By Brian Pelan
At an Integrated Education Fund dinner in the House of Lords in November 2015, a young woman from Northern Ireland called Hilary Copeland gave a speech. In it she said: “When I look back now as an adult, I think about how brave we all were to take this huge leap of faith on a school with no academic record, no alumni, no reputation, no established rules or policies or records, at a time when our country seemed to have little faith in the notions of peace and co-operation.”
Hilary, who is the general manager of arts organisation the John Hewitt Society, was referring to New-Bridge Integrated College in Loughbrickland, Co Down.
“The school opened in 1995 and I started in 1997. I was among the first intake at New-Bridge. Its intake has grown but it had very humble origins when I went.
“As a child, I attended a local controlled primary school in Loughbrickland. The majority of the pupils, like me, were from a Protestant background. It was very much my choice to go to New-Bridge. I was very academic and got an A in my transfer test and I had a place at Banbridge Academy. I went to an open day at the Academy and also at New-Bridge. The Academy was a much bigger school, but I didn’t get the same sense of warmth and welcoming that I got when I visited New-Bridge.”
Since leaving the integrated college, 32-year-old Hilary has gone on to champion its ethos. “I got involved with Integrated AlumNI (a voluntary network of past pupils of integrated schools who want to support the growth of integrated education in Northern Ireland).
“We are advocates and ambassadors for the cause of integrated education.”
As our interview drew to an end I asked Hilary why integrated education was still only a relatively small section in terms of the overall education system in Northern Ireland.
“Most of the integrated schools I know are over-subscribed,” replied Hilary. “There is a question of places available. There is also a reluctance, when we had an Assembly, to support integrated education.
“If integrated schooling is part of the Good Friday Agreement why is it today that we have only seven percent of representation in the education sector in Northern Ireland?
“I also view shared education as still segregating pupils and highlighting the fact that they can’t be educated together and that they have to wear different uniforms when they pass each other in the hall. Those pupils should be integrated together in the same school.
“But even the term ‘integrated’ means that we’re still talking about two communities. I love the idea of us having an ‘inclusive’ education where everyone, faith or non-faith, can take part.”
I can understand why Hilary is a good choice as an ambassador for the integrated argument. She is passionate and eloquent. We are likely to hear more about her in the future.
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