Shared Education: A strong partnership

Written by: Fergus Cooper | Published:
Partnership: Principals Geraldine Carville and Perry Charlwood from Mount St Michael’s Primary School and Randalstown Central Primary School

Catholic Mount St Michael’s and the controlled Randalstown Central Primary School have been working in partnership for 14 years, proving that the shared education movement in Northern Ireland can work. Fergus Cooper spoke to the schools’ principals about the partnership

The old mill town of Randalstown nestles near the north shore of Lough Neagh, bisected by the River Maine, with its distinctive viaduct, road and rail bridges. The mills fell silent long ago but together with the gothic Presbyterian church, the Tudor entrance to Shane’s Castle and the bridges, the architecture gives the town a heritage feel.

With the M2 motorway forming its southern boundary Randalstown is prime commuter belt for Antrim, Ballymena and Belfast.

In the 2011 census there were just over 5,000 people living in the town, 55 per cent Catholic and 40 per cent Protestant. There are estates at either end of the town predominantly one or the other. Over the last 14 years a shared education partnership has been forged between the Catholic primary, Mount St Michael’s and the controlled Randalstown Central Primary School.

The principals, Geraldine Carville at Mount St Michael’s and Perry Charlwood at Central, are experienced leaders. Geraldine has been in post since 2001 and Perry 2004. They describe their schools’ partnership as “evolving over time rather than by design from the start”.

Perry, who grew up in Glengormley, north Belfast, said: “What’s vitally important to get across are that relationships were central to the whole thing. When I took up post Geraldine was one of the first people to ring me and offer her congratulations. We met up very soon thereafter and it’s those personal relationships that you can then build on. You get to know someone, you work with them and you then ask yourself, why can’t you do more.”

Geraldine, who’s from south Derry, nods quietly as Perry speaks: “The first work Central got involved in was under the Sharing Education Programme piloted by Queens University, when we were invited by Cambridge House Grammar in Ballymena, to become involved in a cross-community and cross-phase project.

“When that came to an end we subsequently focused on working with Mount St Michael’s, initially on a maths and reading programme with older pupils buddying and helping younger pupils. As all this was going on the relationships were established, strengthened and built upon. This didn’t happen overnight, but over a number of years. For me relationships are critical to the success of shared education.”

Geraldine describes how small steps and gestures helped build trust with parents and the wider community.

“When the new minister, the Reverend Kerr, was being installed in the Church of Ireland he invited me to the service. I think it was a Friday night, a very last-minute sort of thing, but I was determined to be there. I went on my own and was greeted and led to a seat near the front. I think a lot of parishioners appreciated the principal of the local Catholic primary being there to welcome the Reverend Kerr to Randalstown.”

Perry agrees that such one-off events, nevertheless, have symbolic meaning that helps build trust and confidence within the other community. He cites another example as having a deep and lasting effect on the parents of Central Primary School.

“As a school, Central always taught the children about the symbol of the poppy in the run up to Remembrance Sunday. Then low and behold, one year, at exactly the right time, children from Mount St Michael’s turned up at the Remembrance Sunday event, led by their vice principal, Philip Lavery. This was duly noted by many of our parents and positively commented on. That one gesture went a long way to convincing our parents of the lasting value of our shared education partnership.”

Geraldine reminds us that the current shared education partnership evolved over a decade: “Looking back, we were involved in the Sharing Education Programme supported by Professor Tony Gallagher of Queens.

“Over time we’ve been weaving little webs and it’s almost as if something bigger, more important, has evolved without it necessarily having been designed by us at the start. Perry is right, relationships build trust and confidence. And now that we’ve built the relationships we’ve been able to examine some of the more difficult issues, such as cultures, flags and emblems – understanding and respecting diversity.”

Perry agreed: “With the children it hasn’t just been a case of let’s meet together on a social basis. Instead they’ve shared classes in literacy, numeracy and ICT, so real and tangible benefits for their learning under the core curriculum.

“Getting parents on board has been a challenge, mainly because they all lead such busy lives. Philip, (the vice-principal and also shared education coordinator in Mount St Michael) and I share a passion for rugby so one of the ways we’ve involved the parents is in joint trips to the Aviva Stadium to watch Ireland play.”

Perry talked too about the importance of earlier community relations work and especially the support he received from Community Relations in School (CRIS): “CRIS has been great in helping us prepare our parents for this more challenging work. They came along and worked with our parents in the first instance, going through the Knowing Me Knowing You programme with them.

“It helped them understand that the first step in the new programme would be to more fully understand and appreciate one’s own culture before learning how to share this with those from another tradition. It’s taken us time to get there but now almost everyone takes part and appreciates the opportunity to share learning about each other’s traditions.”

I begin to appreciate that these two are a double act as Geraldine jumps in to support Perry: “We’ve really progressed from there. I regularly attend their celebration days and parents from Central come to ours, even in the parish centre beside the church. We’ve held joint PTA events and barbecues in Shane’s Castle. Now it’s not just the children who benefit from the programme but parents as well. And the children see all of us working together at these events and respect is no longer a subject confined to a classroom.”

  • Fergus Cooper is a freelance writer and documentary film-maker.

Further information

Northern Ireland’s first ever Shared Education Week took place in October. A range of resources has been developed to support shared education and the aims of Shared Education Week. See www.sharededucationweek.org. For details of the Shared Education Learning Forum, go to www.selfni.org


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