Since the creation of the first integrated school, Lagan College in September 1981, 40 years later and Integrated Schools make up just 7% of schools in Northern Ireland. Currently in Northern Ireland there are nearly 25,000 pupils attending 65 Integrated schools. Seaview Primary School in Glenarm is set to be the first Catholic maintained school to become integrated, and the first new integrated school in five years. However, despite these milestones, the rate of growth in both schools and pupils has declined compared to earlier years.
Paul Collins, of the Integrated Education Fund states that as well as the announcement of Seaview Primary school in Belfast, there are more signs of progress.
“There’s been eight parental ballots in the last 2 years, that’s where parents themselves vote to have what they want to determine their school to be in the future. That’s been at nursery, primary, and post-primary level so there’s eight separate schools gone ahead and had votes, they’ve all been positive, and there now moving forward with development proposals so we’re waiting on decisions to come back from them, so there is a lot of potential for one in particular, Glengormley High School which enrols over 600 pupils”, he said.
Though, he acknowledges that there are obstacles in the way which prevent major change.
“However, in the grand scheme of things, we’re still sitting at 7% of overall schools, as we stand today. One of the biggest factors around that there would be class spaces. In NI, there is approximately 50,000 over provision of class spaces, so there’s 50,000 too many class spaces. It makes it very hard to justify building a new school when you’ve got all those extra spaces” he said.
Collins, believes more of a push should come from the government to encourage change, and references the case of Drumragh Integrated College when the Department of Education rejected proposals for it to become integrated, arguing there were empty spaces in other schools in the area.
“A judicial review took place, and found in favour of integrated education, saying the Department of Education need to be alive to integrated education and to encourage and support that. There are some structural needs, there needs to be more of a drive both politically and in the Department” he said.
“Opinion poll after opinion poll says 80% of parents want their children to go to an integrated school but as Baroness May Blood puts it “Our jobs done when the parents wanting integrated schools as their first choice are getting it” and that’s just not the case, time and time every year. There are more parents putting integrated schools as their first choice and it’s just not being provided”, he continued.
Furthermore, he points out the determinism of parents in organising in groups to establish or lobby to achieve their goal of integrated education for their children.
“The difficult situation, if you look at the history of integrated education, is every single one of those 65 schools, every single one of those was opened by parents. That’s parents getting a piece of land and putting a hut there. In the Lagan College, it was a Scout hut and the garnered the land off the National Trust, that’s how it happens. It’s now got one of the largest enrolments for schooling in Belfast. It was that organic or alternatively, the parents saying let’s get our local school integrated”, he said.
Lagan College was the first integrated school which was opened in September 1981 by a parents campaign group “All Children Together”.
“If you think when Lagan College first opened, there were eggs, bricks at the bus going to the school. Now, about 25,000 kids in integrated schools, it is substantial progress if you think all that’s been done, just by parents or charities or institutions” he said.
The Department of Education issued a statement in response to the data, and whether progress was where it should be.
“The Department of Education has a statutory duty under Article 64 of the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 to encourage and facilitate the development of integrated education. Article 64 also provides a power for the Department to fund anybody that has as its objective the encouragement and promotion of integrated education.
“The Department therefore funds the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE) for this purpose”.
“In delivering its statutory duty the Department seeks to respond positively to parental demand for integrated provision”.
As one of the objectives of the Good Friday Agreement, integrated education is clearly important for Northern Ireland moving forward, and while making significant strides from its turbulent beginnings. As well as many opinion polls indicating parents are in favour of integrated education, there is clearly a need for more than determined parents for it to become a reality.