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Lagan College: Revolutionary school turns 30

By Lindsay Fergus

On September 1 1981, just 28 pupils started at Lagan College. Little did they know that 30 years later that same school would be home to more than 1,200 pupils and spur the birth of 61 other integrated campuses across Northern Ireland.

Against all odds Lagan College, an all-ability, co-educational integrated comprehensive school, is celebrating its 30th anniversary today.

The school in the Castlereagh Hills was dogged by controversy, opposition and financial woes that on more than one occasion threatened its existence.

But today it is repeatedly oversubscribed and among the top achieving schools in the province in terms of exam results, with many pupils going on to study at Oxford and Cambridge.

Anne Odling-Smee, who has been a fervent campaigner for integrated education since 1975, is delighted how far integrated education has come.But she believes there is still much work to do.

She joined All Children Together (ACT) - the parents' lobby group that lead to the creation of Lagan College in 1975, and her son Hugh started at the school in 1984.

Mrs Odling-Smee said: "This was the movement to try and get children educated in schools together.

"The original idea was that schools already in existence would open up to all faiths and the fact that this did not take place was very disappointing.

"When we got to 1981 we knew the vested interests, particularly the churches, really were not going to shift so we decided to start a school.

"It was really just sheer determination by a lot of people including Cecil Linehan and Tony Spencer. What we had on our side was some very determined people who knew this was the way to go."

Lagan College - a school that wanted to educate Catholics and Protestants side-by-side - was born at the height of the Troubles.

In 1981 there were at least 112 Troubles-related deaths. It was the year that 10 republicans including Bobby Sands died on hunger strike.

The same year the UDA seriously injured Bernadette McAliskey and her husband. Days later the IRA killed the former speaker in the Stormont parliament, Norman Stronge, and his son.

It was against this backdrop of daily killings and riots that the brave parents of 28 pupils enlisted their children in Northern Ireland's first integrated school.

Mrs Odling-Smee said: "The 70s and 80s were pretty grim, there were daily bomb scares, Belfast was so horrible and we were challenging people's beliefs - beliefs which they hid behind.

"People were living in a segregated society in housing, schooling and jobs and what we were doing was trying to challenge people to talk to each other and feel safe with each other."

When Lagan opened its doors there was just one full-time teacher, Dr Brian Lambkin, five part-time teachers and a principal, Sheila Greenfield.

Dr Lambkin, a history and RE teacher, had quit a job at one of Northern Ireland's most prestigious Catholic grammar schools to work for the new integrated school. He later became principal of Lagan in 1993.

He said: "At the time people were predicting that the school must fail. It would not prove possible to educate Catholic and Protestant children together and there could not be a worse time to start a new school when community relations were at such a low ebb. But we were determined."

The other obstacle was financial. ACT had no capital, just £36.11 in its account and no government funding to enable it to fulfil its vision.

Dr Lambkin, now director of the Centre for Migration Studies at the Ulster-American Folk Park, said: "The other possibility that it could have failed was through the lack of financial support, that was the real struggle.

"Then a school could only get government support if it was viable for three years and proved there was sufficient demand.

"Lagan College was a school that came with no guarantees and that was the risk those pioneering parents were taking."

But on September 1 1981 - with no permanent home - it opened its doors at Ardnavalley Scout Centre, near Belfast's Shaw's Bridge.

Dr Lambkin recalls that historic day very clearly.

"There was a certain amount of apprehension. There was a picket on the school gate and the first pupils were escorted in through the back entrance," he said.

"I remember the principal, Sheila Greenfield, in the first assembly telling the pupils they were like pioneers venturing out for a new life and to make sure we succeeded we all needed to work together.

"That caught the imagination of those pioneering pupils - they felt they were particularly important, and responded extremely well."

Mrs Odling-Smee said: "Those early days were a real learning curve. People had to deal with issues that the churches, history, culture and sectarianism threw up.

"But we were doing something right because more and more people wanted to send their children to a school that was operating from a site in a muddy field with temporary classrooms.

"It was something new, children were being challenged academically and it was a new vision."

Dr Lambkin, whose two sons Breannainn and Angus attended Lagan College in 1990 and 1992, said: "We got to the stage where we could demonstrate that it was possible to educate Catholic and Protestants together."

Finally, in 1984, after three full school terms and four years of intakes, Lagan College won much-needed government support.

Mrs Odling-Smee, an-ex chair of Belfast Education and Library Board, said: "By 1984 when we were awarded government funding we were really on our knees."

That was 27 years ago and Lagan College has never looked back.

Today its home is at Lisnabrenny in the Castlereagh Hills where a £24.8m two-year programme of works is under way to refurbish and extend the school.

Commenting on Lagan College's milestone, Mrs Odling-Smee said: "It is fantastic that a school that 'would never succeed' has reached its 30th anniversary.

"It now has 1,200 pupils and others cannot get into the school because it is oversubscribed."

She added: "There's a lot more sharing and collaboration between schools now and those born in the eighties see it as ridiculous that all pupils are not educated together. We need to break that cycle of segregation."

Dr Lambkin reflected: "We were talking about an experiment at the time. I think the time has long passed when the success of the experiment has been definitely proven by the number of other parents groups that were set up across Northern Ireland and the number of other integrated schools who continue to demonstrate that success.

"I am very proud and privileged to have been part of that. Those pioneering years were nailbiting but exciting."

He added: "What we would really like to see is the transformation of Northern Ireland's educational system as a whole with schools, Catholic or non-Catholic state-controlled schools with a mainly Protestant ethos, developing more shared education and where the whole community takes responsibility for all the children in its area."

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