2023 is proving to be another year of significant progress for the integrated schools movement in Northern Ireland. More parents and schools than ever before are showing interest in integrated education.
Since 2019, some 21 schools across Northern Ireland have held a positive democratic ballot of their parents on transforming to integrated status and six schools have since reopened as integrated. This progress has been made despite the impact of a pandemic and the absence of a devolved Assembly since May 2022.
In 2023, the Department of Education (DE) published its first ever Strategy for Integrated Education following the passing of the Integrated Education Act (2022). In the words of the Act’s sponsor, Kellie Armstrong MLA: “I think it is a start to something we all have been looking for. Now we have to keep pressure on to ensure it is delivered.”
The Integrated Education Fund (IEF) has welcomed the Strategy, whilst expressing disappointment and concern that it is yet to fully meet the requirements of the Act, such as meaningful target setting and concrete plans for delivery, which is something it will continue to push hard for.
Further encouraging news is that public support for more integrated education remains as strong as ever. In May 2023, LucidTalk revealed the results of their Northern Ireland-wide attitudinal poll. Two thirds of respondents agreed that integrated education should be the main model for our education system and 65 per cent indicated that they would support their local school transforming to integrated status.
Back on the ground, more parents and schools continue to engage with the IEF and the Council for Integrated Education (NICIE). In 2023 to date, four schools have already held successful parental ballots on transformation. These schools demonstrate the continued growth in demand for integrated education and include; Ballymena Nursery School, Rathmore Primary School and Nursery Unit in Bangor, Bangor Academy and Sixth Form College (the largest post primary school in Northern Ireland), and Downshire Nursery School in Banbridge.
The 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement heralded a significant milestone in the history of Northern Ireland, an agreement which contained a specific commitment to ‘encourage and facilitate integrated education’. In marking the occasion, the IEF was proud to partner with several community organisations, in particular Youth Action, in a special Peace Summit, organised by the John and Pat Hume Foundation and Community Dialogue. Entitled ‘The Unfinished Business of Peace and Reconciliation’, the IEF helped to ensure the voices of young people from several integrated schools were heard as part of an extensive five-month long engagement process involving some 600 young people.
Integrated education was also celebrated by Secretary of State, Chris Heaton-Harris MP and Tánaiste, Micheál Martin TD, who held a joint reception with the IEF and NICIE at W5 in Belfast. The event was arranged to demonstrate the shared commitment of the UK and Irish governments to the Agreement and the importance of the integrated education, sentiments that were echoed throughout the Agreement 25 Conference hosted by Queen’s University Belfast.
There are lots of successes to build on and no doubt there will be many challenges ahead, there always are, but thanks to the continued support of all our donors and friends, the IEF is proud to support the continued development of integrated education.