Branagh’s Belfast and our divided education system…

Belfast, the film, has just landed Kenneth Branagh an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. It is a cracking film, if you have not yet seen it, and it is recommended. But, not to dissuade anyone from going to view it, the film does take a few historical liberties. Those of us who lived in Belfast at the time when the film is set might raise an eyebrow or two at the sight of vigilantes with burning torches held aloft as they patrol their neighbourhoods. It looks dramatic in the film, but an EverReady battery torch would have been a lot less dangerous than a flaming stake, just a tad handier and much easier worked with. A corner shop with an Asian proprietor? Not in Belfast back then. And a Working Men’s Club with a microphone that would not have looked out of place on Sunday Night at the London Palladium? Just a little far-fetched. But we can live with these – it is a film after all, not a historical documentary. However… There is one scenario that stretches incredulity beyond its bounds. We are asked to believe that, in Tiger’s Bay in the early 1970s, a Protestant boy could go to the same primary school as a Catholic girl. Now that is just taking things too far. Film-goers in Britain, in the USA or elsewhere across the world may accept such a thing to be possible and even reasonable but, knowing Northern Ireland, we are bound to be much more sceptical.

The reason for our scepticism maybe 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 for 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 intake is Protestant, 53% Catholic and 13% Other (Other Christian, non-Christian, no religion and Unknown). However, this is very unusual – for most Maintained primary schools in Belfast, the proportion of Protestant pupils is low and, on average, 85.4% of the intake of such schools are Catholic. Nine (of 29) have not one Protestant pupil at all. There are 109 Protestant pupils in a total school population of over 12,000 children in this sector in Belfast.

It is much the same with Controlled primaries. This sector also asserts that it is open to all, but it tends to serve the Protestant community. If we ignore the Irish Medium primary which finds itself incongruously in this category, there are 34 Controlled primaries. One unusual Controlled Primary school has a Catholic intake of 31% and a Protestant intake of only 14%. However, the average is for Controlled primary schools to have just 6.2% Catholic pupils – and five have no Catholic pupils at all. In a total school population in this sector of 10,800, there are just 683 Catholic pupils.

One exception to this division is in Integrated primary schools. There are 5 Integrated primary schools in Belfast, which have, overall, a fairly balanced enrolment of 27% Protestant, 35% Catholic and 38% Other. Only one of these schools has less than 20% for one community and, even then, the differential between Protestants and Catholics is not far away (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 developments lately. Significant is the first Maintained school successfully moving to Integrated status in 2021 – a primary school in the Glens of Antrim. There is evidence to suggest that this is encouraging other Maintained schools to consider following the same path. Perhaps the development which may lead to the biggest change, however, will be the passing of the Integrated Education Bill in 2022.

As we know, a Petition of Concern was threatened by the DUP, which would have blocked the Bill and stopped it in its tracks, had it won sufficient support. The UUP would not countenance using such a tactic in that way, arguing that this was a misuse of the power that they had helped establish as part of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement in 1998. As a result, the Integrated Education Bill went through the Assembly in early March 2022 with 49 assembly members voting for it, 38 against and one abstention.

This Bill requires the Department of Education to increase the number of integrated school places and to set targets for the numbers of children being educated in each school. The Department will have to develop action plans and targets to achieve this. Some parts of Northern Ireland are very poorly served by Integrated education with over 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 Integrated Education Bill commits the Department of Education to actively “support” integrated education, strengthening the current requirement to “encourage and facilitate”, this should lead to more push from them for the development of these types of schools. Furthermore, Education planning bodies have now to “consider integrated education when planning for the establishment of a new school”. As additional resources are quantified, this could result in “the establishment of new integrated schools, the expansion of existing integrated schools and the transformation of existing schools into integrated schools”.

There is some uncertainty about whether a functioning assembly will be established after the election, with some parties suggesting that they will not take their seats unless the Northern Ireland protocol is removed, and further dispute as to whether a party that is used to holding the First Minister position will be prepared to accept a Deputy First Minister role, were the numbers to play out that way. Much is uncertain. And, even if a functioning government does return to Stormont in May 2022, there is even less certainty about who the education minister might be, and from what party. That appointment is likely to influence whether the implementation of this Bill is driven forward with enthusiasm, or left to drag along with more than a little apathy. In any case, little will happen overnight – its implementation will ultimately be the responsibility of the next education minister, if we get one.

Apparently, Kenneth Branagh played with the idea of ending his film with the adult ‘him’ returning to Belfast. There is no hint as to whether his relationship across the divide would have re-blossomed in that scenario. But the adult Branagh returning to Belfast now might see signs of hope, and signs that, even within the tensions of an imminent election with protocols and border polls being used to raise the febrile atmosphere here, things in Belfast and across Northern Ireland, might be changing, and changing for the better. The recent removal of the exception of schools from Fair Employment legislation, and the success of the Integrated Education Bill, may suggest that the educational landscape is showing long-awaited signs of shifting. Perhaps the Independent Review of Education will perceive such a shift and hasten it along. The possibilities for really addressing community divisions through educational reform are tantalising. The current Kenneth Branagh does not live in Belfast, but his Tiger’s Bay primary school contemporaries who remained here may soon have more of an opportunity 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 in the UNESCO Centre, School of Education, Ulster University. You can follow him on twitter. 

All papers produced by the Transforming Education Project are available to view. View Documents Here…

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