Integrated Education in Northern Ireland

 Faysal Mikdadi

“Integrated Education is about mutual and common acceptance, especially the acceptance of trying new ideas for the benefit of the central purpose of education: the individual child.”

Cliodhna Scott-Wills: Development Officer for Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE)

“WHEREAS Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in cooperation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

WHEREAS a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

Now, therefore, Proclaims:

THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (The UDHR is the founding document of Facilitate Global, www.facilitateglobal.org)

Article 26 – 1 Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

2 Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

3 Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Article 2 of the first Protocol provides that no person shall be denied the right to education. “In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the state shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical aims.”  [European Human Rights Law]

The Human Rights Act 1998 (with a reservation in domestic law in the United Kingdom stating that the above is “accepted by the United Kingdom only in so far as it is compatible with the provision of efficient instruction and training, and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure” although the Court has recognised that article 2 of Protocol 1 ‘by its very nature calls for regulation’). (Starmer, 1999).

Abstract

This paper is a continuation of my first paper titled ‘Integrated Education in Israel and Palestine’ written in 2012. Like the first paper, it does not remotely pretend to be a scientific or scholarly study. It is a series of impressions prompted by working in and for Education for a culturally diverse society most of my working life and by much reading and discussion of the issues involved.

In my first paper, I concluded that Integrated Education in Israel was incipient with a very small number of schools working quite successfully to educate a mixed population of Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians. I also concluded that, despite some recent curriculum innovations, Palestine was doing little to enhance Integrated Education.

This paper gives a bird’s eye view of what ‘Multicultural Education’ in England has been like since the seventies, what it is like now that a recognition has at last been made of the failures of Multiculturalism and its replacement by a better understanding of cultural diversity including differences that should be acknowledged and celebrated as enriching society as a whole.

The paper then goes on to examine what the situation is like in Northern Ireland where, for almost a quarter of a century, Integrated Education practice has grown and developed such that today over sixty schools are designated as offering Integrated Education with considerable success in most cases. Each school differs in its perception and delivery of Integrated Education values. There is, through the work of many organisations and individuals, a high degree of success being built on success in Northern Ireland to the benefit of all students.

Acknowledgements

I am grateful to Baroness May Blood who has been very helpful in initiating my visit to Northern Ireland and in explaining the philosophy that has driven her passion for integrated education as part of the Northern Ireland peace process. I am also grateful to Soraya Boyd – CEO of Facilitate Global – for suggesting that I put this paper together as she had previously suggested that I write my other paper on ‘Integrated Education in Israel and Palestine’. I undertook this visit in my capacity as Head of Education for Facilitate Global (tenure as from July 2011). The aim was to research the history and impact of Integrated Education in Northern Ireland.

The visit would not have been possible without the practical and patient help and hospitality of Cliodhna Scott-Wills who drove me many miles from school to school and who patiently put up with my endless naïve questions. Her knowledge of Northern Ireland is vast and I found her help invaluable as evidenced by using her succinct apothegm given at the beginning of this paper.

I am also deeply indebted to the following colleagues for their help, hospitality and patience during my various visits to their colleges, institutions and schools: Noreen Campbell Chief Executive Officer at NICIE, Paul Caskey of the Integrated Education Fund (ief), Paula McIlwaine – Development Officer at NICIE, Stephen Creber – Principal of Brownlow Integrated College in Craigavon, Feargal Magee – Principal of Portadown Integrated IPS, Dr. Paul McHugh – Principal of Slemish College in Ballymena, Dungannon, Samantha Ross – Acting Principal of Windmill Integrated Primary School in Dungannon, Philip Scott – Principal of Round Tower Integrated Primary School in Antrim, – Paul Connolly, Vice Principal of Parkhall Integrated College in Antrim, Robert Scott – Principal of Braiside Integrated Primary and Nursery School in Ballymena, Andrew Sleeth – Principal of Integrated College in Dungannon.

No acknowledgements would be remotely complete without thanking the students and many of their teachers who spoke to me about their experiences of Integrated Education. Those students quoted in this report will give the reader a flavour of the kind of discussions that we had and of the incalculable value of what students had to say.

Introduction

On Tuesday 14 June 2011 I attended an All-Party Parliamentary Group meeting in the Palace of Westminster during which young Palestinians were given the opportunities to speak out about what they believed Israel-Palestine would be like in 2031. The speakers were Sameh Habeeb, a journalist and founder of the Palestine Telegraph living in Gaza, Enass Albitter, also living in Gaza, who is an Olive Tree Scholar reading business management, Elizabeth Jadon from Jerusalem an Olive Tree Scholar reading law and Odai Masharqa who was the former President of the Friends of Palestine. The meeting was chaired by the Rt Honourable Andy Slaughter MP.

