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Blowback – the strange fate of integrated education

John McAnulty

16 September 2008

(A modified form of this article appeared in the teaching union magazine Printout in August)

Blowback is a term invented by the CIA to signify the unintended consequences of actions. The classic example was the arming of Muslim radicals to attack the USSR, only to find the same radicals attacking the USA.

A similar fate seems to have overcome the integrated education movement in the North.  Although promised government support in the Good Friday Agreement, it seems to be falling on hard times in a sharpening polarisation of education.

This can be seen in a small scale in Antrim town.  The local integrated education movement have been petitioning for a school, but it looks as if they have been pipped at the post by the local state school who have applied for integrated status.

At first sight this seems like good news – competition amongst groups to gain integrated status.  Unfortunately this is not so.  Education in the North is so sectarian that there are two kinds of integrated schools – ‘integrated’ integrated schools and ‘Protestant’ integrated schools.  Type two are state schools where falling numbers force a change of status, with corresponding limits on the integrated ethos they are likely to promote.

We are still brushing the edges of sectarianism.  The pragmatists at Park secondary school ran into the local DUP, who took the view that suicide was preferable to polluting the school with Catholic children.  There were four votes on the issue: NO, YES (turnout too low), NO and YES (turnout just high enough to pass, but the fights not over).

The DUP campaign is worthy of note, with claims that children in the new school would all have to learn Irish and would be coerced into playing Gaelic games. Even more chilling was the underlying assumption that the state education system is for Protestants only and that the bigots should have a say in staffing and curriculum. 

But a least the more liberal nationalist community is above all this surely?  No.  There is no third kind of education – the Catholic integrated school. This is because there are no circumstances in which the Catholic hierarchy will relinquish any control over schools.  The reason that they don’t figure in the local debate is because there is no Catholic school in Antrim.  The church left when falling rolls meant that the only offer was a ‘split site’ school a la Scotland shared with a state school.  This minute inching away from absolute control was too much.

Authors note: I could not resist the blowback metaphor, even though it is very strained. It suggests that sectarianism is an unintended outcome of the current deal in the North, when in fact the opposite is the case.



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