A report published by the UNESCO Education Centre on the school system in Northern Ireland has come to the somewhat predictable conclusion that having children from the two main ethno-religious communities in the same classrooms will foster greater understanding and presumably solve the centuries old division that still eludes resolution.
The report, “How education needs to change: A vision for a single system” was authored by Dr. Matt Milliken and Dr. Stephen Roulston of Ulster University. One of the sponsors of the report, Brian Dickie who is on the board of the Ireland Funds, has made no secret of his belief that “integrated education” is “a fundamental prerequisite for lasting peace and a healthy society.”
Which sounds all very well and good, except that involuntary integration tends not ever to be the solution to deep-rooted historical problems, particularly in a colonial context. It has long been the siren song of Irish and British liberals of course, and in February of this year President Michael D. Higgins made it the theme of a speech he delivered in Enniskillen in which he decried the separation of children based not only on religion but on the languages taught in schools and the sports they play.
On the following day, an Irish Times op ed lamented the fact that “two decades after the Belfast Agreement, 93% of schools remain segregated by religion.” Which they are, and the reason they are thus divided is mostly because most parents choose to send their children to such schools.
Just as many of the middle class readers of the Irish Times choose to send their children to schools which are socially and economically segregated, even where that is not reinforced by fees.
If it is the right – and it is – of a prosperous south Dublin liberal bourgeois family not to send their children to the same school as the people from the local authority estate, or children from the Direct Provision Centre or Traveller accommodation who are highly unlikely to be in the catchment area of the better rugby schools, then it is similarly the right of a Tyrone or Fermanagh nationalist/Catholic or unionist/Protestant to make the same choice.
In common with a lot of aspirational stuff deemed to be good for people, there is a disjunct between polling in which people express a desire to see “every school integrated” or “climate change” and what people do in practise.
Even Sinn Féin, while obliged to namecheck the need for “secular education and multi-denominational schools,” also referred in a submission on integrated education to the need to respect the existence of an “option for parents.” Indeed, just last year Sinn Féin MLA, and former Stormont Minister for Education, John O’Dowd criticised the integrated schools for their lack of provision for the Irish language and Gaelic games.
A large part of the reason for “segregated education” is of course connected to historically embedded and enforced demographic and geographical factors.
For example, in another Ulster University report published in 2021, it was found that a majority of people in the north live at least three miles away from either an integrated primary or post-primary school. Perhaps the most telling aspect of the maps illustrating this is that the shorter distances are found in Belfast and in east Ulster towns, where of course spatial segregation and indeed inter communal tensions and occasional violence are most prevalent and where there is little demand for integration of any kind. Quite the opposite as the “peace walls” indicate.
Anyone who believes, therefore, that integrating schools is the solution to solving all of the other problems is being rather naïve. They are also neglectful of the fact that historically, the segregation even of workplaces has been imposed by violence by unionists. There were regular instances of mass expulsions of Catholic workers from the Belfast shipyards and large engineering works right up until the 1970s.
The insistence that communities in the north ought to take part in some ill-conceived involuntary integration for their own good, also contrasts with the overweening and, dare one say it, overbearing insistence by many of the same people on promoting “diversity” and “multi-culturalism” in other contexts. In the case of education it often involves voluntary segregation.
Even where an integrated approach is favoured it is most often of course, as noted above, a case of Not In My School Yard (NIMSY). There are not too many middle class children of primary school age in south Dublin whose own learning is dependent on the needs of immigrant children who cannot speak English, as it is in the inner city.
Some immigrant families prefer to send their children to separate schools and if it is okay for members of minority religions such as Islam to have their own faith-based schools, and it is, then why is it not okay for members of the Church of Ireland? And yes, both are entitled to the support of the overall state education system if that is the desire of a sufficient number of families.
The conclusion of the UNESCO sponsored report makes it clear that the authors are about far more than simply changing the education system. They obviously see it as a means to radically alter the overall shape of society in the north of Ireland.
In an interview, one of the report’s authors, Dr. Matthew Milliken, laments the fact that most students attend “schools that are dominated by a Catholic ethos, present a particular image of Irish culture and identity or they attend schools that are influenced, if not controlled, by Protestant denominations and propagate a particularly British view of society.”
Well, so what? These are fundamental distinctions within Northern Ireland and the two largest communities and their political and other leaders, for the time being at least, clearly believe them to be important enough to preserve, and that the best way in which to do so is to maintain their own educational and cultural institutions.
There may come a time when the great big melting pot will distil all of this into some inane trans global anti-culture – which does not appear to have eliminated societal divisions much less violence in its Athens of Los Angeles and San Francisco – but in the meantime perhaps people ought to engage with reality rather than aspiration.
As an Irish nationalist I can recognise that the belief that one day Ulster prods were all going to wake up and start speaking Irish and wielding hurleys was utterly naïve. Equally naïve is the belief that the final solution to the out-workings of colonialism in Ireland is to force everyone to be some updated version of the objective of the 1831 National Schools system; with a “Happy European” or “TransAtlantic Child” replacing the previous Anglophone pedagogical ideal.
A future united Ireland will have to recognise and accommodate the most ancient and fundamental diversity on this island before it leaps headlong into a multi “cultural” dystopia. The fact that these remain central to the politics of the country might also provide food for thought for advocates of the latter,