Integrated Education in Northern Ireland: An Attempt at Repairing Religious Divide

LONDONDERRRY -- Oakgrove Integrated College, a high school in this city historically divided between Catholics and Protestants, was founded here in 1991 as part of a movement to bring together children from different faith traditions. On a rainy March afternoon, a group of students gathered in the principal’s office to share what it’s like going to a mixed religion school. 

“It’s just normal for us,” said Bobby Skeggs, a 17-year-old student. Skeggs says his friend group is a mix of Protestants and Catholics. At home, his mother is Catholic, while his father is Protestant.

“Both of them have their vision of the past but in our house, it’s sort of pushed aside. It’s not something that really affects us as a family,” he said.

Though religious division may be pushed aside in Skeggs’ household, that’s not the same for most Northern Irelanders. Deep divisions between Catholics and Protestants remain even 25 years after the Good Friday Agreements that formally ended the period of conflict known as The Troubles.

Still, the process through which schools become integrated, known as Transformation, is slowly gaining steam in Northern Ireland.

Students at Oakgrove College range in age from 11-18. The college is also attached to a nursery and elementary school, so some students receive their kindergarten to high school education at Oakgrove.

The entrance to Oakgrove Integrated College (photo by Emma Paidra)

The school is in a heavily Catholic neighborhood but values maintaining a balance between Protestant and Catholic students. But keeping that balance isn’t easy. The current student body aged 12-13 is only 10% Protestant. Oakgrove principal John Harkin described the situation as “really worrying.”

Northern Ireland’s education system divides Catholics and Protestants; a result of decades-long religious turmoil. But today’s students in the country’s few mixed religion schools did not live through that turbulence. While these students repair divides from a history that predates them, low levels of enrolment in mixed schools indicate the complexity of confronting an ongoing legacy of religious division.

In Northern Ireland, State, or “controlled” schools are attended almost entirely by Protestant students, while most students in the Catholic school system are Catholic. Students who do not identify as Protestant or Catholic fall into a category called “Other.” This systematic division goes back to long before the roughly 30-year conflict between Protestants and Catholics, known as “The Troubles.” Rather, religious segregation in Northern Ireland began in the late 18th Century as a means of barring Catholics from formal education. Today’s students are educated in a divided school system that bears testimony to the country’s long history of religious tension. 

The divide is so intense that as of 2021, a third of schools in Northern Ireland were either lacking entirely in a Protestant or Catholic student body. This division means that in the State and Catholic school systems, a Catholic child is unlikely to meet —let alone befriend—a Protestant child, and vice versa. 

Integrated schools, unlike State or Catholic ones, encourage students of both religious backgrounds to enroll, and observe holidays from both traditions. The first integrated school, Lagan College, was founded in 1981 in Belfast. 

Matthew O’Neill is the chair of Integrated AlumNI, a charity that works to promote integrated education. His coworker Amelia Kai is the organization’s Project and Development Manager. Both Kai and O’Neill attended integrated schools and can speak personally about the importance of the integrated system. O’Neill, who is dyslexic, credits the integrated system with giving him the support he needed to thrive academically. “It is my oldest belief they understood my disability on a more personal level, and so I was able to go do my BA. I was able to do my master’s and PhD,” he said. 

Kai’s family moved to Northern Ireland when she was nine. Given that her father was Muslim, Kai did not fit into the country’s Protestant/Catholic educational divide. After two years in a state school, Kai switched to an integrated school, which she felt was more inclusive. Today, her son also goes to an integrated school. “As people who champion integrated education, we make no secret of the fight,” she said.

A major part of this “fight” is the effort to raise enrolment levels. Currently, there are 71 integrated schools across the country, with around only 8% of students enrolled. 

“That's not a fair distribution of schooling, because there's more than 8% of the school population that wants to go to an integrated. It's just not necessarily accessible right now,” explained Kai. Though the number of students attending integrated schools is low, the demand is disproportionately higher. An integrated education poll from 2021 indicated that 71% of people in Northern Ireland think children should be educated with people of different backgrounds. 

A memorial candle outside the entrance to Oakgrove Integrated College (photo by Emma Paidra)

The gap between interest and enrolment may partly be the result of how much engagement is required of parents to integrate a school. The process through which a State or Catholic school becomes mixed is called “transformation.” To transform into an integrated school, parents must organize a vote. Ultimately, the Minister of Education has the final say on whether a school will transform. But firstly, it’s the parents who must look at their education system and see a problem. 

“Every single parent in the country should be able to have the choice of sending their child to an integrated school. And they currently don't,” said Kai.

The integrated education system is, as far as O’Neill and Kai are concerned, deeply linked to a process of reconciliation. After all, transformation demands that parents not only identify but act against Northern Ireland’s divided education system. 

 “We are still living in a place where so many children are not interacting with children of ‘the other side.’ We haven't had that full reconciliation process take shape,” said O’Neill. 

Paul Caskey is the Head of Campaign at the Integrated Education Fund, an organization that seeks to establish new integrated schools and support existing ones. All three of his children have been educated through the integrated system. Much like O’Neill and Kai, he agrees that the country has a small number of integrated schools partly because the transformation process demands so much of parents. 

“You and me, we have to go out there within our local community and ask ‘Anybody else like us, anybody else feel the same way?’ said Caskey. “Integrated education has always been bottom-up with little support. And that makes things more difficult.” 

While parents take independent action, students in integrated schools have their own understanding of the relationship between the religious divide and integrated education. 

“My children don't get up in the morning to go to school thinking they're reconciling Northern Ireland,” said Caskey with a laugh. But Caskey still sees integrated education as deeply linked to reconciliation. “By simply sharing their school days with children from different backgrounds, they’re given a level of exposure.”

Back at Derry’s Oakgrove School, Skeggs said that his mother can tell stories from her Catholic childhood of being harassed and threatened.

“There were people that came to the house and targeted her big brother, so it was sort of a traumatic experience for her,” Skeggs shared, the room quiet. 

The topic of conversation amongst the students switched to the peace walls; barriers that divide Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. The walls are a product of the Troubles and were built to reduce violence between the groups. When the subject came up, one student looked at her friend, a confused expression on her face.

“What are those?” she mouthed. There are peace walls throughout Derry, but this student had never paid much attention to them. As far as she was concerned, the walls were completely unremarkable. She was not alone. Most other students shrugged in their navy school blazers or gave a blank stare when asked how they felt about the walls. 

It appears that to these students, it is not only integrated education that is completely normal but also the war relics from the period that shaped their education system. Still, students like Skeggs seem to find value in this normalcy.

“Coming to the school was just the right thing to do.”