And the Walls Come Tumbling Down

By John Gehring — August 06, 2003 20 min read
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On some days, hope seemed as hard to hold on to as smoke after another car- bomb explosion.

Youngsters who attend Londonderry's Oakgrove Primary and other integrated schools represent a hope for peace in Northern Ireland.

In a place where, on the same street, the United Kingdom’s Union Jack and the Republic of Ireland’s flag wave to the winds of a complicated history, and paramilitary groups plot murder in the name of politics and religion, a different future can be difficult to imagine.

But when parents sat down at a barbecue 13 years ago in this Northern Ireland city—typically called Londonderry by British loyalists and Derry by Irish republicans—they had change on their minds. Talk about creating a less divisive place for their children to grow up flowed along with the beer and laughter that afternoon.

By the end of the day, an idea to start a school where Protestants and Catholics could learn together and, they hoped, become friends was taking shape. No school like it had ever existed in the city. Children here, as elsewhere in Northern Ireland, usually attend either Roman Catholic schools or mainly Protestant schools, and rarely meet one another.

“You kind of feel helpless when you have paramilitary organizations shooting each other, or the army killing people,” says Colm Cavanagh, one of the parents who helped launch Oakgrove Integrated Primary School in 1991.

A Londonderry native who remembers the worst days of the “Troubles"—as those in Northern Ireland refer to the long-standing political and sectarian violence that has defined this area—Cavanagh says parents wanted to take action.

“The politicians seemed unwilling or unable to find an answer, and people just said, ‘I’m not going to wait for someone else to solve the problems; I personally am going to do something to make this a better world,’” he recalls. “One of the things parents could do was to stop that cycle with their children.”

Like many parents, Anne Murray, who would become the school’s principal, also wanted to establish an alternative to the mainstream education system in Northern Ireland, where schools are segregated not only by religion, but often by sex, academic ability, and social class as well. The integrated school would be “all ability” or inclusive, unlike the country’s selective grammar schools that require children to pass an exam at age 11 to enter.

“Every way you could think we were dividing children up instead of bringing them together,” says Murray, who is Cavanagh’s wife. “We just felt that integration was too obvious and sensible and necessary in terms of reconciliation for this community.”

Parents wanted something more for their children than the tangled politics of a place where religious and political identity can become all-consuming.

Tim and Bernie Webster were also at the barbecue that day. Bernie, a Catholic from Londonderry, and Tim, a Protestant from London, wanted something more for their children than the tangled politics of aplace where religious and political identity can become all-consuming. An advertisement in the local newspaper announced the first public meeting for those interested in a new school.

“We thought if we had 50 people, we would be up and running,” Tim Webster recalls. “Two hundred showed up, and we knew there was no stopping us.”

The group of parents drew inspiration from the first integrated school in Northern Ireland, which opened in Belfast in 1981. Some parents here had attended the original parents’ meetings in Belfast. Bernie Webster was impressed by the movement of mothers and fathers and the power of starting an integrated school when so many were skeptical.

“I remembered thinking at the time that if I had children, this is what I would want for them,” she says. “If I lived in the Middle East, I would want my children to go to school with Jews and Palestinians. If we lived in South Africa, I would want them to go to school with blacks and whites. This is how we realize we all have heads and two eyes and we’re not a different species.”

Twenty-two years after the first integrated school opened in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, interest in integrated education is growing rapidly. In 1997, a little more than 8,000 students were enrolled in integrated schools throughout the country. By this past school year, more than 15,000 students attended the schools.

Although 95 percent of students still go to schools where the majority of students are either Protestant or Catholic, 53 integrated schools will be serving almost 17,000 students across Northern Ireland by this fall.

Waiting lists are common. An average of 900 students are turned away each year because there are not enough of the integrated schools to meet the demand. A nationally representative poll of 1,000 people by the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education, released in June, found that 82 percent of those surveyed would personally support integrated education. Fifty-two percent said they did not send their children to an integrated school only because one did not exist in their areas.

