Power-sharing executive supported mixed schooling

 

Integrated education: Eamon Phoenix reports on Basil McIvor's education initiative in the short-lived 1974 executive

The first instance of government support for integrated education in the North is revealed in this year's Stormont Cabinet releases for 1974. At a meeting of the power-sharing executive in Parliament Buildings on April 30th, 1974 - just a month before its collapse - the minister of education, the late Basil McIvor, tabled a memo on the creation of "shared schools" as a means of breaking down sectarian barriers.

The minister acknowledged that there were two systems of education in Northern Ireland - the state-controlled system, which was predominantly Protestant, and the voluntary "maintained" system which was predominantly Catholic.

"I propose", he told colleagues, "the introduction as an experiment as a third type of school, also a state school, the shared school under which management of the school would involve both the main Protestant and Catholic churches. It removes some (although I recognise not all) of the objections of the Roman Catholic Church to controlled schools, and it reduces somewhat the special position that the Protestant churches now enjoy in the controlled schools."

Under the scheme, the main churches would have an equal say in the management of the shared schools.

In a memo, entitled "Integrated Education", the minister noted that the proposals were likely to rouse controversy: "The history of education in Northern Ireland since 1920 has been one of very considerable controversy and we can expect the same again."

However, he did not think this would harm the executive, "rather the reverse".

McIvor noted that the churches were content with the separate schooling of children.

He continued: "It would require a major revolution to upset the present arrangement for existing schools . . . anything that can be done will, therefore, only touch on the edge of the problem and affect only a small minority of schools. Nevertheless, I believe that even the edges are important in the hope that they can lead to new attitudes that can start to spread more widely through the schooling system. There are signs that views are hardening and I consider that the executive should move quickly."

The minister stressed his belief that "the mixing of schools would contribute to the reduction of community tension".

He acknowledged the view of the Catholic Church that it had a "duty to provide Catholic schools for Catholic children. This is a matter of belief which the government cannot change. Nevertheless, I would ask it and other churches to consider earnestly the special needs of Northern Ireland."

Under his scheme, the shared schools would receive 100 per cent finance from public funds and would be managed by the churches on an agreed basis.

At the executive meeting, ministers generally supported McIvor's initiative. However, some reservations were expressed as to the wisdom of making an announcement before consultation with interested bodies had taken place. McIvor explained his reasons for wishing to seize the initiative for the executive, rather than letting ideas originate from outside. It was decided that the minister should indicate his intention to enter into consultations with the interests involved.