With the establishment of the state of Northern Ireland, the unionist government under Lord Londonderry attempted to create a singular education system. However, this was met with significant opposition by both Catholic and Protestant churches, and the initiative failed. Instead, the Protestant churches agreed to transfer their primary schools to state control in exchange for full funding of both running and capital expenditure, while the Catholic Church was also granted full funding of the running expenditure of its primary schools and was allowed to maintain formal ownership and control provided it raised a proportion of capital expenditure. (Boyle p. 40) (The Catholic maintained system was subsequently fully publicly funded.) The result is what we now know as Northern Ireland’s segregated education system.

There are six classifications of schools in Northern Ireland:

  1. Controlled: mainly Protestant attended, under the management of individual school Board of Governors accountable to authorities of the statutory Education and Library Boards (ELBs); includes nursery, primary, special, secondary and grammar schools; for those Controlled schools that were originally church schools (Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, Methodist), four out of nine school Board members can be appointed by the church (this statutory power is under review)
  2. Maintained: mainly Catholic attended, under the management of individual school Board of Governors accountable to the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS); includes nursery, primary, special and secondary schools; there are also Maintained Voluntary, Maintained Integrated and Maintained Irish-Medium schools (all under the management of their own school Board of Governors)
  3. Voluntary: mainly grammar schools (regardless of denomination of school or pupil community identity/background); under the management of individual school Board of Governors
  4. Integrated: A new integrated school must attract 30% of its pupils from the minority community in the area where the school is situated; existing schools, transforming to integrated status, must demonstrate the ability to achieve a minimum of 10% of their 1st year intake drawn from the minority tradition (Protestant or Roman Catholic) within the school’s enrolment and the potential to achieve a minimum of 30% in the longer term; under the management of individual school Board of Governors, assisted by NICIE as a coordinating body
  5. Irish-Medium: education provided in an Irish speaking school; there are 29 Irish-medium schools in Northern Ireland (28 primary; 1 secondary) and a further 10 Irish-medium units attached to English-medium host schools (7 primary; 3 post-primary)
  6. Independent: 17 mainly denominational schools that are not required to teach to the Northern Ireland Curriculum but are regularly inspected by the Department of Education; do not receive public funding

As a reaction to the violence and unrest of the Troubles, in 1974 the ‘All Children Together’ (ACT) group was formed by like-minded parents to promote the idea of integrated schools. ACT began by fostering the notion of integrated education for those who were longing to share their children’s education with other families of differing religious affiliations and cultural traditions. ACTs first formal attempt at integrated education came in 1977, when they drafted a bill to allow existing schools to convert themselves into shared schools, by means of accepting students of different religions and cultural traditions. (O Connor p. 15) Passed as law in 1978, it was known as the Dunleath Act. However, not one school in Northern Ireland had invoked its provisions. Tired and frustrated, parents and members of ACT passed a resolution during at one of its Annual General Meetings to open “an integrated all-ability, post-primary college for Catholic and Protestant boys and girls”. Lagan College became the first integrated school to open in 1981, with 28 students.

The Department of Education (DENI) initially refused to allocate any funding for the opening of an integrated school. This changed in 1989, when a formal statutory provision was introduced to make state funding available for the establishment of new integrated schools and to facilitate the conversion of existing schools to integrated status. (Boyle 42) This resulted in DENI granting core funding to the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE), which was founded in 1987 as a co-ordinating body for integrated schools. This is complemented by the Integrated Education Fund (IEF), which was established to bridge the gap between the limited government money available for integrated schools and what was actually needed. The IEF functions as an independent charitable trust, entirely dependent on fundraising.

Integrated schools have to prove their ‘viability’ to receive funding. “Recurrent funding was given to new schools which met enrolment and growth criteria and capital development costs would be aided by the Government when the school had demonstrated its viability, usually after three to four years.” (Boyle p. 42) Even if schools had demonstrated such viability, they were still often refused government funding. Colm Cavanagh provides a clear example of this when describing the difficulty Ulidia Integrated College faced. It would take Ulidia Integrated College eight submissions of their Development Proposal before DENI finally approved and allocated funding. Ulidia Integrated College would most likely not have survived the first years of its opening had it not been for the support of IEF and other donors, such as the EU Peace Fund and the American Ireland Fund. Along with other charitable trusts, the IEF has supported and helped transform 46 schools since its inception in 1992.

Currently, around 7% of Northern Ireland’s pupils attend integrated schools, with many oversubscribed (demand for places outpacing supply). With government policy slow to facilitate the integrated education sector, it is the parents, volunteers and private donors who deserve the credit for the creation and endurance of integrated education in Northern Ireland.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement contains a pledge to facilitate and encourage integrated education. However, the Protestant and Catholic churches still have a lot of power in the school system, hindering the creation of new integrated schools as well as the transformation of existing schools to integrated status.

Meanwhile, perceptions of one another based on religious affiliation are still omnipresent in many people’s minds. As such, segregated education is one of the most important ways in which the boundary is maintained in Northern Ireland: “Not only does it deprive schoolchildren of significant social contact with those of a different religion, but it can also add to the perception that the divide is religious in nature.” (Mitchell p. 61)

Opinion polls consistently reveal that many parents in Northern Ireland are in favour of sending their children to integrated schools. The challenge that remains is for the Department of Education to implement its statutory duty “to promote and facilitate” integrated education, by sufficiently funding the demand for more places at existing integrated schools, as well as by being resolutely impartial in cases of schools demonstrating a majority will (and meeting criterion) to transfer (i.e. the Department not favouring the status quo where there is a local demand for change).

A response to the lack of growth of the integrated sector was a discussion on whether cross-community collaboration among existing schools (i.e. less than transformation to an integrated status) would be possible. This resulted in a Sharing Education Programme, co-funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies and the International Fund for Ireland, and managed by Queen’s University Belfast.

The results have been positive, in that it has created more inter-communal contact between children in Northern Ireland. In a 2016 Department of Education Omnibus Survey of 242 schools, it found that 58% had engaged in some type of shared education. Out of these, 72% reported doing “projects with pupils from other schools,” 47% reported “shared resources” and 42% reported “shared classes”.

There is a debate between the merits of integrated versus shared education. For example, elected representatives of the Northern Ireland Assembly debated this topic in a committee sitting.

But as in the aspirations of the early years of the Northern Ireland state, the interplay between churches and public policy on education will likely remain contentious.

Further Reading

Boyle, Kevin. Northern Ireland: The Choice. London: Penguin Books. 1994.

Cavanagh, Colm. “Thirty Years to Achieve 7 Percent. Working to Desegregate Schools in Northern Ireland” Integrated Education in Conflicted Societies. Ed. Claire McGlynn, Michalinos Zembylas, Zvi Bekerman. New York: Palgrave Macmillan: 2013.

Mitchell, Claire. Religion, Identity and Politics in Northern Ireland. Boundaries of Belonging and Belief. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing. 2006.

O Connor, Fionnuala. A Shared Childhood: The Story of the Integrated Schools in Northern Ireland. Belfast: Blackstaff Press Limited. 2002.

Research by Ragan DUEKER and Allison LIRA.

Last updated: 20 May 2019


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