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?

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

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.

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.

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

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.”

Paul McClean and Ian Williamson.Credit: Or Kashti

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.

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.

'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.'

Holly Reilly

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

Prof. Tony Gallagher.Credit: Or Kashti

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.’”

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.

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.

Tempers soon calmed down. “We were very open as to what it’s all about – long-term reconciliation – but it’s also designed to bring a lot of educational benefits [We found that] parents are interested to know what happens to their child and want to guarantee that he will get good education,” Gallagher notes, explaining the support.

That range of possible benefits was at the center of an effort mounted in 2014 to persuade the Northern Ireland educational authorities to fully support and provide funding for the undertaking. The government’s initial reaction, as described by Gallagher, brings to mind a viewpoint heard closer to home: “It sounds like a good idea, but a bit risky: If you start having kids come together, all sorts of things might happen, like people fighting each other. They said it’s a good idea, but maybe just not now, we are not there yet.”

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.

Concurrently, proponents of shared education met with all the parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly, the parliament. It was then that Gallagher realized how the initiative should be promoted – not as the preferred solution of all the sides, but as an arrangement that occupied second place in the order of priorities, one that everyone could live with.

“Every party supported a different model of an education system, from full integration to maintaining the status quo, but they agreed to support us as a second possibility,” he explains, “and that actually squared the circle.”

The time came in 2015. The politicians were supportive, a public committee appointed by the education authorities praised the plan, and initial results showed an improvement in learning achievements in the shared-education schools.

According to Ray Gilbert, an official in the Department of Education who heads the project throughout Northern Ireland, the awareness that the salient religious and communal traits could not be abolished also contributed to the success. “If we can’t bring everyone under the one umbrella, then surely the next best thing is to get them to work with each other,” he says.

Policy vs. reality

In September 2015, Minister for Education John O’Dowd issued a new policy statement. “As our society emerges from the period of conflict, I am pleased to be in a position to set out the way forward for shared education,” he wrote in the foreword. “My vision for the future of shared education is one of vibrant, self-improving education communities delivering educational benefits to learners, encouraging the efficient and effective use of resources, and promoting equality of opportunity, good relations, equality of identity, respect for diversity.”

The policy paper is important, and so is government funding, of course, but, like the good words coming from the students, none of this indicates how shared education works in practice. When Dr. Gavin Duffy, from the same department at Queen’s University as Prof. Gallagher, and also a leading figure in the shared-education endeavor, visits schools and hears the routine reply that everything is “brilliant,” his response is to ask to see examples. For example, how often do the principals speak with one another, what are the joint programs and what do the classes about controversial subjects include. These concrete practices are of inestimable importance. Now that governmental support has been obtained, the goal is to make shared education a routine arrangement that does not necessarily require a prodigious investment of enthusiasm and energy.

The praxes that Duff is looking for face their toughest test in Derry/Londonderry, the city of dual names and dual identities on the border with Ireland. The name “Londonderry” (favored by unionists) has been blacked out on some signs. In some cases, the flag of the Irish Republic or some other Irish symbol has been made part of the sign posting and the message. Even now, the city’s different areas are identifiable by flags, and so are the road signs: green-white-orange (the Irish flag) for republican neighborhoods, red-white-blue (British) in unionist sections of the city.

Martine Mulhern.Credit: Paulo Nunes dos Santos

Unlike Ballycastle and Limavady, shared education here takes place among three schools, two Catholic and one Protestant, which are far from one another and located deep within their respective communities. Martine Mulhern, one of the Catholic principals, remembers vividly her emotions when tense British troops aimed rifles at them on their way to school during the height of the Troubles.

“I’m not that old,” she laughs as we emerge onto a balcony overlooking the area where battles were fought. “So much has changed, so little time has passed.”

In fact, both Mulhern and the other Catholic principal, Marie Lindsay, need to be particularly vigilant – especially with students from “dissident” families who oppose the peace process, some of them violently. They also have to display sensitivity with respect to cooperation with Northern Ireland’s policemen, whom some of the parents continue to view as a foreign force.

