Series: The Rise of Integrated Schooling in Northern Ireland

LONDONDERRY — Several of our reporters covered how education was being impacted as Northern Ireland has continued to heal from its past and how an integrated school in Londonderry has led the charge in bridging religious and cultural divides.

Read their stories at the links below:

Building Bridges: Integrated School Links Religiously Divided Londonderry by Katelin Moody

‘It’s Not Something We Discuss,’ the Changing Role of Religion For Northern Ireland’s Schoolchildren by Ellie Davis

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

'It’s Not Something We Discuss,' the Changing Role of Religion For Northern Ireland's Schoolchildren

LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland – Ten students from the Oakgrove Integrated College here mused one day recently about the role of religion in their lives. Here are some of their responses:

“It’s not expected of us to go to church.”

“Religion is not really practiced anymore.”

“Some of my friends that go to all Catholic schools would attend church, but it’s not a massive part of their lives. They still find it important and have strong beliefs about a united Ireland. They’re not opposed to being friends with Protestants, but they were brought up that way.”

As the voices of these young people attest, religion is becoming more and more irrelevant in Northern Ireland these days, a far cry from a generation ago when religion held a firm grip on both Catholics and Protestants here.

The extraordinary stripping of the church's power in Northern Ireland in recent years has ripple effects across the country, particularly in the area of education. While the country becomes more secular, and immigration introduces minority religions, public schools grapple with their Christian-based curriculum, and outsiders wonder if schools contribute to the broader societal divisions or simply reflect those divisions. The fastest growing groups in census data are the ‘None’ (no religion) group (2.7% of people in 2001, 5.6% in 2011 and 9.3% in 2021) and the ‘other religions’ group (.4% of people in 2001, .9% in 2011 and 1.5% in 2021). Both groups have nearly quadrupled over two decades pointing to the increasingly diverse and secular nature of the country.

When asked about religion’s role in determining which school one attends, 17-year-old Bobby Skeggs said, “It’s more about where your dad went [to school] than the religion.”

Anna Hamilton, also a 17-year-old student at Oakgrove, said, “It depends on where you grow up. Some places are more pushy on their religion. The way you grow up affects your opinions.”

Segregated schooling based on religion is still the status quo in Northern Ireland. Catholic education is regulated by the Council For Catholic Maintained Schools, while the Controlled Schools Support Council manages Protestant schooling. Integrated schooling, which here means bringing together Catholics, Protestants and those of other faiths, has the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education. Parents can choose between the three systems for their child, and religious education is part of the curriculum at all three. While integrated schools welcome participation from different religious groups, a Christian ethos still runs through the curriculum. 

Because the integrated schools aren’t entirely secular and operate on basic Judeo-Christian principles, religious education at each school differs based on the ethos of the school, according to Ken Cathcart, the director of the Integrated Education Fund, a nonprofit that supports the integrated schools and steps in where the government falls short. Cathcart said that the schools are “a bit Christian, but quite open,” and some parents wish the schools were entirely secular.

One such parent went to High Court in 2022 when he and his seven-year-old child sued the Department of Education on the basis that public schools’ faith-based Christian religious education and collective worship violate education entitlements protected by the European Convention on Human Rights. While parents have the right to exempt their child from religious education, the father argued that exemption is not protective enough and alienates and isolates the child from other students.

A Northern Ireland High Court judge ruled in favor of the father and daughter, arguing that the exclusively Christian-focused religious education taught at primary schools in Northern Ireland violates the freedom of religion and is in contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Department of Education appealed the decision, and the outcome of the appeal, which took place last fall, has yet to be made public. Experts expect the results any day now. 

It’s been 25 years since The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 ended the turbulent Troubles, a 30-year conflict between Catholics who wished for a united Ireland and Protestants who were loyal to Britain. Many expected society to integrate much faster than it has. Dr. Norman Richardson, a researcher at Queen’s University in Belfast, said the integrated movement is growing much slower than expected. 

“There’s a process of intergenerational change, and it's not going to happen overnight,” Richardson said. “People go where they know, where their family went, and they don’t think much about it.” 

