IT CAN be done! Here is a success story — an absorbing account of School on the Hill or Lagan College in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It was founded by All Children Together Movement. In this interview by John Ross Schroeder we introduce the achievement of the School on the Hill through one of its founders, George Hewitt.
Q: What makes the School on the Hill different from other comprehensive schools in Northern Ireland?
A: The first thing that makes it different from all the other comprehensive schools in Northern Ireland is that we planned for Catholic and Protestant children to be educated side by side. Another thing which makes this all-ability post-primary school different from other schools is that it is coed, boys and girls. When we started, it also had the distinction of being an independent school funded totally by voluntary contributions. Happily that ended on the 1st April, 1984, when the Department of Education for Northern Ireland granted what is termed maintained status. This means that the government will render themselves responsible for 85 percent of capital outlay, total maintenance and they will totally meet the salaries of all the teaching staff.
Q: What is your fundamental purpose in this school? You're flying somewhat in the face of accepted tradition in Ulster.
A: Our basic purpose is to show that there can be a third system of education within the area of Northern Ireland. To all intents the prevailing system is a Protestant — dominated system. There is also a maintained system, which is totally Roman Catholic. We are putting forward a third system where Catholic and Protestant children and Catholic and Protestant teachers can be associated together under the roof of one college or school.
Q: How many children do you have here? How many did you start out with and do you have plans to have an increase by, say, 1990?
A: First, it should be understood that I am merely a trustee of the All Children Together Movement. There is a maintained schools committee that manages the school itself. However, I can answer these questions in general. First of all we started off in 1981 with 28 children — mixed Protestant and Catholic, mixed boys and girls. In the next two years we increased the number of children and we hope to go up to 250 in September. Eventually we would hope that Lagan College would cater for some 500 children. This, of course, is a general figure. I believe it is the philosophy of our movement and of the governors of the school and the parents that they would not wish to exceed a figure of round about 500. We believe that small is beautiful.
Q: How are you actively pursuing the integration of Catholic and Protestant ways of life? How does it work out?
A: The answer to that is very simple. It does work; it works extremely well. We have here in Lagan College a mixture of Catholic and Protestant children, a mixture of boys and girls, a mixture of children from all sections of the social stratum. We have also a mixture with our teaching staff. One of the things many worry about here in Northern Ireland, or Ulster as some of us call it, is the difficulty of teaching Religious Education (R.E.). But if you plan your R.E. syllabus properly it presents no difficulties whatsoever. The way the college operates on R.E. is, generally speaking, to have a core subject which is taught to all children. After that core subject, there are denominational classes taught by either teachers who are qualified to instruct in those disciplines or by clergy who come in from the outside. Difficulties that arise are always discussed and smoothed out in a very intelligent and sensible manner. No difficulty has arisen, as far as I am aware, which has ever caused any child or any parent any distress. In fact, the parental support for the R.E. teaching in this college is absolutely superb. It is interesting to note that although there may be parents who are not attached to any particular denomination within the Christian community, not one single child has been opted out of R.E. Now apart from the teaching of R.E., we are very well aware that there are other differences between the two ethnic groups — if you would like to call them that — in this part of Ireland. The cultural differences that arise are greatly exaggerated by people who are ignorant of the subject. At the moment our children are only up to 14 to 15 years of age. But by September they will be entering for what we call here in the United Kingdom the "0" level examination, and at that point they start on different options. Another interesting thing about the school is that boys and girls are treated equally. We are not trying to put over that a boy is exactly the same physiologically as a girl. What we are trying to put over is that they have equal responsibility in society. All boys and girls, up to and including the entry to state examinations, are taught home economy. Domestic economy, cooking and washing and all the rest of it. Secondly, all boys and girls do elementary crafts like woodwork and metalwork. All boys and girls do junior science; all boys and girls do art and design.
Q: How do you teach history here, in view of the fact that there are two traditions and two cultures existing side by side in Northern Ireland?
A: History is taught as history, not as legend or myth. The history teaching is taught on the basis of actual Irish history, the history of the British Isles and the history of the world. No punches are pulled.
Q: How are you financed? Do you get grants from the state? What are your prospects for future financing? I understand the student fees were high.
A: As of the 1 st April, 1984, there are no fees for any child at the school. Before the 1 st April, 1984, the school existed totally on voluntary contributions from all our friends all over the world in 'many countries. But parents had to pay up to 600 pounds per year per child. Now we would like to underline that all parents did not have to pay this amount. Some parents, in fact, paid nothing. There was a bursary system instituted right at the outset of the school's existence, so that parents who were not in a position to pay for their children at the school were given a bursary and the matter ended there.
