Patricia Murtagh, Chair of the Assocation of Principal Teachers in Integrated Schools, writes:
The current climate holds many challenges for schools in Northern Ireland. The issues around viability and sustainability in particular are most pressing and the inevitability of change is clear. Change need not be feared, though it is inherently difficult to create something new without feeling the loss of the old.
Yet there is a huge opportunity presented to us – the potential for positive change, for renewal, for improvement to our education system through the planned development of our integrated schools in Northern Ireland.
In our segregated and separated society we may have witnessed less violence in recent years, but the anomaly still exists that our relationships and friendships with those around us can and often do operate within one perceived culture or another – it is still possible for a child to grow into their teenage years without speaking to someone from the ‘other side’, never mind establishing a friendship.
This extraordinary situation could be meaningfully changed and improved if we had truly integrated schools in each area. The choices and decisions we make as adults are made through the prism of our life experiences and in particular our experience at school. Children must attend school, so let’s send them to schools where they learn and play alongside others from different cultures, where friendships are established early and nurtured as they grow together.
Just think of the potential impact that these experiences can have if the young adult chooses to question those peers who encourage him to jeer at and denigrate “the other side”. Because that young adult knows someone from that side as a friend – he has developed the courage and has been taught the skills to avoid the mindless stereotyping of others, recognising his ‘enemy’ as a person with feelings, family and a future.
The case for creating more integrated schools becomes more compelling in the light of Area Based Planning and sustainability issues. This aspiration to ensure the efficient use of resources is more likely to be fulfilled if our education system is unified rather than duplicated.
Current “shared education” projects – between schools of different sectors – are to be welcomed in that they recognise the value of sharing ideas, resources and projects. But we could ask will these programmes highlight division without ever really challenging it?
Integrated schools welcome children from different backgrounds who sit side by side each day, having conversations about their favourite football teams and pop groups, their culture, traditions and religious practice – engagement that is real, regular and life-enhancing, normalising their relationships. Their parents and grandparents, steeped in a personal journey through a troubled and segregated culture, are also able to have these conversations – tentatively at first but each step gets easier and sharing of hurts and experiences of loss are possible over time.
Those of us with daily experience at the chalk face know integration really does work – it can change future paths for our young people and their families. The integrated ethos does not threaten to neutralise a person’s identity but enriches and celebrates it and shares it with others. As a school we can join together to celebrate all cultural festivals, whether those in which some of our children receive the sacraments of the Catholic Church, or a party to mark the Jubilee of the Queen.
We in the Association of Principal Teachers in Integrated Schools seek to find a way of moving forward, bringing politicians, church leaders and educationalists with us in a strategy to modify how schools in Northern Ireland look – planning to create a new landscape and a new future. It is important to stop protecting the status quo and embrace a different way. We owe it to our children and to ourselves!