Belfast, the film, has just won Kenneth Branagh the Oscar for best original screenplay. It’s a cracking movie, if you haven’t seen it yet, and it comes recommended. But, in order not to dissuade anyone from going to see it, the film takes a few historical liberties. Those of us who lived in Belfast when the film takes place might raise an eyebrow or two at the sight of vigilantes with burning torches as they patrol their neighborhoods. It looks dramatic in the movie, but an EverReady battery-powered torch would have been a lot less dangerous than a flaming stake, just a bit more convenient and a lot easier to use. A convenience store with an Asian owner? Not in Belfast at the time. And a Working Men’s Club with a microphone that wouldn’t have seemed out of place on Sunday night at the London Palladium? Just a little far fetched. But we can live with these – it’s a movie after all, not a historical documentary. However… There is a scenario that pushes disbelief beyond its limits. We are asked to believe that in Tiger’s Bay in the early 1970s, a Protestant boy could attend the same elementary school as a Catholic girl. Now that is going too far. Moviegoers in Britain, the US or elsewhere in the world may accept that such a thing is possible and even reasonable, but, knowing Northern Ireland, we are bound to be much more skeptical.
The reason for our skepticism may be because Belfast in the 1970s was much the same as Belfast in 1921. In general, Protestant children and Catholic children did not attend the same schools, and, in the Belfast of 2022 , they still don’t.
Primary schools in Belfast in 2022 are mostly Catholic maintained or controlled. Maintained Schools are supported by the Catholic Council of Maintained Schools – a sector which is run by and for the Catholic community, although the schools are open to all. One maintained primary school in Belfast happens to be remarkably mixed: 34% of its enrollment is Protestant, 53% Catholic and 13% other (other Christians, non-Christians, no religion and strangers). However, this is highly unusual – for most of Belfast’s maintained primary schools, the proportion of Protestant pupils is low, and on average 85.4% of enrollment in these schools are Catholic. Nine (out of 29) have no Protestant pupils. There are 109 Protestant pupils out of a total school population of over 12,000 children in this area of Belfast.
It’s much the same with controlled primaries. This sector also claims to be open to all, but it tends to serve the Protestant community. If we disregard the Irish Medium primary, which is found incongruously in this category, there are 34 Controlled primaries. An unusual controlled primary school has a Catholic intake of 31% and a Protestant intake of only 14%. However, the average is that the controlled primary schools have only 6.2% Catholic pupils – and five have no Catholic pupils at all. Out of a total school population in this sector of 10,800 students, there are only 683 Catholic students.
An exception to this division is for integrated primary schools. There are 5 integrated primary schools in Belfast, which overall have a fairly balanced enrollment of 27% Protestant, 35% Catholic and 38% other. Only one of these schools has less than 20% for a community, and even then the gap between Protestant and Catholic is not wide (35% Protestant, 15% Catholic – there are 50% other).
The growth of integrated education has slowed in recent years, although there seems to have been a flurry of development lately. Significant is the first maintained school to successfully transition to integrated status in 2021 – a primary school in the Glens of Antrim. There is evidence to suggest that this encourages other maintained schools to consider following the same path. However, perhaps the development that could lead to the biggest change will be the passing of the Inclusive Education Bill in 2022.
As we know, a petition of concern was threatened by the DUP, who would have blocked the bill and stopped it in its tracks if it had enough support. The UUP would not agree to use such a tactic in this way, arguing that it was an abuse of the power they had helped establish under the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement in 1998. As a result, the Integrated Education Bill passed the Assembly in early March 2022 with 49 members voting in favor, 38 against and one abstention.
This bill obliges the Ministry of Education to increase the number of places in integrated schools and to set targets for the number of children enrolled in each school. The Department will need to develop action plans and targets to achieve this. Some areas of Northern Ireland are very underserved by integrated education, with more than a fifth of the population living too far from an integrated primary school, for example, to give a realistic prospect of attending one. As the Inclusive Education Bill commits the Ministry of Education to actively “support” inclusive education, reinforcing the current requirement to “encourage and facilitate”, this should lead to greater impetus on their part for the development of these types of schools. In addition, educational planning bodies must now “consider inclusive education when planning the establishment of a new school”. As additional resources are quantified, this could result in “the creation of new integrated schools, the expansion of existing integrated schools and the transformation of existing schools into integrated schools”.
There is some uncertainty over whether a functioning assembly will be established after the election, with some parties suggesting they will not take their seats unless the Northern Ireland protocol is scrapped, and a further dispute over whether a party that is used to holding the premier post of minister will be prepared to accept a role of deputy premier, should the numbers play out that way. Much is uncertain. And, even if a functioning government returns to Stormont in May 2022, there is even less certainty as to who could be the Minister for Education and from which party. This nomination is likely to influence whether the implementation of this bill is pursued with enthusiasm, or left to drag on with more than a little apathy. In any case, not much will happen overnight – its implementation will ultimately be the responsibility of the next education minister, if we get one.
Apparently Kenneth Branagh toyed with the idea of ending his film with the grown-up “him” returning to Belfast. There is no indication as to whether her relationship across the gap would have blossomed again in this storyline. But the adult Branagh returning to Belfast now could see signs of hope, and signs that even amid the tensions of an impending election with border protocols and polls used to heighten the feverish atmosphere here, things in Belfast and throughout Northern Ireland, could be changing, and changing for the better. The recent removal of the school exception from fair employment legislation and the success of the Integrated Education Bill may suggest that the education landscape is showing long-awaited signs of change. Perhaps the Independent Review of Education will perceive such a change and accelerate it. The possibilities of truly addressing community divisions through education reform are tantalizing. The current Kenneth Branagh does not live in Belfast, but his contemporaries at Tiger’s Bay Primary School who stayed here may soon have more opportunities for their grandchildren to attend a school where they can actually meet people from the “other” community…just like in the movies.
Dr Stephen Roulston is a Research Fellow at the UNESCO Centre, School of Education, University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter.
All documents produced by the Transforming Education Project are available for consultation. See the documents here…
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