Integration in the classroom

Remembrance, sport, religion and music are some of the ‘live issues’ for teachers working out how to deliver integrated education. Peter Cheney considers how integration works out in practice in three different schools.

By its nature, educating Protestant, Catholic and other children together is not a uniform process and differs according to the type of school, its mix of pupils and location. Three principals of integrated schools have talked to agendaNi about how they have developed integration in each of their settings.

Nigel Arnold is principal of Glengormley Controlled Integrated Primary School. As a controlled school, its pupils’ numbers had been decreasing and governors decided to change status, partly to help improve the school’s enrolment figures and reflect the needs of the community.

As an intermediate level ‘international school’, it tries to celebrate all the cultures of its children and staff e.g. by displaying the flags of their home countries in the main corridor. To mark St Patrick’s Day, the school gives out sprigs of shamrock. When a local MLA gave 350 certificates to the school, to mark the Queen’s diamond jubilee, Mr Arnold wrote out to families to inform them that these were available. The majority of families, regardless of background, replied and asked for one.

“I think it’s how you deliver these things and how sensitive you are,” he comments. “It’s having the foresight to think ahead as to how we should do this, discussing with your staff, involving them all, taking on board all of their concerns and then doing it in as sensitive a way as you can.”

Glengormley teaches children about the basic beliefs of world religions and celebrates most of their main festivals throughout the year. Children who already have a strong family faith, in his view, will not be confused as they will know their own beliefs well: “To me, church is about faith. School is about education. And education is knowing that there are other faiths out there, and what they represent and who they represent.”

Some parents were uncomfortable with having Catholic teachers in the school and moved their children away from the school, although this was expected as it had happened elsewhere. The majority were in favour and the school re-invented itself e.g. by welcoming GAA and IFA coaches, bringing in the tin whistle alongside the recorder (with help from the Ulster-Scots Agency) and widening its activities to include cooking, cheerleading and hip-hop.

The aim in all of this is to give children a rounded education but the risk of doing so much is that the curriculum becomes watered down “because you just don’t have any more time in the week.” The school therefore has a dedicated ‘clubs afternoon’, to free up time in the classroom.

When he came to the school, he considered introducing a standard PE kit but decided against it after seeing a “whole wash of colour” on sports day. Allowing children to wear their own football and GAA tops is “what integration’s all about.” School teams do wear a kit when representing the school elsewhere and the school also insists on children wearing a jumper or coat over their shirt when they leave the grounds, to protect them from potential friction or upset from other members of the local community.

Glengormley also has links with a small, rural, Catholic maintained school (Glenann Primary, outside Cushendall) and trips into the glens give suburban pupils a taste of life in the countryside.

Nigel Frith is principal of Drumragh Integrated College, a grant-maintained post-primary school near Omagh. He highlights “tolerance, understanding, choice and dignity” as four key values for the school.

In Remembrance Sunday assemblies, the school strongly promotes its interpretation of remembrance i.e. regret over lost lives and the choice of people to wear poppies or not. Pupils also take part in Omagh’s Remembrance Day parade.

Ash Wednesday is, in many ways, the highlight of the school year. All children come together for the service, which the principal opens by explaining that this is a time to reflect on how we are living our lives, and whether we should make changes.

Children can come forward for ashes or alternatively remain in their seats while a presentation is played on the screen. They then go back to their classes together. “For us, this is really delivering integration in a powerful way,” he remarks.

Some parents object and keep their children away from the service. He regrets that but recognises that parents sometimes choose the school because of its exam results, rather than its integrated ethos. Nonetheless, he is pleased that the children come there and are influenced by the school.

For the Queen’s jubilee, a drama teacher organised a whole-school tea party. A competition to design a hat also took place, either with a patriotic theme or making a statement about integration.

Patricia Murtagh has taught at Hazelwood Primary School, in North Belfast, since its foundation in 1985. “What you really need to do is just go for it,” she says of integration, “and we have set ourselves up [with] a reputation for just doing it.”

At Hazelwood, all children learn about the history of the poppy and how people fought for their country in the world wars. Older children at the school learn about the meaning of the poppy in Northern Ireland. The school seeks to use potentially contentious topics as “educational discussion points” for its children.

The Catholic Church was initially reluctant to accommodate children at Hazelwood who were taking their first communion. Attitudes eventually softened but the change took 20 years.

Hazelwood’s founding parents experienced sectarianism at the height of the Troubles “and wanted a better future for their children.” In society in general, feelings of resentment against other communities are “always just under the surface” and she often wonders how an integrated school would cope if it were open around 12 July.

Looking at the wider picture, she thinks that the education system now has a real opportunity to increase the level of integration, through area planning.

“It would just be such a shame if that opportunity is missed,” Mrs Murtagh states. “Everybody is scrabbling to protect their own numbers, own budgets, own staff, but there’s an opportunity in society to take the next step and have community schools. We’d like a child to go to the school at the end of the street and mix with children from all different backgrounds.”

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