A 'peace wall' separates between Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods in Belfast. Or Kashti

Northern Ireland Dismantles Barrier Between Catholic and Protestant Schools, Offering Lessons for Israel

The education system in Northern Ireland has adopted a program of 'shared education' – not mixed schools for Catholics and Protestants, but rather a more subtle path of learning together while maintaining separate national identities. Could it work here?



BELFAST, Ireland – “Christ is the reason for this school,” reads a prominent sign at the entrance to Cross and Passion College, a Catholic school in Ballycastle, a small town in Northern Ireland. “The unseen but ever-present teacher in its classes. The model of its staff. The inspiration of its students.”

The image of a nun on a glass wall keeps watch over those who enter. At the sound of the bell, students in the brown school uniform, including the de-rigueur jacket with Irish symbols on it, flood the corridors. They are joined by young people in black uniforms from the Protestant school across the road, emerging from a joint class in mathematics. The way back is a walk of a few minutes, aided by a recently created pedestrian crossing.

Ten or 15 years ago, this sort of cooperation – natural, daily – would have been inconceivable against the background of the centuries-long national and religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants, and an education system based on almost total separation.

Nearly 400 of the 1,100 schools in Northern Ireland engage in shared education, ranging from subjects such as mathematics, sciences, languages and history, to “Learning for Life and Work” – classes about the dangers of alcohol and drugs, along with civics lessons. The country’s schools are in the main Protestant or Catholic; a minority is defined as “integrated.”

The methods used in promoting shared eduction also vary: Some classes go from one school to another, and there are also mixed classes or lessons held in new, neutral spaces, such as one currently being planned by the two principals from Ballycastle. The common denominator of this range of modes is that the encounter needs to be educational and to be ongoing. All the rest is open to the imagination.

Shared education has been the official policy in Northern Ireland since the end of 2015, and it has been enshrined in legislation. A budget of £500 million is earmarked for planning and building joint campuses in the coming decade, over and above the tens of millions that will be needed to pay for training teachers and busing students. The expectation is that within a few years, 80 percent of the schools will offer shared learning in one form or another. This is not another short-term project.

Paulo Nunes dos Santos

About 75 percent of the 5,500 residents of Ballycastle, which lies at the northern tip of Northern Ireland, are Catholic. The period of the Troubles – which extended from the end of the 1960s until the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and claimed more than 3,500 lives – was felt not only in Belfast, which is about 90 kilometers from here, but in Ballycastle, as well. These days, the town is better known for a stretch of coastline that’s one of the shooting locations for the television series “Game of Thrones.”

Also in Northern Ireland, it’s impossible to disconnect identity from education – maybe there’s no need to. Luiseach Mathers, a 17-year-old student, attends Cross and Passion College, which was founded by a Catholic order in 1913. She identifies as a Catholic, but clarifies, at the outset of our conversation, “I listen to Irish music and speak the language.” During the past three years, she has taken geography, religious education and history – including learning about the Irish struggle for independence from Britain a century ago – at the Protestant school.

“My first concerns were if the teachers were going to be biased in their views and give an account of Irish history from a unionist point of view. These concerns as a whole were unfounded,” she says. “My history teachers are absolutely brilliant and they teach history in a non-biased way that is interesting and inclusive, and includes the students from both schools.”

The two greatest problems in general, she notes, were actually technical: the absence of a pedestrian crosswalk and the different class times in the two schools. Both were resolved, the latter by a common bell.

Mathers believes that her identity has only been strengthened. “My sense of awareness of my identity has become heightened, especially that of my national identity,” she explains. “I will always be a Gael or an Irish nationalist and I will always stay true to my own language, Irish, and my Gaelic culture. However, shared education has made me aware of other people’s beliefs and the importance of mutual understanding.”

Fears of fitting in

Mathers’ feelings are echoed by her friend Orla Donnelly, who says, “shared education allows you to look at things from others’ perspectives.” Her initial concerns, too – regarding the encounter with Protestant teachers – also proved unfounded.

In contrast, Holly Reilly, from Ballycastle High School, the Protestant institution, was initially most worried about the students she’d encounter – but not because of their divergent religious backgrounds, she emphasizes: “I was just like any other human who was panicking about entering a new environment. I was concerned about making new friends and fitting in, [but] I was welcomed from the minute I walked into the classroom by both the teachers and pupils.”

One of her classes dealt with the British suppression of the 1916 Irish uprising. They had hardly touched on the subject before, says Reilly, “and it was interesting to learn the two perspectives. We are mature enough to hear different opinions,” she adds.

The parents are in favor of shared education, the students tell me. It’s perhaps a small correction for Mathers’ mother, who had “absolutely zero contact with the [Protestant] high school,” when she attended Cross and Passion College decades ago, her daughter points out. As for Reilly, “Although my mom and dad recognize the importance of keeping separate identities, they believed that shared education was necessary in order to allow Northern Ireland to move forward.”

It’s not enough to hear the students reiterate, with slight variations, the theme of learning to like one another and the feeling that “we are all human beings.” The planning of a new educational campus is just as telling as the students’ testimonies. The project of Paul McClean and Ian Williamson – the principals, respectively, of the Catholic and Protestant schools – involves demolishing both of the existing facilities and erecting a new building, U-shaped, on the grounds of the Protestant school, which will serve both student bodies; the area on which the Catholic school is now located will be used for sports and other activities.