Tony Gallagher, a professor of education at Queens University in Belfast, says the percentage of students in such schools may be small, but the integrated education movement has an influence much greater than its numbers.

“The schools prove segregation is not inevitable,” argues Gallagher, who has studied the integrated movement. “Symbolically, they are very important. They suggest there is a future for Northern Ireland that doesn’t involve us all being in separate communities. Segregated schools reinforce that sense of fundamental difference. Integrated schools have created a diverse environment.”

But Donal Flanagan, the chief executive of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, which represents Roman Catholic schools in Northern Ireland, disputes those who say largely Protestant schools and Catholic schools perpetuate divisions. Noting that he has a good working relationship with many in the integrated school community, he nonetheless argues that because they educate only a small percentage of students in Northern Ireland, the schools will have limited success.

“We recognize if we are going to deal with the fundamental problems in this society, integrated schools will only be able to make a minimal impact,” he contends. “If the government is going to wait until it gets everyone in an integrated school, they are going to be waiting a long time.”

For others, the waiting has gone on long enough. Michael Wardlow, the executive director of the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education, believes the schools represent a powerful symbol for creating a more hopeful future for Northern Ireland, where more than 3,000 people have been killed and 40,000 injured in the Troubles since 1969. Almost 30 percent of those killed have been younger than 21.

Integrated education “is an experiment of how to run Northern Ireland,” Wardlow says. “If you can do it in a school of 100 children, why on earth can’t you do it on a bigger scale?”

The second-largest city in Northern Ireland, Londonderry is split in two by the Foyle River, into what locals call the city side and the water side. The conflict between Protestants and Catholics in this city of 106,000 residents has a long history, as it does throughout Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom.

In the early 17th century, the plantation of the north of Ireland took form when the British throne gave most of the best land to English and Scottish settlers.

But the Protestant elite feared a loss of power when King James II, a Catholic, came to the British throne in 1685. James ultimately was deposed. The exiled James was decisively defeated in an attempt to return to power by William of Orange, a Protestant who had become King William III, when their armies clashed in Ireland at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Political authority was restored to Protestants, who stripped Catholics of power with a series of penal laws that ensured the economic and political dominance of Protestant settlers.

The north boomed during the Industrial Revolution and supported union with Britain, fearing that calls for Irish “home rule” would unleash discrimination against Protestants and foster Vatican influence over the country. In 1921, the largely Protestant north was split from the predominantly Catholic south, which is now an independent republic. The Catholic minority in the north often faced discrimination by unionists in power.

The integrated school would be ‘all ability’ or inclusive, unlike the country's selective grammar schools.

Inspired in part by demonstrations for the enfranchisement of blacks in the United States, a civil rights movement began in Londonderry during the 1960s in response to political gerrymandering, unionist control of housing and jobs, and a predominantly Protestant police force. Rioting in 1969 between Catholics and police led residents of the Catholic Bogside neighborhood to construct barricades to block the police and later the British Army.

When 20,000 people gathered here for a march on Jan. 30, 1972, gunfire erupted in the Bogside. British soldiers, who later maintained they had been under attack from demonstrators, shot and killed 13 young Catholic marchers. The event, which drew international attention, became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Today, a memorial to the dead stands in the Bogside, and several wall murals depict events of that day. While British troops no longer patrol the streets, and checkpoints have been taken down, an active British surveillance tower still overlooks the Bogside, where the outlawed Irish Republican Army, made up chiefly of Catholic sympathizers, has strong support.

Although the violence common from the 1960s into the 1980s has given way to a fragile peace, much of Northern Ireland remains divided along religious and political lines. In Belfast, for example, more than a dozen “peace walls"—high concrete barriers often topped off with barbed wire—divide “interface” areas where Catholics and Protestants live side by side. The government put up the walls to protect residents from rocks, petrol bombs, glass, and other objects thrown by rioters. Tensions flare during the summer “marching season,” when unionist members of the Orange Order parade through the streets to celebrate events such as the commemoration of the Battle of the Boyne.