Two weeks later, on Tuesday 28 June 2011, I attended another meeting organised by the All-Party Parliamentary Group chaired by the Rt. Honourable Simon Hughes MP. This meeting gave young Israelis, Jews and Palestinians an opportunity to come together and discuss their future. The speakers were the same Palestinians we had listened to during the previous meeting joined by Daniel Arenson who was the former President of the Oxford University Jewish Society, Noam Rabinovich who was an Israeli student of International Politics and an Olive Tree Scholar and Eti Schechtman who was an Israeli TV, radio and internet journalist as well as an Olive Tree Scholar.

These two meetings had a profound effect on me for two very important reasons.

Firstly, I had spent the previous sixty five years living in an artificial cocoon. We Palestinians were brought up on a diet of victimhood, unrealisable promises, political opportunistic lies and less than honest attempts to handle our Nakba of 1948. We were discouraged from talking to Israelis whom I had grown to imagine as inveterately cruel, inhuman and expansionist. As a university student growing up in Britain, I began to meet Israelis who struck me as imminently reasonable and peaceable people and whose childhood and youth, rather like mine, were almost entirely predicated on ghastly images of us Arabs as blood thirsty killers out to throw all the Jews into the sea.

All through that time of some twenty plus years both my fellow countrymen and women in Palestine and in the Arab world, and, my new friends’ fellow countrymen and women in Israel were doing everything that they could to disprove the veracity of the propagandist rubbish that we were both brought up on. The only way around it was getting to know each other. For example, during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, I was utterly dislocated as I watched my country of refuge burning under the heavy Israeli attack. During the evenings and nights, I cried, wrote poetry and, when I could, spoke to my unbelievably brave sister who was living in Beirut and refusing to leave it under any circumstances, partly because she was not repeating the error of packing up and leaving at the first sight of an Israeli soldier and partly because she was doing some incredibly brave work saving lives and helping those in need (My sister wrote two moving and memorable narratives covering the Lebanese Civil War and the subsequent Israeli invasion – see Bibliography).

In contrast to these traumatic experiences, I would wake in the morning, go the university and be ‘comforted’ by Israeli friends. The irony never escaped either of us. But, apart from friendship, we did not know what to do. Little did we know that, hatred, once it enters the heart, is almost impossible to shift. We did not know how to learn from experiences in order to become “better” human beings; rather than reacting to their negative nature by becoming “bitter”. Maybe, given our respective upbringing, it was too late for us. Yet, whenever I read about a small Palestinian “triumph” I had several conflicting emotions: I did not believe any news emanating from the combat zone because our previous experience had been one of pure lies and propaganda. I derived a little comfort that the Palestinians had “done well” – whatever that meant. I felt conflicted by my ardent desire for peace – almost at any cost. Neither I, nor my friends knew how to achieve it. The young Israelis and Palestinians I met at the All-Party Parliamentary discussions did know what to do. I felt that they had had a different experience to our generation. They spoke a different language. This was reinforced by a debate in a Ramallah cafè which I listened to at about the same time. A group of Israeli Jews, Israeli Palestinians and Palestinians from the ‘Occupied Territories’ were discussing the potential for peace and some sort of one or two state solution. I quickly realised that the group was distinctly divided into two: One group was made up entirely of men of my generation and the other was made of young men and women. The older men spoke about “liberation”, “the struggle”, “dispossession” and “Israel’s crimes”. The younger generation spoke about “human rights”, “civil rights”, “freedom of religious belief in a secular society” and “individual rights”. Something very good has happened over the last few decades to produce these new thinkers who made me feel very optimistic about the future in Israel-Palestine.

Secondly, I had the good fortune to meet Clive Hambidge and Soraya Boyd. Soraya is the founder and CEO of Facilitate Global (FG) and Clive is the Human Development Director of FG. This is an organisation whose mission is to promote and protect human rights for all, to serve humanity through dialogue and friendship and to work for one rule of law for all. Both Clive and Soraya share a passion for peace, equity for all and for writing both creatively and empirically all of which interests I shared with them. We re-met several times after these Parliamentary meetings. I was invited to head Education at Facilitate Global with, amongst other things, the main purpose of twinning schools in Britain with schools in Israel and Palestine. The aim of the twinning was to increase mutual understanding and to open up a dialogue seeking to emphasise the human characteristics that we have in common rather than the differences that we are prone to focus on negatively. All three of us recognised that cultural diversity was enriching and should be encouraged.

