22 April 2005

Irelandclick.com

Facing up to interfaces

Hazelwood Principal Noreen Campbell’s school is an interface college on the Whitewell Road. With sectarian strife going on around it, she tells how the school is breaking down the ancient barriers that keep the communities apart...

The Whitewell/Whitecity interface has suffered a spate of tit-for-tat attacks – including children assaulting children from other religions.
But amid this backdrop of ongoing sectarian tensions in the area, a North Belfast integrated school gets on with the work of learning and allowing room for everybody’s culture.
Noreen Campbell is head of Hazelwood College and as she says the work at the school goes on regardless but not in spite of what’s happening outside.
Hazelwood nestles at the bottom of a spectacular view of Belfast’s Cavehill. Even with driving rain, the beauty of the setting shines through.
A Belfast linen merchant built the grand old house that now serves as the offices of the college. It became part of Hazelwood College after the closure of Graymount girls’ school.
All around the old house has grown the school buildings with Hazelwood nursery and primary schools further along the Whitewell Road. From its genesis in cold mobile classrooms in the 1980s the school marks its 20th anniversary next year with close to 1000 pupils on its books.
As the age-old sectarian tensions are played out around the Whitecity and Serpentine interface, in Hazelwood, the head explains, children place loyalist and republican flags side by side and discuss their identities with each other.
Daniel McColgan was a past pupil who attended Hazelwood just a few years before loyalists gunned him down as he arrived for work at Rathcoole postal sorting office in January 2001.
Noreen Campbell is from Fermanagh, but she was a founding parent of Hazelwood College, a founding teacher and has lived longer in North Belfast than anywhere else – and she’s “passionate” about integrated education.
And when the principal turns on the news in the morning and hears of another sectarian attack near her school, she knows that once the bell rings, learning starts regardless.
It is a culture, she explains that runs throughout the school.
“On a day-to-day basis what happens outside doesn’t really affect us. But we have systems in place which allow us to respond to students’ needs.”
The school run various schemes that allow pupils to express themselves including its ‘Speak Your Peace’ exercise which is currently into its fourth year. Last year the students discussed the issue of trust and responded to symbols and flags, football shirts and religious symbols.
One student recalls their experience of the day in the school’s annual report.
“Speak Your Peace day was great. It made me notice even more about differences, and how different we all are. I brought a tricolour in because it represents my area and my religion, but I realised when we spoke about it, a flag doesn’t represent me, nothing does.”
“We allow our students to have a voice so they can express themselves and things don’t build up,” says Noreen Campbell.
There are two representatives for each class and two for each year group that bear out the issues important to them.
A bicycle rack for children cycling to school is the latest suggestion from that group which has borne fruit.
“Everyone at the school buys into the culture of no sectarianism, no racism and no violence and our culture here teaches the students to respect everyone’s place. We strive to promote that all the time.”
The support that an interface school needs is right inside the classroom and any issues that a student has can be dealt with in any given class.
“We have a lot of support services in class and we have a counsellor who comes in one day a week. There is a long waiting list for the counsellor and ideally we would like to have a full-time one. There are lots of reasons why a student will want to see a counsellor and those issues will include sectarian issues. We have a student council, which also gives the students a voice and the teachers have informal relationships with the pupils that allow them to speak about problems in confidence. During 2001 and 2002 when the trouble was really bad we had a family trauma centre set up at the school. We have children who come here not only from around this area but from interface areas in Ardoyne, Glenbryn and Limestone Road and the parents support the school because they want their children to be taught in an integrated school.”
But it is in everyday lessons that issues of identity and sectarianism can be openly discussed with fellow pupils who actually come from those communities most affected.
“They will come up in history and English lessons. That is the beauty of an integrated school in breaking down divisions. In year 10 the students take part in Speak Your Peace and they will put a Union Jack on the floor beside a tricolour and talk about them. They are interested rather than reacting to them.”
Noreen Campbell says the status of the integrated school in divided North Belfast has seen its pupils go around the world to take part in discussions on cultural identity and reconciliation.
The school has had pupils travel to Japan, the US and recently to the United Nations youth forum in Barcelona. And seeing other countries and cultures puts our own conflict into perspective for the Hazelwood pupils.
A yearly peace assembly is one of the most important days in the calendar for the 740 students, soon to increase to 850. There the pupils and teachers reaffirm their commitment to reconciliation.
“When a student from Hazelwood leaves this school, research shows us that they come out open in their attitudes. They have more friends from the other side of their community and they are more likely to maintain those friendships. They are used to more points of view and they listen better.”
“So they come out well-rounded members of the community?” I ask. I get an insightful response
“They come out well-rounded members of the communities,” replies Noreen Campbell.

Journalist:: Andrea McKernon

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