Work has begun on a £120 million shared education campus that has been hailed as a game changer in efforts to bring Protestant and Catholic pupils closer together.
Site clearance got under way at the former Army barracks at Lisanelly in Omagh where six local schools, from both sides of the traditional religious divide, are to relocate.
Construction of the first - Arvalee special school - will start next year.
Loreto Grammar School, Omagh High School, Sacred Heart College, Omagh Academy and Christian Brothers Grammar School will also eventually move to the site, with around 3,700 pupils set to be educated in the complex when it is completed.
Pupils from all six schools were at the derelict site on Wednesday to witness the diggers moving in.
The concept of “shared education” in a Northern Ireland context relates to greater co-operation between schools in the state and Catholic sectors as opposed to fully co-religious integrated schooling.
Education Minister John O’Dowd, who joined pupils in Omagh to mark the start of work, described the Lisanelly concept as “visionary”.
“It will be the largest single investment in education facilities ever made here, with construction costs estimated to be in excess of £120 million, as it brings six schools together on one campus in the town for the first time,” he said.
The minister told the Assembly on MTuesday that Lisanelly was a “game changer”.
Today he added: “It is symbolic of the progress we have made in recent years through working together in an atmosphere of collaboration and sharing. It is symbolic of our move away from the past, toward a brighter future where everyone here can fulfil his or her potential, irrespective of political, religious or social background.”
Having acknowledged that many schools are proud of, and want to retain, their individual ethos, Mr O’Dowd has said both the shared and integrated models have a role to play in the future.
His visit to Omagh came a day after he clashed with political rivals in the Assembly chamber on the issue of shared education.
Mr O’Dowd’s assertion that the efforts to bridge the religious divide had to go hand-in-hand with removing social barriers - something the minister said could be achieved by ending academic selection - drew fierce criticism from unionist representatives who advocate the retention of selection.
They claimed Mr O’Dowd was adding unnecessary contention to the debate by linking it to the divisive selection issue.