It’s been quite a significant year for me and my relationship with integrated education. Since October 2014 I have been involved with the Northern Ireland group of the Integrated Education Alumni Association, attending meetings and organising events, as well as getting in touch with past pupils
Recently I’ve also been able to reconnect with my old school, New-Bridge Integrated College. They approached me in June to work on their celebrations ahead of the 20th anniversary of the college in September. Throughout the summer I researched and collected archive photos and press clippings from my school’s history, organising displays and exhibitions for the anniversary week last month.
It was a privilege to be asked to speak at a celebratory reception for friends, supporters and associates of New-Bridge, and hear about plans to develop the college through new accommodation and state of the art sports facilities. I know the Integrated Education Fund has been a vital supporter of New-Bridge over the years, and the college is hugely grateful for this.
It’s been very nostalgic looking through old photographs, seeing 20 years of school activities translated into almost 6000 photographs.
When I started New-Bridge the school was in the third year of its existence. There had been a long delay in the development of the school site, complicated further when a site at Loughbrickland in Co Down was finally secured, but the farmer who owned the field would only permit building work to start after his harvest was taken in.
So on 16th August 1995, principal Peter Agnew & chair of the Board of Governors Nora Connolly were photographed standing in a field of barley, with the new school due to open just 17 days later.
And it did – New-Bridge opened it’s doors with a school of 76 pupils, and eight teachers. The college didn’t open fully enrolled–there were four first year classes and a handful second years, who had bravely transferred from other schools.
By the time I started in 1997, there were 156 pupils making up the entire student body, which could have easily fitted into the room we’re in tonight. There were no past pupils to invite back to speak at assemblies, as no one had left yet.
As you all know Northern Ireland in 1997 was a different place. There were huge riots across Northern Ireland all summer before term started, with the continuation of violent sectarian tensions. 1997 was the height of the Drumcree stand-off, with hundreds of British troops flown in to Northern Ireland that July.
Integrated education as a way out of the violent history for the people of Northern Ireland wasn’t a new concept, but it wasn’t exactly commonplace.
When I look back now as an adult, I think about how brave we all were to take this huge leap of faith on a school with no academic record, no alumni, no reputation, no established rules or policies or records, at a time when our country seemed to have little faith in the notions of peace and cooperation.
But I was 11 when I started secondary school and none of those things ever occurred to me. My reasons for choosing New-Bridge were totally different.
I came from a very small rural primary school, made up largely of families from the local village and wider farming community.
When I was 11, I had got an A in the transfer test. Where I was from, this meant you went to a grammar school. I went to two Open Days, to a grammar school and to New-Bridge, and decided that New-Bridge was where I wanted to be.
I was aware that there would be Catholics attending Newbridge, and that this had something to do with a different church from mine, but my church was quite dull at times and Catholic churches looked much more colourful and exciting, so I didn’t see this being a problem.
My parents let me do what I wanted, and I was very excited to start at New-Bridge. It was only as I grew older that I started to understand that not everyone had thought this was as good an idea as I did.
I found out that parents of my friends from primary school disagreed with Protestants & Catholics going to the same school and they did not think my parents should let me go.
There is a lot of fear in the unknown. Our small rural community might not have experienced the same levels of raw, vitriolic violence that made the news reports, but it takes a long time for traditions to be reimagined, for prejudices to be dismantled. There are neighbours who haven’t spoken to my parents since.
Other people said it was a mistake not go to a grammar school, that I was bright and capable and wouldn’t be challenged or get adequate teaching at New-Bridge. Now that I’m older, knowing more about an education system dominated by targets and league tables, and the challenges of the employment market, I can understand why other parents might have had concerns about a school with no academic record, about not knowing if the risk would pay off.
But I also think about the first teachers at New-Bridge, who left stable jobs to come to a school that hadn’t been built yet and start from scratch. And the parents who thought about what sort of Northern Ireland they wanted their children to be brought up in who thought it was worth the risk. And all the pupils who decided not to go down the well-worn route of traditional schools with hundreds of years of heritage, and instead of following their friends there were like me and came on their own, knowing nobody, to a brand new school.
When I look back at all of these things, I feel very proud, that we all had faith in this experiment, all the staff and the parents and the pupils, and that we worked hard to make it work. Because we were united in a belief in this model of education, that despite its humble beginnings, despite being in the minority, this would build a better future. That it would be worth it.
New-Bridge gave me so much more than I could ever have imagined when I was at that Open Day. I went on a French exchange trip, I travelled to New York and visited Ground Zero, I won awards, competitions, prizes, performed twice on the Waterfront stage in Belfast, I got straight A grades in every one of my GCSEs & A-Levels, and I got to be Head Girl in my last year. After New-Bridge I went to the University of St Andrews, and graduated there with a first class honours degree and made a career in arts management in Scotland for three years before I moved back to Northern Ireland.
Those are the official list of achievements, the ones that might come up on a CV, but there are so many more things that an integrated education have given me, that have shaped me more than I could ever have imagined.
I remember when I lived in Edinburgh trying to explain integrated education to friends there, who were very confused as to what the concept involved. Certainly in most areas of the UK, the idea of girls and boys from a variety of backgrounds, religions and communities is simply just ‘school’.
But it was only when I moved back to Northern Ireland in 2010 and started working alongside people who had very different upbringings from my own that I realised that’s what it meant to me too. That learning & working & making friends with all kinds of people, who could talk about our differences and even joke about the same things that we saw the rest of our country fight about, was so much a normal part of our education that it was just ‘school’ to us. And on moving back, I became very aware that for 95% of children in Northern Ireland their experience of ‘school’ is not at all the same, and that this was something I felt my experiences could perhaps change.
I’ve been working in arts management for the past five years in Belfast. I’m general manager of The John Hewitt Society, a community arts charity that promotes the use of literature and arts as a means to creatively explore issues of division and identity in Northern Ireland’s society.
Since January we’ve been engaging creative writing facilitators to work with community groups in some of the top 10% of the most socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods in Greater Belfast
Hearing the stories of individuals who have grow up less than 30 miles away from me but whose teenage years were a world away from my own, has driven my desire to take an active role in the Integrated Education Alumni Association.
From its origins in London in 2013, we now also have an active Northern Ireland group, a Liverpool group and a burgeoning Edinburgh group. I know there are people here tonight who have been instrumental in this, Patrick Handley is a key supporter here in London, and Laura Mullen from the Liverpool group who has travelled to be here tonight.
We’re planning a Back to School initiative at the end of this month, where past pupils visit schools to talk about the Association, but also raise aspirations of current pupils, to talk about our experiences after school and create a support network and try to offer real, useful advice.
20 years on, things have changed. The school I visited in September is confident, assured and excited about its future. New-Bridge now has over 2000 past pupils to invite back to assemblies, a history, a legacy, an academic record of achievement – and a very strong one at that.
Those past pupils have gone out in the world shaped by their integrated education experience.
We want to tell other people about what that experience means, and what a difference it can make.
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Speech by Hilary Copeland, NI Integrated Education Alumni Association – IEF House of Lords dinner, Monday 2 November 2015