Reaching out to all sections of the community, encouraging children of all cultures, all nations to know they belong together - the words are impressive, but all too often they are said with little substance to back up the noble sentiments.
If we do truly strive for a world of perfect harmony, starting with the youngest members of society where preconceptions of the older generation are not yet fully established is the best way of paving the path to a future where all sit comfortably together hand in hand in mutual respect togetherness and inclusivity.
Many schools in Northern Ireland will have a smattering of ethnic minorities amongst their ranks.
But at St Patrick’s College in Dungannon, some 55% of the pupils are from international backgrounds. The murmurs in the corridors come in a variety of different languages - there are a remarkable 16 different first languages in the classrooms. Some pupils, including arrivals from Ukraine who have arrived to study there recently, don’t speak English at all, but it’s their peers, those from countries like Russia, Poland, Portugal, Hungary, Lithuania, even Brazil, Morocco, Syria and East Timor in the heart of the Pacific Ocean, who are helping them to feel part of the school community.
It wasn’t a conscious effort on behalf of the school to attract so many different nationalities and cultures, it’s been an evolving process over a number of years. The school’s reputation for being open, friendly and welcoming to children, no matter where they come from, now means those from diverse cultures gravitate that way.
It’s quite an example to be setting. And the pupils have even taken to celebrating it themselves.
While they may come from different parts of the world, and all have individual stories of how they arrived in Northern Ireland, they have one thing in common - they’re pupils at St Patrick’s College. Any differences they might have are just that, differences. But they’re differences to learn from, not stand against. The pupils help each other and do so in a way that puts much of wider society in Northern Ireland to shame.
They wanted to do something to mark that for the many more who will follow them through the college doors and therefore provided the platform for a new Culture Trail in the school. Billed as celebrating the 14 different cultural backgrounds of pupils it’s, not surprisingly, already out of date. There are now 15 with the addition of Ukrainian students and that’s something which will be addressed next term.
Teacher at St Patrick’s College Maria Campbell, has been co-ordinating the culture council, but said it’s something the pupils took a lead on themselves.
“We have definitely developed this past five to ten years, but it’s not been a conscious effort. It’s been a natural progression,” she said.
“With the council it’s the pupils who have done all the work. They wanted this. There was a real opportunity for the pupils to learn about other countries.
“We are literally a global school. That’s the point of this culture trail, to let the wider community know what we offer here to anyone who comes through the doors of the school. And it’s the pupils who have done all the research behind it.
“Everyone has a different story to tell, though not all of them have just arrived from a different country. A lot of them were born in Northern Ireland to families from different backgrounds. For us it’s about embracing everyone for who they are and celebrating that.
“It’s not about seeing ourselves as helping minority groups,” she added.
“We don’t see it that way. A child is a child. And if we can send them out into society with no barriers to who they want to become in life then we’ve done our job.
“But honestly, as teachers all we are doing is facilitating what they want to do and that’s really refreshing to see.”
Daniella Belo is in Year 13 and was born in Dungannon, but her family is originally from East Timor in the Indian Ocean.
“I’m used to it, but everyone brings something different to the table and I’ve seen it develop a lot over the last few years,” she said.
“My parents moved here in 2003, moving when they finished university in Portugal. Then then had my brother and decided to stay for their family.”
And that has shaped the path Daniella wants her life to take in the future.
“I love the STEM subjects, science and technology. Being here has helped me develop that and given me those opportunities
Wiktoria Samon’s family are from Poland. She speaks about the experience she has had at St Patrick’s College.
“I moved here,” she said. “I think it’s really important for anyone who does arrive here to see an inclusive environment. Going into primary school originally I didn’t know much English, so I know the importance of having an environment of having people around you who you can ask for help. Our school especially really highlights that importance.
“I’ve been here for about 13 years now, but eventually I’d like to go back to Poland. I was young when I left and never experienced life there. I don’t remember it.
“But having so many nationalities in school has really helped. You don’t feel like you’re different.
“Even with the cultural trail, it makes you feel represented, that you have a place here, that you’re welcome and a part of the community.”
Born in Lithuania, Armandas Zukauskas is in first year at the school. He immediately felt at home and said his family’s move to Northern Ireland has opened new windows of opportunity.
“There are a lot more opportunities here,” he said. “Subjects like ICT are not as advanced in Lithuania, there are not as many jobs. Schools like St Patrick’s College are opening those opportunities up for me.”
Dominik Skowronski is another pupil from Poland who has been involved in the project one of the pupils involved, said:
“As a member of our school’s Culture Council, I feel lucky to have been able to help create the Culture Trail. I loved socialising with other pupils in the school, learning about other cultures and sharing our experiences. It was exciting when the trail opened; I enjoyed completing the quiz questions and discovering new facts about different countries.”
Altogether, 46 of the school’s students worked on the culture trail, meeting every week to research and design.
Overseeing the cultural revolution is principal Catherine McHugh, who is happy to let the pupils blaze their own trail.
“The pupils and staff had such a wonderful experience working together on the creation and launch of Culture Trail,” she said.
“It represents the diverse backgrounds and ethnicities in our school community.
“It’s so important in our modern world to celebrate our unique identities and to foster an environment of respect and inclusion and a community which embraces and celebrates all. Our culture trail enables us to learn about each other, it helps us to open conversations and it allows us to appreciate our heritage.”
The expectation now is that the trail will develop in years to come.
“The support of Apex Housing with funding to do this, and the input of Brilliant Trails has helped the pupils to achieve what they set out to do,” said Miss Campbell.
“It’s up to them how they want to develop it in future years, but there’s plenty of scope for adding to the number of cultures involved and Ukraine will be the first on the lost for inclusion when we come back after the summer break.”