Integrated schools: Northern Ireland and Israel

Integrated schools: Northern Ireland and Israel
3 July 2023

Integrated schools in Northern Ireland have been used to bridge the gap between Catholic and Protestant children to promote peace. The Department of Education (DENI) funded the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE) to facilitate and oversee integrated schools. The movement to have integrated schools started in the 1980s with parent grassroots movements and now, according to the DENI, there are 70 grant-aided integrated schools in Northern Ireland.

In Israel, integrated schools have been used to bring Jewish and Arab communities together. Hand in Hand is the leading organisation in support of integrated education:

“Launched in 1997 with 50 children, there are now over 2,000 students enrolled in six Hand in Hand schools from Jerusalem to the Galilee. Hand in Hand was established to combat one of Israel’s greatest existential threats: the growing social alienation and lack of trust between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. We believe that education is key in changing this.”

Hand in Hand has had slow growth because of the physical space between groups, cultural and language barriers, lack of funding, and absence of support from the government and parents.

The current climate in Israel between Muslim and Jewish groups reflects their segregation. This is perpetuated by physical space between communities; Jews and Arabs live in different areas under different councils, which can be miles apart. The physical distance between groups and the attitudes the groups hold against one another make the mental distance between the groups even further. There is further separation within the Jewish community, due to religious ideologies. The vastness of segregation in Israel makes it difficult for any two groups to make contact with one another. In contrast, although there are predominantly Catholic and predominantly Protestant areas in Northern Ireland, there are many areas where the two groups live in harmony. Additionally, conflicting groups may only be separated by an interface — unlike the large physical barriers running for long distances between groups in Israel.

There are also distinct cultural and language barriers between the Jewish and Arab populations, which makes integrated education difficult in Israel. It creates a fear that Jewish and Muslim cultures will be lost if schools become integrated due to enculturation, which is why many accept separation. Hand in Hand combats the language barrier through bilingualism — they have two teachers in the classroom, one who speaks in Hebrew and one who speaks in Arabic. Integrated schools in Northern Ireland do not have such a language barrier, but there is the challenge of addressing cultural differences; schools that transformed to integrated status made their curriculum more inclusive.

Hand in Hand schools have limited funding, which is an issue in the expansion of integrated education:

“The government provides the same amount of funding to Hand in Hand schools as it does to other public schools, but that funding only covers half of the basic costs of running the schools, since they require double the number of teachers to operate bilingual classes. So half of Hand in Hand’s operational costs are covered by donations, along with minor fees from parents.”

Graphic of income for Hand in Hand, 2021–22; source: Hand in Hand.

This underfunding of integrated schools leads to an issue of accessibility. Since there are only six Hand in Hand schools, and guardians have to pay a fee, many of the students who attend come from prosperous backgrounds. Although it is hopeful that some members of the community want to educate their children in integrated schools, there would need to be an expansion of integrated schools so a variety of socioeconomic classes have the opportunity to attend.  This was also an issue Northern Ireland faced when they started creating integrated schools, but they also had government policy, like the Education Reform Order, to support them. There is currently no policy supporting integrated education in Israel. Without such policy, expansion will be slower and integrated schools will not be widespread enough to be a successful way to decrease segregation.

During the integrated school movement in Northern Ireland, parents led the charge. As Margaret Marshall said:

“Poll after poll has shown that a majority of parents support integrated education. It is parents who have worked to set up integrated schools, often in the face of abusive opposition.”

Parents are often the ones who set up the schools as well, explained Abby Wallace:

“Every integrated school has come into existence by parents’ groups setting one up or by an existing school transforming to integrated status … the end result is a testimony to months, if not years, of hard work by parents, teachers and governors.”

Parents are influential and they have the power to create change through grassroots movements. Besides the six Hand in Hand schools, in Israel there is no visible large organisation or parent movement in Israel to promote integrated education. There are also no polls to show if parents want integrated education. The movement behind integrated education needs more traction in Israel to promote the creation of more schools.

In response to a criticism that efforts for integrated education cannot work while wider society remains in conflict, Ilona Drewry said that that was defeatist:

“Children of any cultural, socio-economic or political background can be educated in the same building, learning and playing together. They typically grow into more tolerant and accepting adults. The proof is not just in the… schools currently in Israel, but in examples of successful integrated schooling worldwide [for example] in Northern Ireland…”

Integrated schools are agents of change in societies where there are conflicting groups. Integrated schools in Northern Ireland have support from the government and from parents to ensure their success, while Israel needs additional funding and support. Israel also has five times the population of Northern Ireland, so the impact of the six integrated schools in Israel is a lot smaller than the 70 integrated schools in Northern Ireland.

More integrated schools in both Northern Ireland and Israel would lend themselves to a larger impact.

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