Children have often been on the front lines of sectarian troubles. Two years ago in Belfast, students attending Holy Cross Girls Primary School faced protesters as they walked to school through a Protestant area. Demonstrators threw bottles, feces, and a pipe bomb at the girls and their parents. For several weeks, police escorted the children to school and formed a barricade between the demonstrators and the students.

“The wallpaper in the room that we live in is violence,” says Wardlow of the integrated education council. “We have to take every opportunity we can to demythologize this and take the demons away. We are all human beings trying to live in this wee bit of Northern Ireland.”

Oakgrove Integrated Primary School seems far way from those tensions. The school sits on a manicured campus of oak and sycamore trees on the city’s water side. Sunlight streams through the large windows of the two-story brick building. Students’ artwork covers the walls, and children play outside in their uniforms of green and gray. Fifty-two 3- and 4-year-olds attend what’s called the nursery. Another 400 pupils, ages 5 through 11, attend the primary school, whose name comes from the old Gaelic word “daire.”

Principal Murray, a small woman with infectious energy, says integration was an idea whose time had come in Londonderry. Even before the school opened, many parents were seeking ways to make sure their children met young people outside their own religious community. Murray was hired in 1973 by a visionary principal at a chiefly Protestant school who wanted more diversity among his students and staff members. She became the first Catholic teacher at that school. The transition was not an easy one. During Mass one day, a priest preached about about how Catholic teachers should work only in Catholic schools, while Murray listened from a pew.

For Principal Anne Murray, Oakgrove represents a place where students can have conversations about political or religious issues in an environment built on respect.

For Murray, Oakgrove represents a place where students can have conversations about political or religious issues in an environment built on respect. “What we have here is a safe space and this feeling of trust that has built up where we can explore the hard issues,” she says in her office, where a copy of Nelson Mandela’s inauguration speech as president of South Africa hangs on the wall and a small plaque quoting Michelangelo that reads “Still Learning"sits on her desk.

“Integrated education is not a quick fix or a magic wand, but it sends ripples through other schools,” Murray says. “The state system and Catholic schools are aware of us and ask themselves, ‘What do we do in terms of reconciliation in our community?’ That was a question that wasn’t being asked before. The other schools are affected because we exist.”

Not that things are always perfect here. There was the time when students were learning about “people who help us,” and one unionist parent, a police officer, came to give a class presentation dressed in full riot gear, an outfit that didn’t sit well with republican parents, who view the British as little more than an occupying power.

“One of our republican parents saw him and had a fit,” Murray says. “It just raised the whole issue of how we accommodate people from a republican background and a loyalist background, and all of the other people in the middle.”

Most integrated schools begin as new institutions. But guidelines provided by the integrated education council require parents first to seek out schools in the area that may want to change to integrated status. Unless they have declining enrollments and see transformation as a way to survive, most schools don’t go that route, however. Parents are then free to begin formulating plans for a new school.

Though parents were essentially on their own when they opened the first integrated school, Lagan College, the government now offers some support. A 1989 education bill gives Northern Ireland’s Department of Education responsibility to encourage integrated education. Parents who start new schools must still come up with the money to find a space and a building, but the Education Department refunds the money if the schools meet criteria for long-term viability.

Schools strive to have at least 40 percent of students and staff members from the Catholic tradition and another 40 percent from Protestant backgrounds. Although reaching those exact figures can be difficult because of the demographics of a particular area, the philosophy of inclusion guides all integrated schools. For a new school to be recognized as integrated, the Department of Education requires that at least 30 percent of its enrollment be made up of adherents to the minority religious group in the area.

While all integrated schools have a Christian ethos, students learn about a variety of religions and are not taught from one faith. Schools follow the Northern Ireland religious education curriculum, which was written by both Catholic and the main Protestant denominations. It explores issues of cultural and religious diversity and conflict resolution.

For parents who want specific religious instruction so that their children can receive the sacraments of the Catholic Church, for example, separate classes are held one day a week. Children being raised without a specific faith attend an ethics class during that time. School assemblies don’t shy away from religion either. During Lent and Christmastime, for example, students are invited to give presentations about the meaning of the religious season.