Another issue, as yet undecided, is whether to have one teachers’ room. As mentioned, the budget, in any event, exists. The new Ballycastle campus is one of five similar projects that Northern Ireland’s department of education is initiating and funding.

About 300 students from the two Ballycastle schools – almost half the students from the 14-18 age group – are taking shared-education classes on a daily basis. According to McClean, the few parents who raised objections to this did so mainly on the grounds that they did not choose a Catholic school so their children could meet Protestant peers; however, there have been very few cases of parents who decided not to send their children to the special classes. There were also a few cases in which students were dissatisfied with a teacher from the other school. The question of authority was resolved by means of a basic rule: The teacher giving the lesson is responsible for all the children in the classroom, irrespective of their home school.

“The way is to strengthen the teachers: They must not feel threatened,” Williamson explains.

Paulo Nunes dos Santos

That holds for the parents, too. From this point of view, the planning of the new campus involves striking a delicate balance between the desire to heighten cooperation and the fear of moving ahead too far and too fast. In this context, both principals emphasize that each school framework will uphold its heritage.

As explained to the parents, at least, the emphasis of the new scheme is less on increasing tolerance between Catholics and Protestants, and more on the educational advantages to be derived from cooperation. Thus, the three first goals in the declaration signed by the two schools come from the world of education, with the aim “to promote and nurture mutual respect and understanding” appearing only in fourth place. This is not by chance. Some parents agree with the conciliation vision, others perhaps less, “but every parent wants the best education for his child, and the sharing makes that possible,” Williamson says.

Limavady, a larger town than Ballycastle, with a population of about 13,000, is situated about 30 kilometers east of Derry, or Londonderry, the second-largest city in Northern Ireland after Belfast. Local partnership between Protestant and Catholic schools is also part of the government plan for a shared campus here. The idea is to build two new centers in each of the two secondary schools in town, which will serve all the students from both institutions. Shared education begins a bit earlier, at the age of 11. And here, too, the major difficulties lay in synchronizing the schedules of the two schools.

If things are going so smoothly, why not unite outright? The Catholic principal of St. Mary’s High School, Mary McCloskey, takes umbrage at the thought. The focus must be the ethos, comprised of layers of heritage and religious-nationalist identification, she insists.

“In integrated schools, everybody’s ethos is watered down,” she says, adding, “I say with pride: We are a Catholic school, I’m a Catholic principal, and we have certain traditions and things I want our children to believe in. That does not in any way negate what I feel about [the Protestant] Limavady High School. They have their own ethos and traditions. There is no reason why my children should not grow up understanding them. Actually it makes you stronger if you understand the Other, because then you exactly know who you are.”

McCloskey and the principal of the Protestant Limavady High School, Darren Mornin, enter the yard of his school with a group of students in green-and-black jackets. Each of the two adjacent schools is surrounded by a high fence, with a small path between them. The local council recently approved the principals’ proposal to build a bridge to connect the two sites and facilitate movement of the students. The fences will remain, for the time being, but will likely lose some of their importance.

Reconciliation and education

The driving academic force between shared education in Northern Ireland is Tony Gallagher, from the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen’s University, Belfast. Besides leading the development of the theoretical framework, the professor also pushed for its practical implementation over the past decade in ever-expanding circles of influence. In the world of education, this is an extraordinary achievement.

In the early 1990s, Gallagher attended a conference on education in Bulgaria, along with representatives from the Balkan states. Yugoslavia had already splintered, and the atrocities perpetrated there were beginning to come to light. In Northern Ireland, the peace process had not yet begun.

“At one point,” Gallagher recalls, “somebody said, ‘What we need to do in the Balkans is to change the borders, make them fit the communities better.’ Some people found that interesting, and I said, ‘Wait a second, that’s crazy: The moment you change the borders, you just open a Pandora’s box and no one knows where it ends. Far better to leave the borders where they are and make them less important.’”

Myriam Darmoni Charbit

In 1998, with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, a document that marked the end of the era of the Troubles, and against the background of a public debate over how to advance relations between Catholics and Protestants, Gallagher decided to examine earlier educational initiatives, which had focused on short-term activities such as encounters between students. They were courageous ideas, he found, but they left no imprint. The system remained divided as it had been for a very long time – primarily between Catholic schools, state-run schools identified with the Protestant community and a small percentage of integrated schools, attended by about 7 percent of the students, in which the proportion of pupils from each religious group was not always equal.

In the middle of the last decade, Gallagher suggested a new model to an American philanthropic fund that invested in education in Northern Ireland. Instead of treating each school as individual frameworks that sometimes competed with one another, they should be considered a network, in which changes in one component would necessarily affect other components. Through the shared approach, Gallagher believed, it would be possible to transform attitudes without radically overhauling the structure of the education system. The project was launched in 2007 in a few dozen schools and 12 partnerships. Three years later, a second wave got underway.

Paulo Nunes dos Santos

Gallagher relates that he was surprised at the weak opposition from parents, most of whose formative years had coincided with the Troubles. He can’t recall any significant conflicts that the project generated. In one case, the makeup worn by girls at one school sparked a small furor in the parallel school. In another case, boys from the two communities exchanged insults and a few shoves – an incident that was reported in a local newspaper. A joint statement issued by the two schools informed the parents about the event, promised to handle it with educational tools – but did not back down from shared education.

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