The Alliance Party in its recent document ‘Blueprint to deliver change for everyone’ has refocused the debate on integrated education. Alliance calls for a minimum target of 20 per cent of children to be educated in integrated schools by 2020, arguing that new school builds should be for integrated schools except in exceptional cases. The party calls for the process for schools transforming to integrated status to be made easier and asks that the statutory obligation to ‘facilitate and encourage integrated education’ be written into the duties of ESA.
Its demands are made in the context of the divisions still evident in our society and the urgent need to address them if we are to move from a ‘shared out’ to a ‘shared’ society. Alliance does so in the context of the economic cost of segregation in a period of deep cuts to the education budget.
NICIE welcomes Alliance’s intervention. Its proposals create a framework for addressing division and, in doing so, respond to public support for integrated education. Our system is segregated and unequal. Historically, the system has been divided into main blocks: Catholic schools and schools perceived to be Protestant. Parents seeking an integrated choice have had to create their own schools or persuade their school to embark on the cumbersome process of transformation. NICIE is now calling for an equal provision of places to match that of the two main sectors.
• a commitment to ensuring that 30% of school places are available for parents choosing integrated education, with a set timescale for achieving this;
• the area-based planning process be amended to support this commitment; rationalisations within sectors, as are happening currently, to be halted; and new integrated schools, assuring a parity of esteem for all traditions to be established and the building of new schools be prioritised to support this approach.
Schools which have mixed intake but are perceived as single-identity should be encouraged to engage in a process of integrating, enabling them to give parents the assurance that the minority tradition will be respected and celebrated. Such a system would not impact on the ownership of schools. Under such a system any school with a significant ‘minority’ of children, including a Catholic school, could become integrated.
Implementation of these proposals would see a rapid increase in the number of integrated schools.
The present focus should not preclude pre-school education, in theory non-sectoral, in practice replicating and supporting segregation. Starting three-year-olds on a segregated school career is unacceptable. Publicly-funded pre-school providers should be required to demonstrate that they are genuinely open to all.
Other areas of education, special school and further education, by their nature mixed, should be enabled to proclaim this mix through the integrated badge.
It is time to redress structural presumptions which favour segregation. The Alliance Party proposals provide a road map to this end.
Until we find a resolution to segregation, debate will continue. The scope of the debate is clear: we either move beyond sectoralism and ensure that the priority of all future planning is the education of children together or we adopt a staged approach based on equality of educational provision. The challenge to the main sectors is to change and become integrated, or relinquish their near total monopoly of provision.
Alliance have started this debate; the challenge to other parties and to government is to respond.
Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE)
25 College Gardens
Belfast, BT9 6BS
Tel: 028 9097 2910
Fax: 028 9097 2919