Q: Are Catholic and Protestant parents of your schoolchildren working together actively? What do the parents do to help out schools in Northern Ireland — particularly this one?
A: In Northern Ireland there are PT As at most schools. But most schools in Northern Ireland are segregated into Protestant or Catholic ipso facto. In Lagan College the parents are by the nature of the college both Protestant and Catholic. I have never seen parents so active in helping the school — and my experience in this matter goes over a long number of years. It is most refreshing to attend a parents' council meeting or to attend any of the many meetings or entertainments which we have at the school. Protestant and Catholic parents as well as uncles and aunts, granddads, grandmothers — all participate in the activities. Parental concern is a cornerstone of the foundation of the school. The parents' council in this school supports all kinds of school activities. It is a body which is composed of Protestant and Catholic members. There is no question of any differentiation and at the meetings of the council, it is quite impossible to tell who is a Catholic and who is a Protestant. That's the way we like to have it.
Q: How does the educational community — the regular schools here in Northern Ireland — view your activities?
A: Our acceptance within the community of schools in the province is good. No doubt at the beginning there were doubts. When the college was started the demographic trends for pupils in schools were not very auspicious in that schools were closing because of falling rolls, and therefore teachers were becoming unemployed. There was at that time a feeling, no doubt, that Lagan College would be taking pupils from specific areas and that teachers who were teaching in those schools in those areas might lose their jobs. This, in fact, hasn't been so. For Lagan College takes its children from a very wide catchment area that covers hundreds of primary schools and many, many secondary schools.
Q: Do you think this unique experiment will eventually spread to the rest of Northern Ireland?
A: The movement that set up Lagan College at the behest of those 28 parents in 1981 is called the All Children Together Movement. It has been in existence from the early seventies and it is a body which is endeavoring to introduce shared education within the province by the consent of parents. Now those words are very important to us — by the consent of parents. We believe that parental consent is vital in the propagation of integrated schooling. As I said earlier, the times are difficult for this operation in that the demographic trends in schools show declining rolls. All of this makes people ask why we want another type of school. Our answer is that we believe that in the long run — not tomorrow, perhaps not in the next 20 years — the efforts made to integrate the teaching of our children will payoff. , Protestant children will discover that Roman Catholic children are the same as their friends in Protestant schools and Roman Catholic children will feel exactly the same about Protestant children. We believe also that if we can integrate our children in schools, our parents, our uncles and aunts, granddads and all the rest will eventually become integrated. This is not so in Northern Ireland at the moment. There are many, many children who are brought up in either Roman Catholic maintained schools or controlled ipso facto Protestant schools, who, in fact, never ever meet Protestant or Roman Catholic children. We feel that this situation allows children to have a distorted view of different denominations.
Q: How do your teachers here feel about this unique experiment? Do they feel a sense of enthusiasm? Do teachers from different backgrounds get on well together?
A: Viewing it from the point of view of someone who has been very close to the school, I can say the teachers get on extremely well together. In fact, it is never discussed. The prime requirement of a teacher coming to a school like this is commitment. And I believe that every single teacher in this school has commitment. The teachers have supported the governors of the school and the trustees of the All Children Together Movement magnificently.
Q: Are the students themselves getting on together? Is the experiment working out in practical terms on the grass roots level?
A: To that I can give a very clear affirmative. We treat our children in this school as ordinary children. They are not elitist in any way and there is no attempt within the school to put an elitist cover on either teachers or governors or children or parents. I would know we had failed if this were to occur.
Q: I realize that Lagan, or any institution like it, is not a cure for all the ills in Northern Ireland. But do you believe you will markedly change some of the bitter hatreds that have been built up over a long period of time?
A: We firmly believe that we can contribute in a positive way to the amelioration of the feelings that over the past 14 years have risen to great heights, at times with appalling losses in human life and in human dignity. We — trustees and teachers alike — know that there is no overnight cure for this. But we believe that the contribution which All Children Together Movement has made in Lagan College will have an impact upon the general scene in education. Our whole target has been to provide a positive contribution and we have never, and will never, become destructive critics of either of the two predominant systems in the country, i.e. the Catholic maintained system or the controlled ipso facto Protestant system. That is not our way of approaching the matter.