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Trying to break down religious barriers; A school with a lesson for Northern Ireland

By Vera FranklSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 19, 1982


The school is named Lagan College, after the river that divides Belfast. It looks down, from a hill on the southern outskirts of the city, on the Falls Road , Shankhill, and the other bleak ghettos which for so many years have been the flashpoints of bitter sectarian violence.

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But Lagan itself is a world away from the Ulster of the headlines. For its pupils, all born within the past 13 years of bloodshed, are taking part in a remarkable attempt to unite Ulster's warring communities. In this province, where religious segregation is the rule, Lagan is the first fully integrated secondary school to be established in over a century.

There is an equal number of Catholic and Protestant pupils, teachers and governors, and the curriculum emphasizes the common Christianity and culture of the two communities, rather than what divides them. The fact that Lagan has survived into its second year amounts to a small miracle, in a society that had ceased to expect them.

Lagan grew out of the dissatisfaction of a handful of parents with a state education system which, they felt, only reinforced existing fears and hatreds. Protestant children in Ulster go to Protestant schools, Roman Catholics to Catholic schools - partly because the schools are located within their own sectarian communities, but also because each school only provides religious instruction for children of its own denomination. Only about one child in every 100 crosses this religious divide.

One of Lagan's founders, Tony Spencer, a Catholic university lecturer, so despaired of these religious barriers that he sent four of his five children to Protestant secondary schools. But the children paid the price of his idealism; they frequently came home complaining of harassment.

One of his daughters, during a French lesson, found herself having to recite ''Nous sommes tous Protestants'' (we are all Protestants) along with the rest of the class. When the time came to send his fifth child, Jane, to a secondary school, he decided there was no point in waiting for Ulster's education authorities to come around to his way of thinking. He would have to start a school open to all, regardless of their religious beliefs.

There were, he discovered, plenty of other parents who had the same ideas. Anne Kinsella, whose son Michael was one of the first to enroll at Lagan, sums it up like this: ''If Lagan College had not turned up, I would have considered leaving the country, rather than send Michael to a segregated school. I wanted him to do well academically, but more important was the way he learned to treat other human beings.''

Another parent who was willing to risk being ostracized by friends and neighbors was Eleanor Bailey, whose two daughters are at Lagan. She says: ''My children spent the first eight years of their lives living in the (Catholic) Falls Road. We have seen it all - the shooting, the hatred, the unbelievable divisions between the religions. I was determined that my children should experience something different.''

Lagan's first 28 pupils began lessons in the only premises available - two makeshift classrooms in a ramshackle scout hut in South Belfast. Even the desks and blackboards had to be cleared away each night, because the hut was needed for other purposes.

Some of the children came from towns as far away as Lurgan and Antrim, 22 miles from Belfast, many of them being ferried in aboard a bus borrowed from the Northern Ireland Peace Movement. They wore gray school uniforms in the best British tradition - but left their ties and school badges at home, for security reasons. Lagan parents, fearful of laying their children open to attack by sectarian extremists, did not want them to be too easily identifiable.