The story of twinning British schools with schools in Palestine and Israel should be told separately. Suffice it to say that much of what we sought to encourage was woefully lacking with relatively little being done in terms of integrated education (see Mikdadi’s ‘Integrated Education in Israel and Palestine’ published here http://facilitateglobal.org/archives/3110)

On 6 March 2012 Soraya Boyd and I went to the House of Lords to meet Baroness May Blood to hear about her work on Integrated Education in Northern Ireland. May, as she modestly insists on being called, welcomed us with ineffable hospitality and listened to our views in her characteristically generous way. Soraya, who suggested that one of us might wish to visit Northern Ireland to see what work had been done in this area, looked at me and without any hesitation asked me to lead on this. May kindly offered to facilitate the visit which I was privileged to be invited to make.

May Blood was born in Belfast and, for the last thirty plus years, she has lived in West Belfast. She started her working life as a cutter in a local Belfast mill and soon became an active trade unionist and supporter of Labour policies. She has always spoken for working people and, before joining the House of Lords in 1999, she was a Director on the Labour Relations Agency and a panel member of the Industrial Tribunal Panels. She made a strong contribution to the Good Friday Agreement through her active membership of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition of which she was a co-founder as well as through the Coalition’s Talks Team which joined the multi-party talks culminating in the peace agreement.

May’s experiences of the strife in Northern Ireland and her experiences of appalling working conditions at the Blackstaff Linen Mill made her a lifelong supporter of working men and women. She soon learnt that the only way for a community to survive was to stick together and to help each other. She also quickly became an advocate for equal opportunities for women. May also soon realised that one important way to drive the peace process was through Integrated Education. She believed passionately that strife could be countered through people with different backgrounds and different faiths interacting with each other and living within the same school community from very early on. This deep belief led to her heavy involvement with Northern Ireland’s Integrated Education which has so far had considerable success and is still spreading. As will be seen from my observations below there is an emerging acceptance across Northern Ireland that Integrated Education is simply good education. Its beneficiaries are our young people who will soon be our leaders, shapers and makers.

Asked if she ever regretted not getting married, May Blood characteristically responded, “The two that got away, their miss was their mercy! I was always going to save the world and marriage would have become second to that. I have trouble living with me never mind somebody else trying to! I’m a bit of an oddball that way. I’ve never missed marriage because I have hundreds of children here in the Early Years centre, and nephews and nieces, great-nephews and nieces and great-great-nephews and nieces. There’s a whole family circle round me. I’m never in the house to be lonely”. A typical May Blood response: humorous, modest and honest. Just like her response when asked what protocol demanded that she, as a Baroness, should be addressed: “It’s just May.”

I went for a brief visit on Tuesday 6 November and stayed for a few days. I was looked after by Cliodhna Scott-Wills who was the Development Officer for Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE). Cliodhna briefed me thoroughly on the work carried out in Northern Ireland and took me to visit a total of eight schools and to meet a large number of professionals including senior leaders as well as many students.

This brief paper attempts to articulate what Northern Ireland is doing in the field of Integrated Education. It is simply a narrative of my experiences and observations over the visit that I made. It makes no pretence to be an academic piece of research and should not be judged as such. Unless otherwise attributed, any observations made or views expressed are entirely mine and do not reflect any official position.

What Is Integrated Education

There are as many different definitions of Integrated Education as there are practitioners in the field. Each person reflecting on their practice in the classroom would probably subscribe to the basic premise that his/her students’ cultural diversity is a positive point that could – and, indeed, should – be used to further their and others’ learning.

I have been working in, and on the periphery of, that much maligned practice called ‘multicultural education’ since the seventies (Mikdadi, 1983). After carrying out some research on multicultural education in the mid-eighties for a Local authority in East Anglia, and even when I ran a Multicultural Education Service in the South West in the late eighties and early nineties, I felt awfully uncomfortable with the rather patronising and marginal attitudes that we had to cultural diversity (Mikdadi, 1988). We focused our work on teaching English as an additional language, enhancing achievement for minority ethnic students and, most embarrassingly, putting on so-called multicultural days that were cringingly offensive not to mention racist; the sort of day during which we employed the three S’s – Sari, Somoza and Sitar and convinced ourselves that we had “done India” (Mikdadi, 1989). I well remember attending a Chinese New Year Day at a secondary school in Salisbury where, arriving attired in my suit and tie, I was horrified to find a huge number of primary pupils with shoelace drooping moustaches hanging either side of their toothy smiles, wearing garishly colourful curtain material and shuffling mincingly towards me to welcome me to their celebration of all things Chinese. It was pure theatre. The day started off rather badly when, challenged by a colleague for not appearing in Chinese garb, I angrily responded that I was impersonating a Chinese businessman in Wall Street!

