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Lessons in Irish Unity

Belfast's Lagan College educates both Protestant and Roman Catholic youngsters. TRAILBLAZING SCHOOL

By Alf McCrearySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 23, 1990


AFTER nearly 10 years of struggling to make its point to the community at large, Lagan College in Belfast represents an idea whose time has come. ``Before I came here I thought that Catholics were different,'' says Ian, a straight-talking Protestant from outside the city. ``Lagan College has helped me to clear my mind. I see nothing wrong with Catholics. They are ordinary people, just like us.''

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The comment signifies the education within an education that occurs at this trailblazing school, where Protestant and Roman Catholic students share classrooms in a province known worldwide for its community divisions.

Lagan's unique contribution to a better Northern Ireland has been recognized internationally. Recently it was given the Templeton United Kingdom Project Award for its work.

The Templeton Awards for the UK are a mark of recognition and encouragement to an individual or an institution making a significant contribution to the field of spiritual values. They were instituted by Sir John Templeton, whose annual International Templeton Prize for progress in religion has, since its inauguration in 1972, established its place as a major world prize.

The college is dedicated to integrated education. ``We are committed to the belief that Catholics and Protestants belong to the same religion and that it is appropriate for them to be educated together,'' says Basil McIvor, a Belfast magistrate and president of the college. ``We recognize that in following this belief we are swimming against the tide of Irish history. The Templeton Award lets us feel the influence of a favorable current in the wider ocean and encourages us to swim on.''

Lagan will do so Sept. 3, when its doors open for a new term that is both a beginning and an ending. The occasion will mark the beginning of the school's final year in cramped and spartan premises on picturesque hills over Belfast, where it has been located for eight years.

At the start of the next school year, in 1991, Lagan College will move into resplendent new premises, which are now well under construction with the help of a large government grant.

Lagan College was founded in September 1981 by a small group of Catholic and Protestant parents. It has grown from an initial enrollment of 28 pupils and two teachers to 840 pupils (ages 11 to 17), with 41 teachers.

Statistically, it is a remarkable success story with increasing enrollments, and a waiting list now stretching to the year 2001. But its pioneering spirit has paved the way for other integrated schools in a province where, generally, Protestant and Catholic children are educated separately.

Brian Mawhinney, the Ulster-born minister of education and member of Mrs. Thatcher's government, finds inspiration in the story of Lagan College. ``Lagan College was the first integrated school in Northern Ireland to receive major government funding and is rightly considered by many to be the flagship for the integrated education movement,'' he says. ``With 10 integrated schools now in existence, a considerable number of parents have already demonstrated their conviction that children from different communities should have the opportunity to learn about each other, together. This, I am sure, will lead to mutual respect and tolerance, and, hopefully, will expose the myths and misunderstandings which divide our society.''