it’s probably just a version of you because all these stories can be multiplied by ten. And then some if you apply them to the whole country.

One man of Protestant origin told me that he did not want his child to attend the local high school because it was ‘mostly Protestant.’ In this era of religious tolerance, this did not suit. He sent his child to the integrated school in Carrickfergus.

An Other’ mum who is married to a man of Catholic origin told me that she was so worried about not getting her child into an integrated school in Ballymena that she planned to select ‘Catholic’ rather than ‘Other.’ The integrated school in Ballymena is so keen to attract Larne Catholics that a gigantic, expensive advertisement goes up on the Old Glenarm Road every year, a stones throw from the high school.

An ‘Other’ mum of Presbyterian heritage sent her children down the coast to the Catholic school. I have a picture of the school in my hallway, and you wouldn’t blame a person for trying to get in. It’s a castle located on a cliff with awe-inspiring views, but alas some children must attend schools that look like Grange Hill.

Another Protestant parent said she is considering sending her child to the castle because shed heard great things about their special educational needs support. The local high school has experienced and qualified teachers who’ve been nurturing children with special educational needs for decades. The local high school does not have turrets.

A Protestant woman said was thinking of the castle school because her brother had had a terrible experience at the high in the 1980s — when the country was falling to bits. Sending Protestant children to Catholic schools is now all the rage. This is problematic as there are limited places.

A more organised parent of non-Catholic background preempted the rise in the popularity of Catholic schools, having paid close attention to trends in England. This woman of immense foresight sent her children to a Catholic primary school. They are now practising Catholics and LOL about this at family parties because the granda was in LOL1297.

A lapsed Catholic friend was zealous about the importance of integrated education. Never Never Never, said this most principled of individuals in relation to Catholic schools. The integrated primary school is an impressive new-build situated next to six-bedroom dwellings and a small working-class housing estate. Its nestled at the top of a cliff, overlooking Scotland. He made a sudden u-turn at secondary school level when he realised the only option was the local high. His children now attend the Catholic school in a castle forty minutes away from home.

Many of my friends send their children to the local grammar school. This is good for the town and good for the environment, even if the selection process is bad for children, bad for primary school teachers and bad for parents. A number of these friends also have a child at the high school. They do not necessarily believe in dividing children up by perceived ability, but they take advantage of the system in place. If my daughter had made it into the grammar school, she may well have gone there.

The coming-of-age grammar school story is often bitter-sweet. Most children in the top streams of any high school could have made it into a grammar school had circumstances been different. Everyone knows this, and those who carry the burden of injustice in any small town are the couple of hundred children who didn’t make the grade. ‘Suck it up,’ I was told by a grammar school parent on Twitter when my second child was so far off making the grade that she lay down in a silent stupor for three hours.

A man with no less than four bathrooms told me that he sends his children to a top grammar school in Belfast. He said they are letting low-income children into the Larne one. I dont think theres much help for the gentleman in question. I can only hope that his children pick up some values from the low-income children they’ll inevitably meet in Belfast.

Every single high school teacher I spoke to reassured me that my child would receive the best at the high school because the school is all ability.  Its always been the case. Many high school teachers have children at a grammar school, a paradoxical situation for the champions of all ability high schools. Teachers are victims of a flawed system, like everyone else.

Larne people bus children out of town every single day to about nine different schools within four systems. Parents want the best for their children, and I understand that, but many people think that this can only happen in: 1. A grammar school. 2. A Catholic school. 3. An integrated school. 4. A high school in another town. Meanwhile, the local grammar school is able to attract children from out of town, amounting to more diesel fumes.

When my daughter asked me why she was stupid, I decided I could no longer be a witness to the bad circus. I needed to become an activist, for my childrens sake and or that of every child who has yet to encounter this. Integrated non-selective education, I thought. That’s the answer! That would keep people in the town. I began to investigate what it would take to turn the local high school into an integrated school. I became excited by the notion of a fancy new building, like the ones you get in Belfast. Empowered by the ‘Integrate my school’ website, I clicked a button and shared it with my friends. To my dismay, I discovered there are quotas involved in becoming an integrated school. A mad rush of Catholics from Ballymena, Carrickfergus and Ballyclare to Larne is unlikely, so the local high will remain mixed in practice, but unable to meet the quotas to become officially integrated.

Are you perplexed yet? I am too. The all ability schools dont need to know what religion you are as a prerequisite to entry. Yet the messages are: 1. Youre not good enough because you dont have religious diversity. 2. Your school is not good enough because it is not integrated. 3. You are not smart enough to get into the nice 1990s building overlooking cherry-blossom-hued lawns.

The children from Portugal, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Romania, Poland and Canada, among other nations represented at the local high school, get lost when diversity is based on Catholic-Protestant-Other, as do the children of colour. Then there are the dozens of children from ‘mixed marriages’, like my own, whose life at home is as integrated as can be.

So, why are parents scared of high schools? This is a difficult conversation that risks upsetting the children in the high schools and demoralising the teaching staff, as it often involves stereotypes and snobbery. The foremost parental fear is drugs — taking them and dealing them. This problem cant be solved out of town. ALL schools already work hard to beat this problem. (I say to my son, Just say No! but he doesnt understand the inference).

The second issue parents have is the school uniform. High school kids look great, but their teenage rebellion manifests itself in trainers instead of school shoes and non-regulation hoodies instead of a school jumper. I could spend time talking about this, or just allocate it the importance it merits and move on.

The third and most salient issue is the appearance of the school. It was built when my dad was seven, but despite mid-century chic being all the rage, its now an environmental problem. Parents blinded by appearance can’t see the beating heart of a school so clearly when the building looks beat. And so, we all welcome the recent announcement about investment and hope that it is real.

The problem with our education system is about many things, but I have learned over the last month that religion is the least of it. We have prejudice, fear, emotional attachment to the status quo and a strange notion that comprehensives are bad because we watched too much Grange Hill in the 1980s. We want to avoid the English private system! people holler. Well, we dont need it. We can create our very own education system, fit for a small country heady with resilience and talent. If we continue to focus on STEM, STEM, STEM, we might even use our scientific knowledge and reason over instinct and emotion to build something fair. In the meantime, and if the integrated system continues to demand quotas, every single high school in the land should make this a marketing consideration and write in capital letters on their walls and gates and websites and prospectuses what they already know to be true: We are an all ability school and all religions are welcome.

There is an elephant in the room. Religious schools. Like everyone else in the country, I have wondered if a complete ban on religious schooling would solve all our problems, but I find it impossible to ask any Catholic school to become secular. Religious tolerance is accepting that the Catholic school system is intrinsic to Irish life and no Protestant can dictate change here. Anyway, its a positive sign of the times that Protestants want to send their children to Catholic schools, despite the environmental impact.

In conclusion, I have no solutions to Northern Irelands conundrum. Every system is imperfect. My own vision of perfect imperfection is a town with an all-ability-all-religion Junior High (11-14) and all-ability-all-religion Senior High (15-18). As I have no influence over that, there are some short-term solutions. 1. Make decisions on access to grammar schools in a joint consultation between the people who know the children best — primary school teachers and parents. 2. Encourage parents to make decisions based on environmental considerations rather than bus their children twenty miles from home. 3. Re-examine what ‘integration’ means in the context of an increasingly mixed and diverse NI.  4. Make it ethically and morally reprehensible for any parent to wish to separate children according to social status.

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