The choir in Lindsay’s school received threats when it was invited to perform at a ceremony held by the police. Informing the choirmaster of this, Lindsay told her, “I will sit in the front row, and if they want to come to my home – good luck to them, they can come ahead. It was nerve-racking, but we did it.” The choir performed as scheduled, and subsequently the police were invited to conduct educational activities in the school. This is hardly ancient history; it happened just four years ago.

In the first three years of the project, two teachers co-taught a joint group of students. It wasn’t until the fourth year, Mulhern relates, that “the teachers felt comfortable. [The teaching of sensitive issues] has to be planned, so the key is teachers’ cooperation. When the relationship between the teachers was very good, the children saw that it was a safe and secure environment.”

'What this work might do in Israel is to show people a different possibility for the future.'

Tony Gallagher

The schools in Derry/Londonderry and other locales asked for assistance from Queen’s University in training teachers to cope with the contentious subjects dealing with history or with the importance of the Irish or British flags. All that some of the teachers needed was an expression of confidence on the part of the principals. In other cases, Duffy, a former civic education teacher who grew up in the period of the Troubles, suggested that teachers have students research flags in past or present conflict-ridden countries such as Israel or South Africa. It’s only natural that external examples were viewed through a local prism. Gradually, the students from both groups learned how to talk and argue about what bothered them.

“You wouldn’t do that in lesson number one,” Duffy explains. “You would spend weeks working through – you build and build and build, and then you start to get the kids thinking critically.”

Still, the Israeli experience in recent years raises the question of whether there was a recommendation, even informal, not to deal with sensitive subjects, at least not in the initial years. No, Duffy replies, “We trusted the schools and their abilities.”

The critics of shared education, particularly on the part of the movement that’s behind the integrated schools, claim that Gallagher and the others are effectively accepting existing divisions in the education system. In other words, they are not radical enough.

Duffy: “When integrated schools speak about Integration they do it with a capital ‘I.’ When we began shared education, we hoped we would promote integration [without a capital I].”

The principals in Derry/Londonderry are less polite. According to Lindsay, the tacit assumption that only a single education system will heal the society of Northern Ireland is wrong. The integrative model is only one of many options, not the exclusive one. In the words of Michael Allen, principal of the local Protestant high school, “The integrated schools are preaching to those who are already there. They are not dealing with dissidents or loyalists. We are. So who is actually taking the bigger risk?”

Until five years ago, Allen did not support shared education, fearing it would lead to integration and loss of traditions. “If parents think I’m asking them to dilute their history and tradition, I won’t be principal for very long,” he says.

The change in his approach came when he noticed spontaneous interaction between students outside the classroom – small talk about soccer or rock bands. “I knew it was the right thing to do,” he recalls. “I realized that there are endless opportunities, in education and in society. Part of it is about showing them that there is more in life than the places they live in.”

Gallagher is an inveterate optimist – a well-known characteristic among pedagogues. He’s involved in disseminating the principles of shared education in Israel (see box) and in Los Angeles.

“In order to change everything, the way I think we have fortunately done, you need official support, and I don’t think you are close to that in Israel,” he says, pointing out that they “did it in the context of a peace process.”

He adds, “What this work might do in Israel is to show people a different possibility for the future. There was an equivalent period here in the ‘70s with the whole brutal environment, when a few religious groups promoted reconciliation, sometimes with education aspects. There were tiny but important spaces. Eventually, years later, after people exhausted themselves from all the killing, they said that these were ideas we could work with.”

Safe space

In an effort to help adapt the Northern Ireland shared-education model to local conditions in Israel, Tony Gallagher has visited the country several times in the past few years. This school year, almost 30 Jewish and Arab schools are applying the principles of shared education – in Ramle, the Negev and the Sharon region, and primarily in Jerusalem. In the past year, 23 principals and 70 teachers, almost equally divided between Jews and Arabs, took part in a special course that teaches the principles of shared education; a second course began a few weeks ago. The programs are run by the local government, under supervision of the Education Ministry, with pedagogical assistance from the Center for Educational Technology, an organization dedicated to advancing the country’s education system.

