Integrated schools have been providing cross-community education, including religious education, in Northern Ireland for more than thirty years, since parental campaigning saw the opening of Lagan College with 28 pupils. Integrated colleges will have marked the beginning of Lent with a joint assembly, offering a time for reflection and fellowship to all students and the option of receiving the ashes for those who so wish.
The Tony Blair Faith Foundation has announced its intention to expand its “Faith to Faith” programme in Northern Ireland. Some integrated schools have been interested in finding funding to work with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation for some time, because the basic principles reflect the integrated ethos. Continuous examination of classroom practice, and an appetite to explore issues from a variety of perspectives, are hallmarks of integration – indeed many would say hallmarks of good education.
In 2007, as Prime Minister, Tony Blair commented that he saw integrated education as “an important building-block towards creating the conditions for long-term peace and stability in Northern Ireland…It has provided children with the opportunity to share their own heritage and to understand those from across the religious divide”
If his Faith Foundation can help to progress meaningful sharing, we would welcome Tony Blair’s latest contribution in Northern Ireland. His belief that addressing difference and celebrating diversity is the way to remove mistrust and fear is shared by the integrated education movement. The concern must be that the progress obtained through occasional sharing is seen as a goal in itself. The next step must be to education children of all cultures together without burying those cultures. Any sharing which explores difference within a separated system serves to excuse or even underpin the separation.
Integrated schools bring children together every day to learn, play and grow in an environment where respect is paramount – in our schools it’s not just that all traditions and backgrounds are present; they are actively acknowledged, explored and celebrated. The integrated ethos does not mean burying difference but discussing it. Recently in the Irish News the principal of Hazelwood Integrated Primary, on the peace line in North Belfast, described how any conflict on the doorstep becomes a topic for discussion within lessons. The same school celebrated Queen Elizabeth’s jubilee last summer; staff and parent teams worked to prepare food for the “street party” and at the same time for the following day’s First Holy Communion tea.
It is possible to celebrate difference whilst rejecting division.