To Erne Integrated College this morning for Prize Day. I’ve very recently been appointed as a parent-governor of the school and I’m delighted to join the dedicated people in the board. It’s a tough time for integrated education, with the political and religious establishments doing their utmost to discredit and downgrade it. Just this week we have seen assaults from both ‘sides’; the misuse of the petition of concern procedure from the DUP to keep integrated representation off the new Education Authority and a proposal from CCMS (the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools) that the duty to encourage integrated education, enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement, be removed from the Executive.
It’s very sad. The truth is that integrated education is hugely popular with parents, students and communities across Northern Ireland. The principal reason why only seven per cent of our young people are educated together is a simple lack of availability. In many regions there is no integrated school nearby; in others they are over-subscribed. Attempts to set up new integrated schools or to help existing schools to become integrated are obstructed, notably from the very top.
Why this hostility from the power-sharing political establishment? It’s hard to avoid the reflection that the main parties in Northern Ireland depend for their continued existence upon tribalism; the maintenance of an entrenched identity defined by fear of and ambivalence towards the other. Educating children separately is one of the very best ways of keeping this status quo. Every day, the route that a child or young person takes, the buildings they enter, the exercise books they write in, the people they sit next to, the very clothes they wear, tell them that they are this and not that. Yes, the worst of the hostility has gone, at least in nice middle-class areas, a few out–of-school friendships are made and shared education initiatives allow them to visit one another or attend a few classes in other schools. But the fundamental division is made, and underlined daily for twelve or fourteen years. Is it any wonder that, at the end of that process, so many vote according to the badge on their old school blazer, rather than their own best interests?
Meanwhile I’ve had a lovely day celebrating twenty years of the Erne Integrated College, and the achievements of present and past students. The aspect of the school that we, as parents, have most appreciated has been the way that each child’s individuality has been recognised and nurtured. In an all-ability school, not all will be academic high-flyers, though some notably are, but each has her or his own talents, enthusiasms and engaging idiosyncrasies. It has been EIC’s vision and practice to identify these and celebrate them, producing a rounded community of thoughtful, generous and confident young adults. Two of these former students were the special guests today, in refreshing place of the usual pompous dignitaries.
Lynn McFrederick of the women’s Northern Ireland football and Fermanagh GAA teams spoke in the morning to the older students, while Anthony Breen, cameraman on Game of Thrones and the forthcoming films Robot Overlords and Miss Julie (shot at Castle Coole here in Fermanagh) talked to the younger ones in the afternoon. The growing success of Northern Ireland in film and TV (the Blandings series was also filmed in Fermanagh) is a great fit with the strengths of both the Green Party and the integrated education movement: the valuing of creativity, technical innovation, the integrity of our landscape and a positive future for our young people. “Filming not Fracking” might sum it up: a sentiment that Anthony himself passionately echoes, as I discovered while talking to him before this afternoon’s session.
Afterwards I met a fellow frack-free campaigner, who’d heard my news.
“I suppose I’d better vote for you, then.”
“That would be nice, if you could.”
“I haven’t voted for twenty years.”
It’s true. Politics in Northern Ireland has become so polarised and so petty that there is a vast constituency out there of people for whom it has nothing whatsoever to say or to offer. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t care about their society, their environment and their children’s future. On the contrary, they care too much to entrust them to the hacking and haggling of the Executive parties. Many readers of greenlassie will be among this group – I hope to speak for you.
The Erne Integrated College Chamber Choir welcoming us this morning. The choir will be performing at the forthcoming Integrated Education conference at Stranmillis. The white flashes are not light sabres, but the reflective strips integral to the new school blazers.