Some principals have already worked out partnerships, says Moshe “Kinley” Tur-Paz, director of the education department in the Jerusalem Municipality. “I see the program growing on a steady annual basis, in parallel with intensifying the work with teachers and students. The model is very well suited to Jerusalem, and we are committed to it.” His goal for five years down the road is to have 100 of the city’s approximately 400 government-recognized schools engaged in shared education. Implementing the project on that scale, at local Arab and Jewish schools, he says, “could bring about a shift of consciousness.” It should be noted, though, that there are another 300 private ultra-Orthodox and Arab schools in Jerusalem that are not part of the initiative.

According to various sources, funding for the program from the municipality and the Education Ministry comes to about 400,000 shekels (about $100,000), in addition to donations received through CET. That amount might suffice only for a year and a half. According to Myriam Darmoni Charbit, director of democracy and citizenship education at CET, government funding is a “tremendous challenge.” She adds, “A large investment is needed in training and in accompanying the schools. In Northern Ireland there are wonderful examples of pooling of resources, and I hope we’ll be able to do the same in Israel.” A joint campus in Jerusalem, with its few available empty areas, could be a good start.

The experience gleaned in Israel suggests that successful shared learning takes place in languages – Hebrew, Arabic, English – and also in mathematics, says Dr. Shany Payes from CET, who is in charge of pedagogical supervision of the project. “There’s a convergence of interests,” she says. “The students and the parents know that it’s essential to be successful in these subjects, and focusing on learning doesn’t threaten anyone’s identity. This is how education can play a role in reconciling conflicted communities.”

The course for principals in Jerusalem last year coincided with the “intifada of knives.” “The terrorist attacks heightened the fear level of my students, and with it also the hatred,” says Tomer Oshri, principal of Seligsberg High School in Jerusalem’s Armon Hanatziv (East Talpiot) neighborhood, which lies across the Green Line.

Implementing the project on that scale, at local Arab and Jewish schools, 'could bring about a shift of consciousness.'

Moshe Tur-Paz

“The feeling of fear among the students is very quickly translated into hatred,” Oshri adds. “They get lost in the hatred. Condemning it won’t help, but we have to see if it’s possible to dismantle it, for example through encounters.”

Oshri and Hitam Salameh, director of the junior-high unit of Ibn Roshad School in Sur Baher, an Arab locale that abuts Armon Hanatziv, are currently working on a joint robotics workshop for eighth- and ninth-grade students. Additional cooperative efforts will take place in Hebrew, Arabic and English, Salameh says. In his view, the encounters do not need to relate to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Oshri agrees that it is wrong to talk about the conflict now. Only “after the walls of fear come tumbling down, will it be possible to forge a dialogue that understands all sides,” he maintains.

The principals emphasize the importance of the personal ties they developed during their course, which included a visit to Northern Ireland. The safe space they created for themselves, says Iris Kiviti, principal of Keshet – an elementary school that integrates secular and religious children – “made it possible to develop empathy and through it to understand the harsh reality faced by the Palestinians and by us.”

To date, Salameh has not encountered parental opposition to the encounters between students. A key reason for this is probably the project’s focus on improving education and sidestepping the question of living together, which hints at normalization with West Jerusalem. Other Arab principals received more negative reactions from their milieu. Some Jewish principals expressed apprehension at normalization with the Arabs. The background to this is fear of excessively close friendships between the communities. At least one Jewish principal said that the forging of close or even romantic ties would be considered an educational failure; from his point of view, it would mean he had not succeeded in conveying what he wants to his students. Still, he decided to continue with the project.

The concept of shared education was presented two weeks ago to Education Ministry inspectors in Jerusalem. Perhaps the current modest scale of the endeavor does not pose a threat to Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the national-religious Habayit Hayehudi party. According to a source in his ministry, Bennett might actually back the program precisely because of what concerns some East Jerusalem principals: the fact that it’s a sign of normalization without the obligatory process of equalizing conditions and budgeting in the two sections of the city.



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