Things went from bad to worse. The day was full of delicious Chinese food (if, that is, it was remotely Chinese), lots of “oooohs” and “aaaahs” over prettily lit lanterns and other such ridiculous artefacts, undrinkable concoctions claiming to be Chinese cures for every disease under the sun and much squeaky voiced chanting of the most excruciating kind. I vowed never ever to attend such offensive functions again.

The next morning, my PA came running in with the local Salisbury newspaper and held it under my nose.

“ ‘Satanic goings on at secondary school’ allege local Evangelists”, screamed the headline.

I determined there and then to mount a rigorous defence of the indefensible. I felt that the Chinese Day was ghastly, but the so-called Christian response was even more so because of its utter lack of any charitable or compassionate focus. I wrote unreadable articles defending multicultural education and I spoke to County Councillors whose enmity to our activities was only superseded by the rather narrow minded Local Authority Officers who appeared to have a terror of anything remotely unfamiliar.

It was to no avail. Fortunately, over the last quarter of a century, we have moved on significantly. Alternatively, we have not moved on at all. It is only that these days, it is not acceptable to say the kind of things that people said then – so we have become masters at sublimation and sheer hypocrisy.

It all started with the Macpherson Report which was a wakeup call to many obscurantist and, in many cases, downright racist, Local Authorities (Mikdadi, 2001 and Mikdadi, 2003). After that seminal publication there was a major paradigm shift in the way that Britain educated its children, at least on the surface because there was a strong recognition of the insidious and deleterious impact of racism, both conscious and unconscious, on the development of young persons.

Edward Said had written a great deal on racism, “And how ignorant and narrow minded, how chauvinistic and racist it is to define a person not by his/her ideas and values, but by his racial origins, religion, or culture.” (Said, 2000). This recognition that there was a need for a shift from such bad practice had already been articulated by official British Government Reports. In 2000, Lord Parekh had already argued that there was a need “to improve from ‘multicultural drift’ to a purposeful process of change.” Parekh was clearly beginning the process of shifting away from multicultural education as we had had it to date to the more practical business of working for and within cultural diversity.

Multicultural education had become fixated on “absolute equality” where none existed and on the show of difference in a way that tended to marginalise rather than integrate communities (Mckinstry, 2000). It tended to be idealistic and to focus on equalising outcomes rather than equalising opportunities – a patent nonsense and, though well intentioned, a social democratic construct that regards all persons as clones of each other! Indeed, Sir William Macpherson was accused of initiating the “rise of new McCarthyism” (Heffer, 2000).  Parekh went on to make many recommendations, many of which were ignored as is invariably the case with narrow minded and somewhat insular civil servants, Local Authorities and education practitioners. For example, there was a recommendation that OfSTED Inspection Reports should include a section on Race Equality and Cultural Diversity. Obviously, nothing of the sort happened which at the very least showed OfSTED’s lack of commitment. At best it showed OfSTED’s utter indifference on the comparatively little impact of the inspection system on issues of race and cultural diversity. OfSTED engaged in asking such inane questions as the ones relating to keeping a log of racist incidents, analysing examination results on ethnic lines and asking offensive questions about multicultural activities that misrepresented minority ethnic persons’ beliefs, way of life and culture by stereotyping it and turning it into a theme park representation rather than another valid historic culture. Rather like the Local Authorities, the new public monster, OfSTED, simply danced to the politicians’ tunes and remained bereft of any vision or any passion for real learning.

In a nutshell, The Swann Report, now, like many well intentioned Government Reports, utterly forgotten, suggested that “a more determined effort may need to be made to revise and restructure the actual systems in order for there to be any hope of the policies pursued offering true equality of opportunity.” (Swann, 1985). Swann saw equalising opportunity as partly coming through antiracist strategies which was only part of the problem causing underperformance by certain minority ethnic groups. Indeed, it could be argued that if racism is the main determinant factor in Afro Caribbean under performance, why then do many Asian students do so well despite facing substantial racism? Why do white working class boys do so badly when they face relatively little racism? Why do girls outperform boys more often than not when they face much sexist discrimination in our education system? There is no one answer to these issues. Determinant factors include a lot of other causes for underperformance in education, for the marginalisation of one or another group. Such factors include parenting, socioeconomic backgrounds, parent’s aspirations or lack of them, family’s educational background, imperatives of different faiths and many other such factors.