Students say different perspectives are explored openly in the classroom, and the relentless Protestant or Catholic labeling so common in many of their neighborhoods fades away, at least for a few hours of the school day.

“You get to learn about different people’s backgrounds and make friends with them,” says Sarah Moran, an 11-year-old Protestant who notes that she has many Catholic friends. “We all get along here. People aren’t concerned about religion.”

Though parents were essentially on their own when they opened the first integrated school, the government now offers some support.

Niah Gill, a Catholic teacher at the school, who like many in Northern Ireland didn’t get to know someone from another faith until he went to college, says Oakgrove pupils are learning from an early age lessons it took him years to appreciate. “If you look out there, those students don’t see any differences in themselves even though they are aware of it,” Gill says about a group of children playing outside the school. “We look at those children, and we see hope for Northern Ireland.”

Just a few miles away, Oakgrove Integrated College, a secondary school, occupies a former mental hospital falling apart with age. A new facility overlooking the Foyle River is scheduled to open in 2004. The school, which enrolls 830 students ages 11 through 18, opened one year after the primary school.

Marie Cowan, who helped start the secondary school along with the core group of parents who founded Oakgrove Primary, has been the principal since the beginning.

A Londonderry native, Cowan for years taught at a Catholic school in the Bogside. She remembers when bus drivers refused to go there in the wake of Bloody Sunday. On some days, Cowan and other teachers would walk children to school as IRA gunmen and British troops fired on each other.

Cowan sits on an Education Department working group studying the future of integration. Though optimistic about its direction, she believes the government needs to do more to open new schools so families who want integrated education have access to such schooling. In the past three years, she has had to turn away 85 applicants.

“There is a great demand for integrated education, and that is the Department of Education’s problem,” Cowan says. “They can’t keep up.”

Stephen Sandford, a Department of Education official, says the emphasis for future development of integrated schools is on transforming existing schools. Fifteen such schools have done so since the start of the integrated schools movement.

“The department takes its duties with regard to integrated education seriously, and it will respond to parental demand if and where appropriate, while giving due weight and consideration to the implication of cost and the practical implications for other sectors of education,” Sandford says in an e-mail.

On a recent exam day here at Oakgrove Integrated College, students hunch over desks for hours working through essays or headache-inducing mathematics problems. Those who have finished hang out with friends or go to play football. Eighteen-year-old Brian Devane has already freed himself from his school uniform and is wearing a tank top. A Catholic, he says an integrated education has enabled him to befriend Protestants. He plays on what is primarily a Protestant football—soccer to Americans—team outside of school.

“Too many people live in the past,” he says. “This school helps open your mind. You’re always going to meet people with different religions. You’re going to have to work with them. You might as well start while you’re young.”

Later that evening, George Webster, the 17-year-old son of Tim and Bernie Webster, the “mixed marriage” couple who helped start Oakgrove Primary, strums on a guitar at home.

“What you find in an integrated school is that people don’t want to stay in their own group,” says George, who attended Oakgrove Primary and now goes to the integrated secondary school. “I don’t know the religion of any of my friends. I’m not interested.” He offers cautious optimism about whether integrated schools promise the last, best hope for Northern Ireland.

“Only if every school was made integrated,” he says. “There are parents who are radical, and it tends to influence their children. We need about three more generations until people won’t bring politics into religion.”

Hazelwood Integrated College sits in the middle of an “interface” area in north Belfast.

The competing allegiances of political identity are clearly marked in this working-class area. Halfway up Whitewell Road, which runs in front of the school, the Irish tricolor flags of orange, green, and white that line the street give way to the Union Jack and street curbs painted in unionist red, white, and blue. Paramilitary groups like the Ulster Volunteer Force or the IRA are the unofficial arbiters of order here.

