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.''
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.''
In a number of areas, a small minority of children are educated in a predominantly Catholic or Protestant school where the majority culture differs from their own. As well, there are several integrated or mixed-religion schools at the primary level.
But, as yet, integrated education takes place in only a few schools in Ulster, where the population mix is roughly 60 percent Protestant and 40 percent Catholic, though the gap is narrowing. Lagan College reflects that pattern. Its pupils are approximately 52 percent Protestant and 48 percent Catholic, while the ratio of its teachers is much the same.
LAGAN COLLEGE has no illusions about the difficulty of building bridges in a divided society. Its youthful-looking headmaster Terence Flanagan, a former member of the Brethren and now a practicing Presbyterian, has a realistic attitude.
``If you are going to educate children together, you must have parity of esteem,'' he says. ``And to achieve this you need a reasonable balance between the two communities, which is reflected in your pupil and teacher ratios. Our main achievement so far is demonstrating that integration does work, in an atmosphere where pupils from different backgrounds come to understand each other's position without any loss of their own identity. We will continue to do what we have been doing. We cannot force people to be like us, nor would we want to do so, but our power is the power of a good example.''
The pupils demonstrably share this freshness and vision. Paul, a lively Catholic from Belfast, chose to come to Lagan College even though his two brothers went to a Catholic school. He says, ``The pupils here do not care about religion, in a sectarian sense. In this place, people are treated as people who are entitled to hold their own views.''
The school's motto ``Ut sint unum'' is based on a phrase from the Gospel of St. John, Chapter 17, Verse 11: ``That they may be one.'' Its promotional folder displays a quotation from Lester Pearson's Nobel Peace Prize lecture, which summarizes its purpose: ``How can there be peace without people understanding each other, and how can this be if they do not know each other?''
Even with such admirable ideals, the school has a touching humanity, which helps to show that its feet are on the ground. When asked to provide pupils from each side of the religious divide for an interview, a senior teacher unwittingly produced two Catholics. In a province where some people take a perverse pride in trying to spot the differences between Catholics and Protestants, it is refreshing to find a place where a senior master genuinely cannot spot any difference.
Lagan College, as it moves confidently into the 1990s, is an impressive witness to a better way forward for Northern Ireland.