In a previous paper I defined integrated education as starting “with a common narrative, shared aspirations and an education that instils all that is needed to live together, with our differences enriching us towards becoming one in the distant future through mutual understanding and development” (Mikdadi, 2012).

This was as good as any definition for the purposes of my visit to Northern Ireland. Clearly, I had a lot to learn!

Bekerman has perhaps stated things more eloquently when he said:

Difference is a necessary condition for the construction of identity, but it is not necessary for it to be judgmental or domineering. If education for peace is what we are after, we must critically review our present concepts of identity which, under Western influence, point to differences only in order to create a dichotomy and domination. We must develop a new understanding and appreciation of difference as that which serves as an opportunity for an enriching dialogue and opens up the possibility of a dialogic relationship in which individualism and autonomy are not translated into isolation, but, rather, create an occasion to work collaboratively towards a better world (Bekerman, 2010).

This is a more practical definition than anything Parekh, Swann or I have come up with to date. It addresses the issue at its heart: our need to change the way that we think, judge, influence and, most importantly, perceive differences. Bekerman urges us to shift from a monologic to a dialogic response to each other. Only by doing that can we value each other as individuals and can we value difference as enriching.

The actor and director Kenneth Branagh, who is also a patron of NICIE, hits the nail on the head when he says that “educating children together in a shared institution, where they can see it is possible for teachers, staff and governors coming from both of the major traditions to work together in harmony, despite strongly held personal beliefs, must hold out some hope for the future.”

NICIE’s Statement of Principles for Integrated Education starts off with a Declaration of Ethos:

The integrated school provides a learning environment where children and young people from Catholic and Protestant backgrounds, as well as those of other faiths and none, can learn with, from and about each other. The promotion of equality and good relations extends to everyone in the school and to their families regardless of their religious, cultural or social background. Integrated education is value-driven and child centered. It is delivered through a holistic approach with an emphasis on developing every aspect of a child’s or young person’s potential.

Each school, upon agreeing to become an Integrated Education School / College, agrees to abide by Core Principles of Integrated Education which include equality, faith and values (Christian in nature unless the parents choose to withdraw their child(ren) from “any religious activities or classes”), parental involvement and social responsibility. Governors are requested to sign a Statement of Principles for Integrated Education Form expressing their commitment.

Teachers in Northern Ireland are trained and supported in order to enhance their understanding of Integrated Education. They are given a history of the Integrated Education movement in Northern Ireland since its inception in 1981 by the campaigning parent group ‘All Children Together’. Teachers met during my visit fully understood the Northern Irish context of Integrated Education and its importance in uniting what had been a divided educated system within a fractured society decimated by years of sectarian conflict.

NICIE is the main driving force behind much of what happens in Integrated Education and, through its history, it has had to deal with many misconceptions and eliminate a large number of myths established over time. As would be expected, their main challenge was initially some detractors who felt suspicious of the aims of Integrated Education just as we have – and often still do experience – resistance to cultural diversity driven education. Predictably, some schools embraced Integrated Education in name and each school’s response to their stated commitment differs from area to area. Research has shown that these schools are drawing more and more students from all backgrounds on the basis that theirs is good education rather than any politically motivated response to what many perceived initially as social engineering. Integrated Education institutions are largely highly successful and more parents are realising that and so choosing to send their children to such schools. Parental involvement is encouraged through Parents’ Councils and through many strategies for keeping in close touch with their children’s schools and taking an active part in their children’s education.

In its seminal work ABC: Promoting an Anti-Bias Approach to Education in Northern Ireland (NICIE, 2008) NICIE drives forward with a focused and active programme aimed at developing “inclusion, respect, sharing and openness” (NICIE, 2008). This is done through the formal, informal and hidden curricula. Opportunities for facilitating integrated learning processes permeate all aspects of the students’ lives and are presented at every opportunity and, where possible, in every subject. It is part of the day to day relationships within an Integrated Education school where students as well as adults interact on the basis of mutual respect, understanding and acceptance. At its most dramatic, this is seen in involving the students in understanding, adopting and implementing restorative justice strategies. In this case, students speak very highly of their involvement seeing restorative justice as being about “respect and fair treatment to resolve conflict within a safe environment” as one student described it. Another student spoke of the need to “treat each other equally” with another one adding that his involvement enabled him “to break down barriers and begin to treat each person as an individual” and not as “a representation of a community or a particular faith”.

