The history of integrated education is rooted in ordinary people taking a stand.
From the parents who began All Children Together (ACT)-that lead to the creation of Lagan College in 1981- to those who continued over the last 35 years to set up integrated schools across the country. To the principals and teachers who took the offer of a job before there was even a functioning building in pace or a full class. To NICIE and the IEF who supported them and continue today. Integrated Education is about ordinary citizens deciding that they wanted something different for their children.
Since I’ve moved to England, when I’ve mentioned integrated education I’ve often (non-surprisingly) had to explain what it is. It’s made me think more deeply about why it’s so important and why I have a passion for it. There’s the obvious reasons:
I’ve gotten so much from an integrated education
It’s vital in a post-conflict society to educate children together in order to move towards peace and reconciliation
I’m surround within the AlumNI group by so many amazing people who all share the same passion and drive to see it grow and thrive
But it goes further than that. Before I moved I worked for six months with the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE) on their Big Small Stories project-celebrating the 35 year history of integrated education in Northern Ireland. While there I saw and archived not only the history-but the years of hard work and dedication put in by so many people who wanted something different for their children’s education.
I saw the work that went into countless application and proposals, heard the stories of parents meeting themselves for months beforehand and felt the passion and relentless courage they had to push forward. I witnessed the memories and celebrations of success and felt the frustrations of rejections. I listened while they spoke of using the one room they had as a PE hall, an art room and for general studies. Of spending twenty years teaching in portacabins while waiting to be granted a purpose built school. Of politicians paying lip service and delivering empty promises. But also of the joy and sheer brilliance of seeing their dream become a reality.
We talk a lot in life about heroes. We talk about them in many contexts. My personal favourite type of heroes are the unsung ones. Those who selflessly work to to provide for others. Those who take risks for what is right regardless of the consequences.
Integrated Education is full of these quiet heroes who dedicate their lives to peace and a better future. They did it while facing scepticism and protest. When the status quo was to divide-they worked to unite.
Take a minute and imagine what it must have been like 1980’s Northern Ireland. The troubles were at their height. Violence and division was everywhere. Yet somehow-these people had the courage and forward thinking to defy it.
The first students at Lagan College had to enter via an entrance at the back to avoid the media and protesters outside. Take a moment and let that sink in. Protesters. Of children being educated together. They faced this backlash head on and now? Lagan College is one of the most oversubscribed schools in Northern Ireland.
I could go on and on about this. I could write a full book about my admiration for them all. They are the unsung heroes of Northern Ireland and deserve to be championed at every opportunity.
Which brings me back to why it’s so crucial we continue to fight for integrated education now. It’s because of the grit and determination of those before that I and many others have been able to receive the education we did. We owe them more than we can repay-but making sure their vision and determination is continually championed seems like a good start.
Margaret Mead once said:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has”
That alone encompasses for me those behind the integrated education movement.
Now it’s our turn to keep it going.