26 March 2006

Parents fight for mixed-faith school


An integrated secondary in Northern Ireland is to go ahead without official funding and despite unionist objections

Henry McDonald, Ireland editor
Sunday March 26, 2006
The Observer

An integrated secondary school is to open this autumn in the most religiously tolerant part of Northern Ireland, despite not getting a penny from the British government and claims from parents that they are up against a 'wall of bigotry'.

Rowallane Integrated College will open its doors to 125 first-year pupils in September although Angela Smith, the Northern Ireland Office Education Minister, turned the school down for funding.

This week the founding committee will appoint a head teacher, unveil its uniform and start recruiting other staff to a school that does not have a building yet. The school will be sited somewhere near Saintfield, which is in the fastest-growing part of Northern Ireland, and also one of the most religiously integrated areas in the north.

Without an injection of private cash for the Integrated Education Fund, Rowallane would have been the first integrated project never to have got off the ground. As rain poured on to the roof of Millennium Integrated Primary, on the outskirts of Saintfield, a group of parents explained why they were determined to build the secondary school. 'Angela Smith said turning us down was the hardest decision she had to make,' said Lorna Dunn, whose two children, Calumn and Heather, attend a nearby integrated school in Crossgar. 'We think she did so against her own instincts to placate politicians opposed to an integrated secondary school here.'

Local unionist politicians have raised objections to Rowallane, arguing that County Down in particular is suffering from falling school numbers and that establishing it would drain pupils away from half-empty state secondary schools, which are overwhelmingly Protestant.

Rowallane's committee has received applications from the parents of 645 children. The school will be 40 per cent Protestant, 40 per cent Catholic, and the remainder from other religious traditions or none. Like every one of Northern Ireland's 58 integrated schools, it is massively oversubscribed.

Smith has said that she rejected Rowallane's funding application because of a general decline in pupil numbers in the mid-Down area.

'We will open in September. The school will initially be a set of mobiles on a greenfield site,' John Hagan, one of the school's founders, said. 'We wouldn't be opening if we thought it was just for a year. All of us are in this for the long haul, and no amount of government indifference or the wall of bigotry we have been up against for the last 18 months will stop us.'

The tolerance target

· Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, Formula 1 star Eddie Irvine, boxing world champion Barry McGuigan and actors Kenneth Branagh and Joanna Lumley have all lent their support to the Integrated Education Fund.

· The fund was established in 1992 to support new and existing integrated schools in Northern Ireland.

· The IEF's target is that 10 per cent of pupils in the province will attend integrated schools by 2008. To reach that goal it has raised more than £9m and given more than £7m in grants.

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