Promoting communal interactions: Integrated alumni launch network
by Sophie AUMAILLEY for Northern Ireland Foundation
1 September 2016
The Integrated Education Alumni Association (IEAA) organised on Thursday evening an end-of-summer social, to promote their work and to share experiences about integrated schools.
Three years ago, the IEAA was established in London to support the development of integrated education in Northern Ireland.
I first met two students who had not been to integrated schools. They went to very conservative, segregated schools.
Do they think they missed something?
They certainly feel strange about meeting people from the other communities only when they arrived at university.
On the contrary, past pupils from integrated schools shared with me their beliefs for integrated education. They seem to feel lucky and a bit different.
Obviously, these descriptions are stereotyped advertisements for integrated education in Northern Ireland.
Reality is always more complex.
Some past pupils from segregated schools noted some positive points, such as a means of communal protection. Others highlighted that academic results are not, in their opinion, associated with integrated education, and should be prioritised.
There is still a long way towards a totally integrated education system in Northern Ireland.
The problem with the current framework could be that the Good Friday Agreement tried to take into account children in the conflict resolution, but did not present a long-term strategy for their education. The growth of integrated education remains low, and is principally based on the voluntary actions of parents.
Yet studies show that integrated schools could provide necessary interactions to build stronger intergroup relationships.
Promoting such benefits is why past pupils from integrated schools decided to form the network of the IEAA.
As Ronan McCay, Campaign Fundraiser of the Integrated Education Fund, said: “Who better than past pupils from integrated schools to advocate for this educational system?”
Therefore, by forming a network of believers, they are creating a bottom-up approach to integrated education. They can speak about success stories, about opportunities and possibilities, but also about failures and the needs for further development.
As one student summed up at the event, he feels lucky to have friends from the other community, to be able to travel around different one-community neighbourhoods, and to have gained an open mind through integrated education. But he also admits there is still a lot of work to be done, with continuing intimidation of people coming into the “wrong” neighbourhood and fear about the out-group.
The IEAA’s event showed great success of inter-group friendships and networking through integrated schools, but was also realistic about the needs for further development.
Education can be seen as the first step towards tolerance and critical thinking. Segregation obviously recreates division in society. With different educational systems, different childhood experiences, or even different history lessons, segregated education can entrench difference. The IEAA works towards a more open society, and fights against protracted fear towards the out-group. It is a long-term strategy: starting with children that will grow up in a better and shared society.