by Sarah Sinese
A red arching gate with two iron fixtures of children holding hands stands as the entrance to one of the two integrated primary schools in Derry, Northern Ireland. The symbolism of this welcoming illustrates the unique shared interactions these students experience. As I enter the sliding glass doors, I am surprised to find the principal sitting alongside secretaries at the front desk instead of stowed away in her office. Principal Anne Murray makes it clear how important it is for her to make connections with the students and staff on a daily basis.
When speaking with fellow advocates for peace within the city, there seems to be a consensus that the youth are the main actors towards a peaceful future. Anne shares this view and continually expressed her faith in the upcoming generations, but was also quick to state the reality of the current situation. The context remains where youth live and go to school separately.
This division directly stems from the history of the area. Although Anne recalls the horror in the streets during The Troubles, it was during this period that she truly found her calling. The year of 1973, in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, Anne was working at Greenhaw Controlled Primary School in Derry which held an innovative, visionary principle of integration for its time. It wasn’t until 1981 that Lagan College in Belfast was established as the first official integrated school formed by the All Children Together Alliance. Anne saw the benefits of this establishment and wanted the same for Derry so with a small, informal group of educators holding the same vision, Oak Grove Primary School was opened in 1991 in Derry. It was not a popular decision locally, but Anne knew in her heart it was the right move. She has always thought of bringing students together to learn as simply common sense. What started out as a student body of 68 quickly doubled to 140 by the close of the first year. They now serve 450 students. This exponential growth may seem indicative of a sharp turn towards integrated education, yet currently only 6% of the entire school age population in Derry are experiencing this type of learning. This is largely due to the fact that outside pressure is still placed on families by churches to attend a school representative of their religion.
Geographic location plays a large role in the functioning of integrated schools and the diversity of the student body. Ideally, integrated schools aim for at least 40% from each religious background. If there is less than this percentage, people start to act like a minority. It is important to strike this balance so one group does not become afraid or silenced. At Oak Grove Primary, the mix is approximately 47% Catholic and 35% Protestant with the remaining 18% a combination thereof or who claim no religion. The reason the Protestant population is lower is because in Derry, only 18% of the school going population is Protestant. In the North, the Catholic majority still has a hold on schools, whereas in the South things have changed. When the Catholic Church took a battering, their embedded power in the government fell as well as their heavy influence on education. As a result, a large number of integrated schools have recently opened in the South.
“If we give the children skills to share life together, then I believe they are going to be the ones to move things forward”
The job of educators at integrated schools is increasingly difficult due to the deep-rooted history and biases presented by the people who live in segregated communities. The media also play a vital storytelling role for youth, emphasizing the differing political parties as they hear who their parents are supporting. This categorization automatically separates who is good and who is bad in the child’s mind. Political parties need reminding of their duty to encourage and facilitate integrated learning. Integrated schools have to ensure they are performing at their highest standards in order to best demonstrate the benefits of integrated education, especially when one of their combatants is the division of secondary and grammar schools. When students reach age 11, they take an academic test which ultimately determines whether or not they are gifted. If they pass, many parents will choose the grammar school over continuing down the path of integration due to the appeal of status. Those who stay the course adhere to the mission of integrated schools: “Celebrate Diversity, Learning Together for Life.” Anne explained both parts of this statement by detailing the process of integration. Students don’t simply come together and immediately get along. You have to start where the children are at. The first step upon admission to an integrated school is to address the differing backgrounds of students due to lack of knowledge of the other as well as promoting understanding of what integration truly means. Instead of ignoring differences, holidays and celebrations of both groups are acknowledged and honored. In order to provide educators with strategies for integration, the PDMU (Personal Development and Mutual Understanding) curriculum was established to assist students with the development of language to express their feelings and emotions, treat others with respect, and use statistical data to inform them about issues within their community. Oak Grove even has a program where they train the older children to become playground mediators who help facilitate conflicts with other students.
It is clear that integrated schools are making a large contribution to the peacebuilding process in Northern Ireland by focusing more on the future. Anne and her staff believe in the process, even when faced with challenges and instead see these obstacles as opportunities for learning. She envisions a time where a tipping point occurs and the youth will demand more. However, school is only part of the wider world children inhabit. Without all stakeholders present including parents, teachers, staff, and the community, efforts are compromised. Ultimately, it is a conscious choice on behalf of the parents to decide what they want for their children. You can either hang onto the past, asking yourself if you are prepared for your children’s lives to be wrecked or you can look to ways life can be lived in a more peaceful way.
To read more about the PDMU Curriculum:
To visit the Oak Grove Primary website: