One of the origins of Oakgrove Primary, College and Playgroup Nursery was a conversation among some parents in June 1990 at the time of the 11+ results. There were at least three teachers involved in the conversation and two other parents. "How we divide our children again and again", the said, "on alleged academic grounds; on gender grounds and worst of all in Northern Ireland on religious grounds."
There followed informal conversations with other interested parents and a meeting was called. It had to be in a neutral venue, so parents booked a room in the Everglades Hotel on 25 September 1990. About 20 people came.
Another meeting was called in the Everglades for 15 October. Again a couple of dozen people came.
Some parents were very impatient to proceed. Some parents wanted to talk trough all the issues involved. It was agreed to hold a public meeting at Lisnagelvin Leisure Centre on Friday 9 November. No one knew how it would go or how many people would attend.
On the night approximately 115 parents attended including the Deputy Chair of the Western Education and Library Board, The meeting was chaired by Tim Webster and Colm Cavanagh, interested parents. The speakers were Fiona Stevens (Chief Executive of NI Council for Integrated Education) and Cathy Cook (Principal of Enniskillen Integrated Primary School). Fiona Stelfox, Chairperson of the NICIE who had been involved in setting up Mill Strand Primary School in Portrush, spoke from the floor.
After the introductory remarks the meeting was thrown open to the floor and the first speaker was a middle aged woman who roundly criticised the whole proposal to have Integrated schools! Another early speaker was Joseph Mulvenna from BELTIE (Belfast Trust for Integrated Education). He emphasised that the most important objective was not just to have an integrated school, but to have a school that provided an excellent education which was integrated.
Parents at the meeting were interested in three distinct areas - a nursery school, a primary school and a college. Interested parents were invited back the following week. At that stage three working groups were set up to report back. The Integrated Schools' Project was created (later to become The Foyle Trust for Integrated Education).
In September 1991 Oakgrove Integrated Primary School (N. Ireland's 14th integrated school) opened its doors in the old Housing Executive offices at Limavady Road. Work had already begun to establish Oakgrove College.
Since no one had ever set up an integrated college under 1989 Reform Order, NICIE cautioned that we should think of taking TWO years to do it. The Department of Education reinforced this suggestion - a college was bigger than a Primary School, more complicated, more staff, more pupils: "Would you think of opening it over a THREE year period?"
DENI also suggested that we should open it in the way as Lagan College (1981) and Hazelwood College (1985) had opened in Belfast - by opening an independent college at our own expense and seeking Department support after two or three years. But the charitable trusts such as Rowntree and Nuffield, were no longer prepared to put money into integrated schools in Northern Ireland. They felt they had done their bit over the previous ten years.
At the same time Brownlow was in the transition process at Craigavon, Co. Armagh. And so Oakgrove College in 1992 was the l7th integrated school in Northern Ireland.
Parents looked at many different sites for temporary use. We even secured planning permission for the former IAWS site at Newbuildings which would have served us for a maximum of two years. But then we looked again the former Gransha Hospital Building, part of which had now become available. We got half of the original hospital red- brick building in September 1992. (The other half was still used by hospital consultants and social workers and for storage of hospital records.)
Mrs Marie Cowan was the clear, unanimous choice for Principal by the parents' interview panel advised by NICIE and an education specialist.
The first teachers were: Mrs Marie Cowan (Principal): Mr Freddy Clifford (English), Mrs Geraldine Convery (Languages), Ms Nuala Mac Lochlainn Row (Science), Mr Marshall Murphy (Technology), Ms Eileen Reid (History Geography), Ms Rosie Shaw (Art) and Mrs Ruth Watt (Mathematics). Mr Sam Brown was Caretaker. Ms Niamh Harkin was the College secretary. Ms Joanne Middleton and Ms Siobhan Carroll were in charge of meals. Our first year (September 1992) had 78 students.
In 1993 the College secured the second half of the red brick building. (Now we could go in by the main door!). We took on 8 more teachers. Since then each year we have added a group of mobile classrooms and approximately another 8 teachers each year.
In September 1998, we met our full seven form size with 800-900 students.
Our striking new building is already being designed by the award - winning Belfast architectural firm of Kennedy Fitzgerald. Building work will be started within the next two years when it gets into the DENI capital funding list.
Oakgrove College overcame the three divides that were talked about: "alleged academic ability" at age 11; gender; and religious/cultural identity.
The GCSE results of Oakgrove College students show almost no connection with the 11+ results five years before. This demonstrates the accuracy of the views of those parents in 1990.
Well done students. Thank you to all the teachers and support staff.
The college has been a triumph.
Colm Murray Cavanagh, Tim Webster, Founding Parents.