Richardson said the High Court case itself affirmed that a confessional approach has undermined the concept of learning about religion in schools.

In December, an independent review of education in Northern Ireland said, in a less legal way, the same thing that the Court said: education in relation to religious issues should be much more inclusive and should affirm Northern Ireland’s diversity.

“We’ve never only been Catholic or Protestant,” Richardson said. “The numbers of people from other backgrounds has very much increased over the 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement, so for that reason alone, religious education programming does need to be more inclusive.”

Societal shifts and a growing desire for reconciliation will help move Northern Ireland forward, which is, in many ways, still stuck in its past with the perpetuation of sectarianism. While integrated education represents an ideal, the integrated schools only educate about 8% of Northern Ireland's children. However, other catalysts for change take a more realistic approach, like the shared education model, which is a step short of integrated schooling, where local schools share facilities. More than two-thirds of schools are involved in shared education. 

Joanne Hughes is director of the Centre for Shared Education at Queen's University, where she researches the role of education in divided societies.

“We've had integrated education since 1981, but it hasn’t taken off in the way we thought it might,” Hughes said. “In an ideal world, all would be integrated, but we don’t live in an ideal world.”

Hughes grew up in a Protestant neighborhood in Belfast and said that she didn’t meet a Catholic person until she went to university. She said that partner schools want to learn about each other's religion, and clergy often visit schools to say what is unique about their branch of Christianity. 

The core syllabus for religious education in Northern Ireland was devised by the church without the involvement of others from other faiths or backgrounds. There’s a struggle between those who want religious education to be taught just as math and geography are taught and those who believe faith formation teaches students how to live and grow in the world. 

“We aren’t as bigoted as people on the outside think,” Bishop of Derry Donal McKeown said. “We don’t want to be removed from the public sphere like the sectarians want.” 

McKeown is a former teacher and current head of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools. He believes faith formation is critical in today’s secular world where suicide rates are the highest they’ve ever been, and he sees a Catholic education as a helpful way for kids to grow in the world. 

Whether one is for or against faith formation in schools, the results of the High Court case will underscore the appropriateness of faith-based teaching in a diverse society where many believe The Troubles are far in the past and that there is perfect social cohesion today. Reality looks a bit different.

Maybe Bobby Skeggs at the Oakgrove school put it best when asked about the religious affiliation of his friends.  “It’s not something we discuss,” he said nonchalantly.

Building Bridges: Integrated School Links Religiously Divided Londonderry

LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland – Culmore Primary School on the outskirts of this religiously divided city advertises itself as a school open to all. The school has three religious education options, including a Catholic program shared with a nearby Catholic primary school.

“We celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, and the Coronation of the Queen and Diwali,” said the principal, Claire McMenamin.

Bringing Catholic and Protestant children together with a sprinkling of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, non-believers and others is a relatively new venture in this country which remains part of the United Kingdom.

Culmore Primary is a historically Protestant school located in a Protestant neighborhood. Recent years have seen an influx of Catholic residents and others which prompted McMenamin to initiative a movement for school integration.

The official name for such a change is Transformation, the process of changing a school’s status. The result, as McMenamin put it, would provide a “bridge between our wee school and the rest of the community.”

The school staff brought the question of transformation to parents through a ballot. In December, 90% of parents voted in favor of moving the majority Protestant school to integrated status.

Twenty-six years  after the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland’s schools remain overwhelmingly segregated. Around 7% of students are currently educated in integrated schools, according to the UK Department of Education. The remaining 93% are largely split between the Protestant controlled sector and Catholic maintained sector. While these schools are not strictly segregated, and shared education programs have cropped up to encourage relationships between the two sectors, integrated schools are designed to intentionally support religious, cultural, and socioeconomic diversity, according to the UK Department of Education.

Parental ballots are an increasingly popular method for transformation. Twenty-seven schools have hosted successful ballots since 2019, bringing the total number of integrated schools to 71, based on data from the Integrated Education Fund. For some, the integration movement reflects Northern Ireland’s attempts to confront its divided past and invest in a more peaceful future. The movement may also reflect the country’s shifting religious demographics, as a growing number of people choose to identify as neither Catholic nor Protestant.