In a lecture given in Seattle, the Israeli writer, Miko Peled rightly suggested an important shift away from the national narrative: “The truth lay in the personal story not in the national narrative” (Peled, 2012). Much of what I saw in Northern Ireland confirmed this thesis. Every person I met had a personal story to tell. The sum total of these personal stories are what make up the individual’s national narrative and not the other way around as had been the tendency until latterly where the national narrative dictated the values by which all citizens lived – which is a patent contradiction given that these citizens are culturally, ethnically, religiously and nationally diverse. Taken to its logical conclusion a true democracy can and should accommodate a multiplicity of personal narratives. In order to do that, there is a need for reconciliation, understanding, forgiveness for past deeds and a mutual respect based on personal values and not on accidents of birth. Professor Illan Pappe, the Israeli historian, has suggested that one way to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is to create a binational state and to apply “the three A’s: acknowledgement, acceptance and accountability”.

This is more or less what Northern Ireland has partly done through Integrated Education started over thirty years ago and, more recently, since the Good Friday Agreement of 1997. This was a courageous agreement that ended years of communal division and strife through recognising Northern Ireland cultural diversity, the right of each citizen to hold British or Irish nationalities (or both), the responsibility of both Britain and the Republic of Ireland for many aspects of Northern Ireland’s administration and governance and, of course, the clearly implied insistence on equity of citizenship for each individual.

And if we listen to Northern Ireland’s young people, this lofty aim has been partly, to some completely, achieved.

Students speak the language of acceptance, of acknowledgement and of accountability (which implies a forgiveness of past deeds by either side).

“Different nationalities and religions are personal issues. You get to know persons for what they are rather than because of their background,” says a very young student. Another adds, “I wish to talk to a person for who they are and not what they are…”. Invariably, this results in “a tension between school life and life in the community” as a girl explained pointing out that she was wearing a Poppy which she took off whenever she felt that it would offend. (In Britain a poppy is worn near the 11 November of each year to commemorate Armistice Day at eleven o’clock on the eleventh day of the eleventh month – such is the power of cabalistic numerals).

One child told me, “You people (the older generation) are obsessed with religion. We are not,” adding that she felt more comfortable “for what I am, within a courteous and informal relationship with everybody”. Many students talked of “getting used to being sensitive to each other whatever goes on in the community”. Indeed, during my visit, just down the road from the school, there were troubles when the police attempted to arrest suspects as part of their on-going investigation of the shooting of David Black, the Northern Ireland Prison Officer murdered in a motorway ambush. Asked about these events, an older student replied, “There is local unrest, I know. I walked past it earlier. You know, we are all individuals who see the person first before anything else. So these events do not affect us despite being at our doorstep…” and his friend added that she bitterly regretted both the shooting as well as the rioting that ensued when the police tried to carry out their duties of investigating an apparently sectarian murder.

How are these attitudes inculcated? More pertinently, are these students simply repeating accepted views that they have learnt rather than reflecting deeply held beliefs? No one can answer this question. Suffice it to say that they sounded utterly sincere in their views. Furthermore, it could be argued that, even if some of them are simply repeating a learnt mantra, such a process is in itself a first step towards making a change. From a psychological point of view, one way around anger is controlling it, which is an artificial process leading to one becoming eventually calm and taking charge of a situation through reflection, logical thought process and the implementation of learnt values.

The Visit

The strategies that each school uses vary. Equally varied is the success rate, not only of each strategy, but also of the same strategy in different schools. As most people working in education know, what works in one environment or against one background may not do so in another. We never know why this happens. All we know is that we, as practitioners, are constantly exchanging ideas about good practice and, when asked how it went, there are numerous occasions that each of us can think of when we, abashed, have to admit that the good practice described to us did not quite work when we tried it. Of course, good schools do not mind such an admission because in learning there is no such thing as failure: there is always a new learning opportunity. So, when a strategy does not work, we evaluate our practice, discuss our experience with trusted colleagues, get over the inevitable mortification of feeling that we have failed, dust ourselves down and try again… and again… and again – until the strategy, somewhat modified, actually works.

Integrated Education is rather like that. Like all worthwhile risk taking, it involves a strong sense of professional confidence and a strength of conviction that the outcome will be beneficial to our students.

