In this article former pupil of Erne Integrated College, Nathan Elout-Armstrong, outlines the benefits of his Integrated Education. This article first appeared in the Impartial Reporter in November 2021.
If it seems surreal to think we’re marking the 40th anniversary of Integrated Education in Northern Ireland, that’s probably because my lived experience of it was so seamless that to me, it might have been going for centuries. As a wheelchair user born in Blackpool, I wasn’t your typical enrolee. I’d come from a comprehensive secondary school in England where bullying was standard, teaching was patchy and Ofsted were absent. So when I became a student at Erne Integrated College in 2005, nervous wouldn’t begin the cut the mustard.
Imagine my surprise when I began to make friends, be included in school trips, and even take part in critically acclaimed productions. To me, it felt like more than a school – it was a home from home. I’d heard clever slogans before, but actions speak louder than words; and it didn’t take me long to figure out that this was a place where everyone really was valued equally.
I said something similar once when I was chosen to represent EIC to mark Integration Week at the Stormont Parliament Buildings in 2007. My delivery needed work, but I still stand (sit?) by the message. Living with a disability only reaffirms that our accomplishments wouldn’t have been remotely possible without the help of passionate people who recognise potential and want to lift others up. That’s the atmosphere I was growing up through at EIC. Now, when I’m tutoring someone or helping them to overcome an obstacle of their own, I think back to those formative days that gave me the confidence to speak publicly, or perform in front of a camera, and I’m grateful beyond the scope of this article to express it.
Looking back, it astounds me how I might have had a very different experience. It could have been easy to lapse into anxiety about simmering sectarian tensions in another place. It would be churlish of me to pretend some element of that didn’t exist, but I was new to Northern Ireland and more importantly, I was newly happy. That might sound dramatic, but in England going to school meant waking up with nausea and having to confront people who thought it was funny to line corridors with tin cans so the rubber of my hollow tyres would split.
In just under four school years, EIC helped me feel human again. Not that any amount of miracle work was ever going to give me an aptitude for Maths or Physics – but the combination of enthusiasm, compassion and approachability from students and staff alike really reminded me what lived experience feels like. Sure, I left for University and went from academic strength to strength, but that’s not what I’m proudest about. Integrated education taught me things that antiseptic assessment objectives never could. When it comes down to it, people make all the difference. Regardless of background, income, race, gender, politics or identity – with enough enthusiasm, open-mindedness and a little bit of madness, today’s obstacle can become tomorrow’s biggest accomplishment.
By Nathan Elout-Armstrong
An acclaimed performance poet, Nathan has been published in various UK journals, and has been shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing. He won the Aspects Festival Slam in Bangor, and more recently was an All-Ulster Poetry Slam finalist.
He tutors and proofs in English, and is a passionate advocate for people with disabilities and the socioeconomically marginalised. He enjoys satire, pastry and Eurovision, and is secretly an apocaloptimist.