“Preparing children in segregation is not preparing them for life”

Ryan Cairns, a pupil at Shimna Integrated College and a Member of the NI Youth Parliament, looks back at his life in integrated education:

Integrated Education has put me in a bubble. Whilst some might take that statement as a severe negative, I disagree. I think it has been the best environment for me to grow up in.

My education began, by way of happy coincidence rather than political decision, in All Children’s Integrated Primary in Newcastle. My mother and my aunts had already attended the school, so the decision for me to attend was a natural one. I had an absolute blast and made friends for life. Never once did I feel that my or anyone else’s faith was being stamped down either. We were put through the holy sacraments of Confession and Confirmation just the same as anywhere else.

Unlike everywhere else however, there was never a pressure to pray or conform to a certain faith or way of thinking. It also came with an almost unique bonus: I grew up not knowing, and quite frankly not caring, what religion or background most of my friends were. It had no bearing; it was their own personal business – irrelevant in the playground games and the shared learning.

When the time came to choose a Secondary School, again the decision was a natural one: all my mates were attending the school near All Children’s, so of course I wanted to go too. I wish, however, I could claim to have been attracted by the integrated, all-ability status – because it was absolutely brilliant.

Whilst the cynicism of adolescence made clearer the divides between communities again it was never cast as a priority. I made new friends with Catholics, Protestants, learned with those of every faith and those of none. Those who were religious were again helped to be religious. Those who weren’t, weren’t. It was refreshing and progressive and to my still naive brain the way things should be.

One difficulty of my background, however, has been that I find it difficult to understand the violence, prejudice and rioting that still happens in Belfast and other areas. Newcastle and its surrounding areas never really bore the scars of the Troubles – we were and remain a fairly mixed area. Virtually all the contentious holidays pass without major incident and above all people just get on. With each other and with their lives.

It is unfortunate that I am slightly ignorant of Northern Ireland’s past. But I am not ignorant of its future. Integration is in so many ways the norm: we work together, live together, share universities, share roads and towns and cities. Preparing children for a life of segregation is not preparing them for life.

I am proud of my integrated background, and I carry the value I’ve learned with me every day in my work as a Member of the UK Youth Parliament. I am able to represent all my constituents without judgement, and I fight on issues that affect us all – regardless of background.

Integrated Education put me in a bubble. But it shows what NI could be.