Harding Memorial Primary is set to become east Belfast’s first integrated school. Almost 90% of the school community voted in favour of this move. The school, situated on the Cregagh Road, balloted parents after they found an interest in integration.

The school’s principal said “Harding Memorial Primary School welcomes the positive results of the parental ballot. The support we have received from parents, staff and members of the local community has been very encouraging.” This is a very significant development.

None of the main parties here are in favour of a genuinely integrated education system. They all pay lip service to a shared future, but they have a vested interest in maintaining division, including among children and young people.

Surveys of public opinion have found overwhelming support for integration, consistently above 70%, with only marginal differences between Catholic and Protestant respondents. The two largest parties chose to ignore these significant findings. This is why the example of Harding Memorial Primary School is very positive and to be welcomed in a divided society.

Two decades after the Good Friday Agreement promised to “facilitate and encourage integrated education”, schools are still largely divided along religious lines. Koulla Yiasourua, the Commissioner for Children and Young People here, summed it up very well when she said “it is one of the pillars that holds up a divided society”. In 2018, just 65 of Northern Ireland’s 1,153 schools were integrated, with only 8.6% of post-primary students attending an integrated school. These figures do not reflect the desires of ordinary people. On the contrary, they reflect the political and religious bigotry at the top of society which has been dominant since the formation of the state.

We need a fully-resourced, comprehensive, secular and integrated system of education. Campaigning for such a development will benefit society at large, but in particular our young people who will help shape the future. Many young people to this day do not meet people from the ‘other’ community until they leave school or leave the country – what an indictment in 2019! Hopefully, other schools across the North will follow the great example of Harding Memorial and leave many of our politicians behind with their antiquated ways.

by Lucy Simpson