The idea of the parental ballot has its roots in the first integrated school in Northern Ireland, Lagan College. The school was founded in Belfast in 1981 by a group of parents dissatisfied with the divided education system. The solution, they decided, was to form their own school.

“It was a tremendously courageous initiative,” said Ken Cathcart, director of the Integrated Education Fund. “They remortgaged their houses.”

Integration gained traction, leading to a piece of legislation in 1989 that required the Department of Education to support the development of integrated schools. While this led to more resources for school integration, the government has not played a leadership role in changing the status of schools.

“Because there isn’t this top-down initiative to create integrated schools, parents have had to do it themselves,” said Cathcart.

In 2020, McMenamin noticed that the neighborhood around the school was changing and approached the board of governors and staff about integration. In 2022, she attended a Department of Education event on the transformation process and got to work. The school sent out information on integration to parents, posted materials on Facebook and hosted an information session with a representative from the Integration Education Fund.

Parents were mainly concerned about how religious education and their children’s sense of identity would be affected by transformation, McMenamin said. The teachers were able to assure parents that the different options for religious education would continue.

“It’s not actually a threat to allow your children to be more broad-minded,” said McMenamin. “You’re not losing your identity. You’re celebrating your identity.”

When the ballot went out, McMenamin worried about families across the border in Donegal successfully mailing it back. For the ballot to count, 50% of families must return it, according to the UK Department of Education. Of Culmore Primary School’s 40 families, 76% returned the ballot, the principal said.

To move forward with integration, McMenamin must now submit a document to the minister of education making the case for why the school should transform and proving that it can meet certain requirements. Schools must demonstrate that at least 10% of their first year’s enrollment comes from the area’s minority community, and this percentage should increase over time, according to the Council for Integrated Education. Schools must also have diversity among their staff and board of governors.

Transformation can be slow and burdensome. McMenamin is dedicating one work day each week to the process, on top of her job as a teaching principal. For her, the effort is worth it.

“If we want things to move forward in Ireland, our kids are the future,” she said.

Public support for integration is high, but parents still rank good educational standards as the most important aspect when choosing a school, according to a 2023 poll conducted by the market research company LucidTalk.

A significant barrier to integration is that Northern Ireland’s education system is structured around two sectors that have been operating for over 100 years, said Cathcart. Even procuring a building for an integrated school can be challenging.

The Integrated Education Fund and the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education exist to help parents and schools with transformation. Culmore Primary School received grants from these organizations to fund its community outreach.

However, changing the system, and building understanding between people, takes time. 

“You can’t go from a single identity school to a multiple identity school overnight,” Cathcart said.

A few days before St. Patrick’s Day, one classroom of students celebrated the holiday with Irish dancing. The students planted their hands on their hips and jumped along in time with a video of a dancing leprechaun projected on the board. OKAY! SOMETHING OF A RITUAL!

Across the river from Culmore Primary School is Oakgrove Integrated College, which was planned as an integrated school by parents in 1992. At lunchtime, a small group of students sit around a table in the principal’s office and share what led them to enroll.

“It was the right thing to do,” said 17-year-old Bobby Skeggs, who has a Catholic mother and Protestant father. “I’m glad that I’m here. I don’t look at a Catholic school and think I wish I were there.”

Students share other reasons for attending: following in the steps of a sibling or continuing on a track set by going to an integrated primary school. Several students, like Skeggs, have parents from different faiths. One student speaks of putting religion behind.

More students are enrolling at Oakgrove Integrated College who do not identify as Catholic or Protestant, said Principal John Harkin. Even so, maintaining religious diversity can be a challenge. About 10% of the school’s youngest class is Protestant, a trend which Harkin describes as worrying.

The school brings in speakers and programs to help educate the students on conflict and reconciliation. A grant from the Integrated Education Fund supported a cricket team, a traditionally Protestant sport and an addition to the school’s other offerings that include rugby and Gaelic football. But coming off the heels of Covid and the government hiatus at Stormont, Harkin thinks the school may be falling behind in its mission.

“There’s lots of things that we need to do to move forward,” he said.

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.”