Integrated education still faces challenges, 25 years after Good Friday Agreement

Hugh Odling Smee attended Lagan College, Northern Ireland’s first integrated school, in the 1980s. Photo by Stephen Davison, Pacemaker Press

Hugh Odling Smee attended Lagan College, Northern Ireland’s first integrated school, in the 1980s. Photo by Stephen Davison, Pacemaker Press

HUGH Odling-Smee still remembers the special assembly held at his integrated school following the IRA’s Enniskillen Bombing in 1987.

The day after 11 people were killed in the attack on a Remembrance Sunday gathering in the Co Fermanagh town, teenage pupils and staff at Lagan College in Belfast gathered to discuss the atrocity.

“There was a sense that it was met head on. A challenge like that, an atrocity like that happening, was really difficult,” Mr Odling-Smee told The Detail.

“Because we had people who were republicans in the school, people who were nationalists, unionists, loyalists, and none as well, people like me.

“And so how do we talk about that? How do we try to process what has happened?

“And I think that that always hammered home to me both the challenge of integrated education in a society like this, but also the opportunities as well.”

An arts manager, he attended Lagan College, the north’s first integrated school, in the 1980s.

At the time, only a small fraction of pupils in Northern Ireland went to integrated schools, where Catholic and Protestant pupils are taught together.

Mr Odling-Smee’s daughter Martha (12), has spent her entire education at integrated schools - first at Lough View Integrated Primary in Belfast and now at Lagan College.

Twenty-five years ago, just 56% of people said they would prefer to send their children to mixed-religion schools.

According to the latest Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, which aims to trace demographic changes - that figure has now risen to 69%.

But despite public opinion, the number of students attending integrated schools has risen slowly - from 2.4% in 1998, the year the Good Friday Agreement was signed, to just 8% this year.

The Agreement pledged "to facilitate and encourage integrated education" as an essential part of creating "a culture of tolerance at every level of society".

But most of the north’s schools remain split into two categories - Maintained which have links to the Catholic Church and mainly cater to Catholic pupils, and Controlled which are state-run and mainly cater to Protestant pupils.

Thousands of pupils also attend selective Grammar schools, which are generally divided on religious grounds.

Canadian-born Meg Hoyt said she and her husband considered integrated education but sent their four children to the nearest state-run school - Cavehill Primary in north Belfast.

“That trumped that desire to have them go to an integrated school, we really wanted them to be able to walk (to school),” she said.

She said since the school is already “demographically integrated”, a group of parents wanted it to become an integrated institution.

“It became quite a fraught conversation, to be honest,” she said.

“There seem to be a lot of myths around integrated schools.

“There was concern that Protestant children would be refused entry, and that other groups were given priority.

“Covid happened and then all of the conversations kind of stopped. We didn't get the chance to work through all of the feelings that had come to the surface.”

However, she said discussions about possible integration have “shifted some things”.

“For the first time in my memory, they celebrated St Patrick's Day,” she said.

She said there have also been some discussions around the wearing of Remembrance Day poppies at school.

“We have to make sure that teachers are saying: ‘People wear poppies and people don't wear poppies, and that's fine’,” she said.

“The school has made moves in that direction, without becoming an integrated school.”

Meg Hoyt with her children Penny (12), Aisling (10), Finn (14) and Isabel (16) doing their homework. Photo by Stephen Davison, Pacemaker Press

Meg Hoyt with her children Penny (12), Aisling (10), Finn (14) and Isabel (16) doing their homework. Photo by Stephen Davison, Pacemaker Press


In 1998, there were 33 integrated schools, compared to 68 today.

While integrated schools are oversubscribed, dozens of segregated schools across Northern Ireland have too few pupils and are at risk of closure.

Several schools, including state-run Gillygooley Primary School in Omagh, Co Tyrone, Straid Primary School in Ballyclare, Co Antrim, and St Anne’s Primary School in Donaghadee, Co Down, are attempting to become integrated to avoid being shut down.

