A Lagan College birthday: The story of integrated education in Northern Ireland
by Allan LEONARD
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 — storytellers.
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.