21 April 2006

Northern Ireland's divided classrooms are changing


There's more to integrated schools than putting Catholics and Protestants together, says Bob Osborne

Thursday April 20, 2006
The Guardian

Like many simple descriptions, Polly Toynbee's statement that Northern Ireland's schools are religiously segregated and remain that way against parental wishes captures some of the reality, but also masks shifting circumstances (This is a clash of civilisations - between reason and superstition, April 14).

About 6% of the NI school population is in integrated schools, but some complex patterns are emerging. Hence, while the overwhelming majority of those attending and teaching in Catholic schools (owned by the Catholic authorities but fully funded by the state) are Catholic, a large proportion of non-Catholic schools are in fact state-owned and funded, with only a residual involvement of the Protestant churches.

True these are de facto Protestant schools, with the majority of teachers and pupils being Protestant - however, many of the large Protestant grammar schools, especially in the greater Belfast area, record rising proportions of Catholic students. Approximately 15% of Catholics are now educated outside Catholic schools. Moreover, state nursery schools record 31% of their pupils being Catholic, whereas Catholic nursery schools are 97% Catholic.

But Northern Ireland doesn't just divide by religion. Over 30% of pupils are educated in single-sex schools, including primary schools. These divisions - together with the creation of Irish-language schools, the retention of academic selection, and the growing integrated sector - mean that Northern Ireland probably has at least 40% more post-primary schools compared with comparable areas, in terms of pupil numbers, in England, Scotland or Wales.

However, the tectonic plates are shifting. Demographic decline in pupil numbers means that there will be a huge drop in the number of schools through closure and amalgamation. Creating new, integrated schools in these circumstances is a costly option. Far better to create the sharing of facilities and shared campuses between existing schools as part of rationalisation, as has happened in parts of Scotland.

Northern Ireland's Equality Commission has called for the restriction and ultimate abolition of the anomalous exemption from fair employment law which permits religious discrimination in the recruitment of teachers. A single equality bill promised over five years ago offers that opportunity.

Calling for more integrated schools might seem obvious to external commentators, but ignoring the economic and demographic context also raises the issue: what is an integrated school? Is it one which fosters a conscious debate about the sectarian and political divisions in Northern Ireland, or one where "the war" and all its consequences are deliberately never mentioned?

Recent research shows that both types of school exist in the integrated sector. No teachers are trained to teach in integrated schools. Surely it is appropriate to think about what we would expect an integrated school to do -beyond merely having Catholics and Protestants under the same roof?

· Bob Osborne is director of the Social and Policy Research Institute, University of Ulster.

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