In one school visited, students spoke highly of being involved in discussions with teachers. Three Protestant and three Catholic students are voted on a group previously made up of staff. The objective was to allow dialogue on issues that had an impact on education. For example, religious integrity was safeguarded for each group. When a problem arose, the group sought a proactive approach to resolving it. At the time of the visit in early November, there was an issue about representation on Remembrance Sunday. It was decided that the school would join in laying a wreath at the Cenotaph. It was felt that this would ensure that the Protestant identity is respected whilst Nationalists (mainly Catholics) are not made to feel insecure or marginalised. This would be rather like Israeli society accepting its Palestinian citizens’ right to observe ‘Land Day’ despite its apparent negative connotation perceived by Palestinians of Jews having stolen their land. It would also be rather like Palestinians either accepting Israel’s right to celebrate its War of Independence, or, indeed, for Palestinian Israelis to join in the celebrations. This clearly tells us that Northern Ireland is significantly ahead of Israel and Palestine at this stage. There is not always a readily available balance in these situations which resolve issues arising. However, it is always possible to compromise, engage in mutual discussions to create empathy, even in the most difficult circumstances and, at the very least, respect each other’s rights rather than regard them with suspicion. In one school, a student suggested that they were happy to exchange Celtic and Rangers football shirts when they would not dare do so at home or within their community.

It is at such moments that one has to ask the obvious question as to who is the child and who is the adult. These parents of the future will hopefully be happy to exchange such adversarial shirts as part of their improved social and political environment.

In a discussion with a Northern Irish parent, we calculated that students, over a life time of compulsory education, spend 15% of their time actually learning at school, 35% of their time eating, sleeping, toileting and generally putting up with their families and 50% of their time alone or with their friends. This did make us wonder if such a short time in education really did make a difference. Michael Gove would have a field day with such figures and the teachers’ unions would publish another piece of research indicating that teaching is a rather depressing profession! However, we must also bear in mind that the 50% of the time spent with friends and/or on their own, are very important in our children’s development. In other words if our students accept cultural diversity as the norm through their experiences at school, then it could be argued that a total of 65% of their time is spent within a healthy, mind forming and tolerant social context. It is always our hope that the other 35% in the home would be equally supportive although many teachers’ experiences are that, regrettably, the barrier to good education is often the home for all kinds of rather complex reasons to be left for sociologists and psychologists to enlighten us about.

Another school focuses quite strongly on the individual. Students speak highly of the way that they are treated as individual rather than as representatives of a particular community or a particular faith. As a result, in a world that is becoming increasingly confrontational on, amongst many others, sectarian lines, these students appear to have a priority on focusing on people’s personalities and their character rather than on anything else. Asked what they will miss about their school, the students agreed that there were two qualities / experiences that they will sorely miss: their teachers and the cultural diversity of their school community.

One of the schools that became part of the Integrated Education movement in Northern Ireland, reported starting off from the premise that it needed to “recruit public opinion” within a context of its community not fully understanding Integrated Education. Its larger community lived “in denial of the impact of segregation”. As matters developed parents began to understand more about the issues although, as would be expected, there was considerable confusion between Integration and cultural diversity. However, the artificial construct of shared education actually began to promote reconciliation and began to cause more complex issues to become part of the agenda, for example, “parity of esteem” began to shift a well intentioned but dividing concept of tolerance onto something of a higher order. This, in turn, began to have a benign effect on cultural and national unity through mutual respect and empathy.

This sounds like a dream story: too good to be true. However, Northern Ireland has gone a long way in its journey towards its Government and citizens beginning to “treat each others as individuals” and accepting cultural differences as enriching. Barriers are coming down and being slowly replaced by “respect”, “fair treatment” and non judgemental attitudes to each other as Northern Irish citizens with shared welfare and peaceful co-existence.

This is a journey and, like all journeys, the road can occasionally be rather bumpy. But then, as the singer has it, “Tryin’ to turn your life around ain’t no bed of roses; time won’t move no mountain, just the faith in the leap, my friend”.

And, so far, Integrated Education in Northern Ireland has been a leap of faith that has borne fruit and will continue to do so for generations to come.

Where to Next?

Teachers and students in Northern Ireland have a fairly uniform and clear understanding of what constitutes the basic elements of Integrated Education. The differences are in the implementation and the different levels of commitment in each person and / or each institution. What are the agreed basic elements that make up Integrated Education?

Integrated Education is best defined by a student I met during my visit: “The desire to get on with others as individuals and to get to know each for who they are and not what they are”. Almost all students and their teachers agreed that this attitude meant understanding each other as individuals, respecting differences and seeing any difference as enriching rather than being threatening. Given Northern Ireland’s recent history, students were keen to underline their opposition to what they saw as their parents’ and predecessors’ “obsession with religion”. They were adamant that they did not wish to judge each other on religious or ethnic bases. They wanted “courteous and happy relationships” in order that, as many saw it, they could become “better persons”. So, how did they do it?

