Transformation – We did it! So Can You!

Bishop John McAreavey, Chair of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, has told the Belfast Telegraph that he is open to the idea of shared education, possibly merging schools of different sectors to offer integrated education. As the former Principal of the first school in Northern Ireland to transform to integrated status, Errol Lemon has been prompted to reflect on the process  at Brownlow College in Craigavon.  Twenty years on, he is now retired and a Trustee of the Integrated Education Fund.

The recent Assembly debate over shared schooling was heartening to those of us working in the Integrated Education Movement. We heard MLAs agree that the current situation is not acceptable – in which ninety per cent of our schools are administered along segregated lines. That situation can be changed. I speak from experience. And in the light of Bishop McAreavey’s acknowledgement that the best way to provide education in some areas is to transform and share existing small schools, I should like to reassure those in the profession that, in more than thirty years of teaching, steering a school through the transformation to integrated status was the biggest but also the most satisfying challenge of my professional life.

If some of our politicians could visit Brownlow Integrated College, they would see how the challenges outlined by some commentators have been successfully tackled. Templates of good practice in dealing with contentious issues are in place and invaluable in assisting other schools to formulate policies appropriate to their own context.

Some moments stand out as confirming we were on the right track – such as when Armagh won the Sam Maguire Cup. We allowed school pupils to attend in sports shirts, and by the end of the day we saw lads wearing Rangers tops with GAA scarves.

The issue of “parental choice” is important. I would point out that an economic crisis brings its own constraints and limits choices for everyone. It’s also true that parents can only choose between options available. Many families do not have a local integrated school. One possibility for these families is to push for transformation of their current school.

This change only happens after extensive consultation and an independent ballot of parents. When Brownlow embarked on the journey, we needed the approval of the governors, including the transferors’ representatives. It is to their credit that, committed to democracy, they agreed to go to a parental vote.

Transformation is a steep learning curve, sometimes daunting, but also exhilarating. We found that we had to argue our case in the face of opposition from some politicians. We developed media and political expertise and found the process reinforced the determination of staff, governors and parents to achieve transformation. Officially this was accomplished in September 1991 and the challenge now was to put into practice promises made during the campaign. We were under scrutiny – were we being truly inclusive? (We worked hard to become so). Were we brainwashing pupils out of their respective cultures? (No – integration means nurturing of the individual and their culture). And, of course, were we a good school? Exam results and enrolment figures proudly answer that question.

There is also plenty of practical and moral support, then and now. The Integrated Education Fund has launched its latest transformation grants programme, and staff from integrated schools will share advice and experience with schools exploring transformation. The Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education provides training and makes presentations to public meetings.

Our schools show that contentious issues can be resolved if there is goodwill – and in my experience there is plenty of goodwill among our young people. As one past pupil said to me, “If I hadn’t gone to Brownlow, I would never have met my best friend. Brownlow is the only secondary school in North Armagh where we could meet every day.”

F W de Klerk was once asked why, as a former supporter of segregation, he had released Mandela and supported the end of apartheid. He replied, “I did it because it was the morally right thing to do.”

Let us hope our own politicians have the courage and vision to take the same path.