State-run Bangor Academy, one of the north’s biggest schools with 1,835 pupils, will ballot parents in June about whether the school should become integrated, saying the move would be "an affirmation of our current ethos and values".

Only one Catholic Maintained school has become integrated - Seaview Primary School in Glenarm, Co Antrim.

Former teacher Yvonne Day (54), from Belfast, was educated at a selective grammar school in Belfast.

As one of just two Catholics at the school, she found the experience difficult and wanted a different option for her own children - all four of whom have attended Lagan College.

“Certainly when I was growing up, it would be ‘Where are you from? What school did you go to?’ So you're suddenly in that question, you're labelling somebody,” she said.

“I'm really hoping that, my kids, that by going to integrated education, that question becomes irrelevant.”

She said some parents are not able to send their children to integrated schools because they are over-subscribed.

“I suppose when people have tried their best to go integrated, and then are forced to send their children to non integrated secondary level education, that's upsetting for people, they're going against their principles,” she said.

For decades, integrated education has been seen as mainly an option for middle-class families.

However, ten of the 50 most deprived secondary schools, including in Belfast, Derry and Craigavon, are integrated.

School deprivation is measured by the number of pupils who are entitled to free school meals.

On average 30.5% of pupils at integrated schools are in receipt of free school meals, compared to 27% of pupils at segregated schools.


Under the Fresh Start Agreement, which aimed to secure the full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement, £500 million of UK Government funding was announced for shared and integrated education in March 2016.

By the end of March 2022 - six years later - only around 10% of this funding had been spent (£51.3m).

When asked about the low spend, a spokesman for the Department of Education said: “Spend to date is as expected and the Department envisages that all funding will be utilised.”

Gráinne Clarke, from the Integrated Education Fund (IEF), a charity set up in 1992 to support the growth of the sector in Northern Ireland, said “in many ways parents and society are much further ahead than our politicians”.

“What is indisputable here is the demand for integrated education, and we need our political institutions to play catch up to that demand and to take the opportunities that are there,” she said.

She said the Department of Education must plan for new integrated schools and “proactively address the segregation that still exists in our education system”.

A small number of state or Catholic run schools have a mix of Catholic and Protestant pupils similar to that in integrated schools - with 18 such schools having at least 25% enrolment from both Catholic and Protestant students.

But Ms Clarke said integrated education “requires something so much more”.

“Integrated education is by design, it is proactive planning and celebration of the cultural differences in diversity that exists in our society,” she said.

“And 25 years on from the Good Friday agreement it is a key way to help address some of the division and segregation that still persists in our society.”

The rise of ‘Other’

Schools are also facing huge demographic changes.

Census figures show that the percentage of people identifying as Other - neither Catholic, nor Protestant - jumped from around 3% in 2001 to 21% in 2021.

In 1998, 51% of pupils were Catholic, 42% Protestant, and 6.5% Other.

Today, the percentage of Catholic pupils (50%) has remained roughly the same, but Protestants now only account for 30% while those identifying as Other have risen to 19%.

Professor Tony Gallagher, an education expert at Queen’s University Belfast, said that the increase in the ‘Other’ category was significant.

According to the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education, which promotes the development of integrated education, integrated schools should aspire to an annual intake of at least 40% of Catholic pupils and the same for Protestant pupils.

Only one integrated school - New-Bridge Integrated College in Banbridge, Co Down - meets those guidelines.

Just over a third of integrated schools - 26 - have either less than 20% of Catholic or Protestant pupils.

Professor Gallager said the figures raise important questions.

“One of the challenges to Catholic or Controlled schools is that even if you're committed to doing community relations work, it's very difficult to do if you don't have the other voice in the room,” he said.

“The same thing applies to an integrated school. Because if you have a group that's a small minority in an institution, then the minority might be less prepared to engage openly.”

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