Recession has been hard on most sectors, but it is common knowledge that it has been particularly hard on the construction industry. Public and private contracts faded away and we now need urgent action from government departments to bring work to the market as quickly as possible.
This does not mean that I want to see a frenzy of development without thought to the future landscape, both physical and social. The schools estate, and by extension the education system, is a case in point.
I am supportive of a rationalisation process for the education system firstly because it makes economic sense. Public sector budgets are under pressure and this will continue for the foreseeable future. Even though capital budgets have actually held up pretty well during the downturn, there is a responsibility on the part of government to get value for money when we are dealing with the contributions of taxpayers. So there is an
obvious question: can we afford different management types of schools in virtually every provincial town and can we afford the separate sectoral administration which the current education system in Northern Ireland requires?
And beyond this there is another question: should we be spending in this way? Is this, morally and socially, the best way to use public money? This duplication of education provision reflects and perpetuates separation. Surely it’s crazy to segregate children from early years and in effect teach them that people belong in separate compartments – this so easily leads to demonisation of the “other” – despite the best intentions of the staff and governors of schools.
Surely the way forward is a unified system of schools sharing the same management and policy of governance, serving a locality rather than a tradition or denomination; schools where every faith is respected? It would not mean taking the church and faith out of peoples’ lives but would rather mean that every state-funded school should be truly open and welcoming to every pupil. Religion and religious studies can be taught in that context. Indeed integrated schools have been proving that for more than thirty years.
Of course the construction industry welcomes the OFMDFM plan for new shared campuses; and the schools involved will undoubtedly be glad of new buildings and facilities. My concern is that shared education doesn’t fully address social segregation. This approach maintains a system of separate sectoral and denominational schools (and all the attendant structures) and risks sustaining division.
I have some hope that the imminent “super councils” will be able to address some of these matters. These new, larger authorities will have more powers over planning issues and more scope to plan for the overall well-being of their areas. Being more locally-based they should be more responsive to local needs and wishes and provide a channel for communities to have a say in how services are planned and delivered. The Northern Ireland Executive has a duty not only to spend taxpayers’ money wisely but also to tackle social problems and has, surely, an additional duty to work against segregation and division. Perhaps communities, businesses and civic organisations can together play a part to make sure that these responsibilities are fulfilled.
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