Seeking to understand other faiths, cultures, nationalities and any different backgrounds.

Respecting each other’s’ views and working quite hard to accept difference as enriching. This happens through debates, discussions, membership of student councils, involvement in each other’s communal activities and celebrations, reading each other’s histories, reading literature from other cultures, studying history to elicit lessons from the mistakes already made and so try to avoid repeating them.

Asking each other about anything at all that they might find difficult to understand. Listening carefully to the response and trying hard to understand and, when this proves difficult, looking within themselves for the reason rather than assuming that the reasons for a negative response lie with the behaviour of the other rather than with one’s own personal prejudice and other barriers to understanding.

Publicly celebrating differences within a warm and open community and enjoying such celebrations instead of being critical of them because they appear “alien”.

Standing up to prejudice and challenging any form of bigotry that may prove hurtful to others. Accepting the validity of all anti-bias approaches to life through challenging all hurtful or damaging racism, sexism or any other form of prejudice.

Using restorative justice strategies to resolve conflict and tackle unacceptable behaviours.

Joining in activities, both within the curriculum and outside it, that promote coexistence and friendship based on what Martin Luther King Junior called, “the content of their character [and] not the colour of their skin” or any other similar attribute (King, 1963).

Joining in discussions and in decision making processes in such forums as student councils, Citizens’ Panels and other similar opportunities.

Experiencing opportunities through the curriculum that allow an understanding of other cultures, nationalities, faiths and such variety of human experiences. Such learning opportunities present themselves regularly and the opportunities to use them should be grasped.

Involving parents in opportunities “to contribute to the school, and help shape policy and practice” in order to make them “feel more involved in their child’s education” (NICIE, 2008). This process will also mean that parents “are more likely to be committed to supporting the school in all its ventures” – in other words the whole process of parental involvement is useful to both parents and to their children’s education (NICIE, 2008).

Everybody must gain an understanding of the equalising power of Integrated Education. It has its strongest impact on enhancing the achievement of every individual regardless of race, ethnicity, culture, religious background, ability or disability, gender, sexual orientation and all the other qualities that make the human family. It encourages open minds within generous hearts.

Conclusions

I am aware that what has been reported above seems to make Northern Irish Integrated Education practice appear absolutely perfect. Integrated Education in Northern Ireland certainly impressed me. However, I must give a clear context to this response. My own background of working in so-called multicultural education / cultural diversity in England has shown me a deplorably superficial and, often, utterly dishonest response to cultural diversity, full of good intentions but rather poor on any worthwhile outcomes. My other background as a Palestinian is of very little happening in Palestine that promotes any form of integrated education and with only very few schools in Israel genuinely taking on the challenge and successfully producing worthwhile results (Mikdadi, 2012).

Northern Ireland is ahead of all three nations: England, Israel and Palestine. The sixty or so schools working within a stated ethos of Integrated Education are at different points of their journey. At their best, many schools are highly successful in producing well rounded, open minded, questioning, aspirational, tolerant, compassionate, empathetic and deeply democratic citizens. Others do a great deal in terms of representing other cultures and traditions in a well meant but often rather limited way. And very few are at the beginning of the journey.

In looking at Northern Ireland, we must look at the majority of schools who have succeeded in producing the kind of students who say, in one way or another, what one student said to represent them all: “The fact that your parents support you by sending you to an Integrated Education school also helps and makes you a better person all in all. So, we ensure that we respect each individual and treat each other fairly and our restorative justice ensures that we are able to resolve conflicts within a safe environment”.

And it has largely worked because there is a common stand by all: students, teachers, school and college leaders, parents, local and national politicians and all those involved in children’s education. During the recent riots over the occasional, rather than permanent, flying of the Union Jack, several young persons interviewed on the news expressed horror at the events and disapproval of rioters’ behaviour saying that this was not the Northern Ireland that they knew and loved. What a change on previous generations of warring communities. A recent Survey has shown, amongst other things, that those surveyed show “a convergence of attitudes between Catholic and Protestant respondents” (Devine and Schubolz, 2012). In particular, research shows that Integrated Education has been successful in integrating communities members as is seen both from young persons responding to the Survey and in the numbers of those wishing to attend Integrated Education schools exceeding the number of places available (Devine and Schubolz, 2012).

Integrated Education is a matter of the heart, first and foremost. The mind simply follows on.

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Dr  Faysal Mikdadi is Head of Education at Facilitate Global and can be contacted at  faysal.mikdadi@facilitateglobal.org

 

 

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