Blog by Robert Magee, Chair, Belfast Integrated Education Alumni Association

I’m 23 and for most of my childhood I was raised in Belvoir, a predominantly Protestant/Loyalist estate in South Belfast. Growing up in this environment, I experienced all aspects of Loyalist culture such as the 11th night bonfires and the Twelfth Day. As a child, I enjoyed the spectacle of these events – loud music, flaming towers of palettes and tyres – but failed to understand their significance and connotations.

I had a typical, working class childhood of a young boy, causing mischief and giving my mother more stress than need be but one fundamental thing was missing – cross community interaction and understanding. With this absence of contact with ‘the other side’ coupled with the influence of peers, the ‘us and them’ mentality and irrational fear began to seep into my psyche. Despite this, I was fortunate to have the loving support and progressiveness of my parents who encouraged me to follow in my older sister’s footsteps and choose Lagan College as my preferred choice for secondary school. Of around 40 pupils in my P7 year, only 3 others joined me in going to Lagan College with the majority of the rest deciding to attend the local state school.

Upon stepping foot in Lagan College, I knew immediately that it was different. I remember my struggles trying to grasp fellow classmates names such as Eimear, Dervla, Siofra – names completely alien to me! For the first time in my life, I was speaking to and learning with other young people from a variety of different backgrounds and areas of Belfast I didn’t know existed. Ill-informed misconceptions quickly dissipated, unwarranted fear subsided and my mind was completely opened. From learning the Irish language, to woefully taking part in Gaelic for PE – I was experiencing a world that was previously unknown to me.

Attending Lagan College, with its progressive ethos, gave me a sense of enablement and drive that has positively benefited my life in all aspects – socially, academically and professionally. However, I didn’t fully appreciate the importance of my education at Lagan until I left and started at university. When I was in school, I assumed most students in Northern Ireland were having the same educational experience as me. In November, the Alumni Group conducted a successful ‘Back to School’ initiative, attending numerous integrated schools across the province and this assumption was shared with a lot of pupils.  But I soon realised that to many of my university peers, I was the first ‘Protestant’/Unionist that they had ever spoken to at length. The fact that some of our young people’s first interaction with the ‘other side’ is 18 years into their lives, in 2016, is a disgrace.

Eighteen years on from the Good Friday Agreement, our schooling system remains plagued by institutional apartheid. A small minority of our children attend integrated schools despite consistent polls promoting a majority support for the sector. Schools such as Lagan College are increasingly oversubscribed with many young people having to attend either state or Catholic maintained schools simply because there are not enough available places. Hundreds of young people are missing out on this unique experience on a daily basis which is simply ridiculous and a shame. A more concerted effort is needed from the Northern Ireland Executive to promote the development of integrated education instead of attempting to brush the issue under the carpet with the severely flawed and misleading shared education initiative. Integrated education isn’t just about teaching our young people together. It is a unique environment that promotes tolerance and understanding of all cultures and backgrounds – characteristics that are fundamental to creating a harmonious and prosperous community in Northern Ireland.

Maintaining the current segregated schooling system benefits no one – we need to act now so that we don’t lose another generation of children growing up with destructive misconceptions. Integrated education provides a foundation of peace and reconciliation that is unrivalled. Until we can educate our children together, regardless of race or religion, the problems of the past will continue to plague us.