Turf is fiercely guarded. Who you are determines where you walk safely. Last year, a 20-year-old postman who was a Catholic graduate of the integrated school was shot and killed by unionist paramilitaries in a Protestant enclave where he often delivered mail. Another Hazelwood graduate wearing a Celtics football-club shirt—historically a team supported by Catholics—was killed last summer by paramilitaries. Since the school’s opening in 1985, nearly a dozen Hazelwood graduates have been murdered, according to one teacher. Most students here, who range in age from 12 to 18, have friends or family members who have been killed or injured in the Troubles.

Drew McFall, a history teacher who grew up in the Protestant enclave of Tigers Bay two miles from the school, has the challenging job of what he calls “steering a course between the orange and the green” when it comes to teaching an explosive subject in a divided society.

‘History is not just about blue or white or orange and green. There are shades of gray, and we ask children to address both sides of the argument.’

Even at this integrated school, parents can become emotional about how history is presented and let McFall know when they are displeased. Parents will occasionally tell him they don’t want their son or daughter learning any “Fenian” history. “Fenian” is a derogatory term for Catholics.

“I tell them I won’t teach bigoted, sectarian history,” says McFall, who was 17 in 1972, the worst year of the Troubles, when 467 people were killed. “History is not just about blue or white or orange and green. There are shades of gray, and we ask children to address both sides of the argument.”

When he covers Bloody Sunday, for example, after students research and learn about the events of the day, he will have Catholic students present an argument from the side of the British military and Protestants from the perspective of the Catholic civil rights marchers.

“You embrace the myths which come almost from their mothers’ milk or from their grandmothers’ knee,” McFall says. “We give them the ‘orange’ version and the ‘green’ version, and then we say, ‘Let’s look at what actually happened.’ People like to cherish myths. They are comfortable. The truth isn’t always comfortable.”

Noreen Campbell, a founding parent of Hazelwood College and the school’s principal, says that even when students have discussions about potentially sensitive topics, outbursts or fights rarely follow. “I think it’s partly to do with the environment and the need for sensitivity,” she says. “Children show respect for each other.”

One day in particular each year is devoted to exploring issues of identity. On “Speak Your Peace” day, teachers and community workers lead students in discussions about discrimination, political allegiance, religion, and history. Students bring in a symbol that represents themselves or their community. Paramilitary flags and football jerseys—as much of a political and religious statement here as anything else— are popular.

Brendon O’Loan, the religious education director at the school, helped put the day together. “We wanted to provide a forum to talk about those issues,” he said. “My policy is that no questions are taboo.”

On this day in late May, a group of students from Hazelwood College are preparing for a trip to the United States, where they will give a presentation about their school at an international education conference at the University of Washington in Seattle.

‘If I lived in the Middle East, I would want my children to go to school with Jews and Palestinians. If we lived in South Africa, I would want them to go to school with blacks and whites.’

Michelle Byrne and Aodhan Collins, both 15, are putting the final touches on a skit showing how both Catholics and Protestants are labeled and stereotyped. Collins plays a stereotypical working-class “Prod,” or Protestant, who is crazy about the Rangers football club. Like most “Prods,” he wears what Americans would call a baseball cap brim-side out instead of flipped up like Catholics. He calls Catholics “Taigs” or “Fenians.” Byrne plays the stereotypical Catholic who roots for the Celtics football club, says she’s going to “chapel” instead of “church” as the “Prods” do, and calls Protestants “Orangies.”

“It’s so stupid, isn’t it?” Byrne says about the endless ways Protestants and Catholics are identified and immediately sized up here.

For Stuart Arwan, a 15-year-old Protestant who transferred to the integrated school three years ago after seven years in a mainly Protestant school, the skit hits home. For years, he lived on the Shankill Road, well known here as a loyalist stronghold, and he grew up around relatives who are unionist paramilitaries. Just like his friends, he threw rocks at Catholics and called them “Fenians.”

“I was moving in the wrong direction,” Arwan admits outside school one afternoon between classes. “I wasn’t sure what I was getting into when I came here. I thought it would be different, but it was the best move I have ever made. The Catholics I’ve met here are just like me. When we leave here, we leave with a positive attitude.

“As long as people keep coming to these schools, things will change, or I think they will, at least. But it’s hard to change everything. It’s really up to you to make peace.”


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