Education report

Integrated Education Act: An important first step

Kellie Armstrong MLA’s Integrated Education Act has placed the initiative on the Department of Education to encourage and facilitate the growth of integrated education in Northern Ireland.

The Act was not without its opponents, with the DUP and TUV attempting to use the petition of concern in the Assembly to block its passage. The Ulster Unionist Party additionally opposed the bill but refused to make use of the petition of concern, thus allowing its passage into an act.

Sinn Féin, Alliance, the SDLP, the Green Party, and People Before Profit all voted in favour, in spite of criticism from SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan that the legislation “has a lot of problems.”

The Act defines integrated education as: “Education together, in an integrated school, of; (a) those of different cultures and religious beliefs and of none, including reasonable numbers of both Protestant and Roman Catholic children or young persons; (b) those who are experiencing socio-economic deprivation and those who are not; and (c) those of different abilities.”

It further defines an integrated school as “a school which; (a) intentionally supports, protects, and advances an ethos of diversity, respect and understanding between those of different cultures and religious beliefs and of none, between those of different socio-economic backgrounds and between those of different abilities, and (b) has acquired: (1) grant-maintained integrated status; or (2) controlled integrated status under the Education Reform Order”.

The Act places an onus on the Education Authority (EA) to encourage and facilitate, “in line with the powers conferred upon it”, the transition for schools into an integrated or ‘shared education’ model.

“My hope is that integration will soon become the norm and not the exception in schools across Northern Ireland. The work done by the IEF and NICIE is essential in helping Northern Ireland’s children to grow up in a truly shared society.” Former Secretary of State Brandon Lewis MP

The transition process

Section 8 of the Act stipulates that education bodies “must consider” integrated education when planning the establishment of a new school.

This process requires a consultation with teachers, governors, pupils, families, and sectoral and community bodies, as well as an assessment of the demand for integrated education in the area where the proposed school is to be built.

Following the consultation process, and the submission of a transformation action plan, the final decision lies with the Minister of Education, the DUP’s Michelle McIlveen MLA who, despite her party’s opposition to the Act, has facilitated the transformation of six schools.

The Act does not place an onus on existing schools to transition away from their traditional models, with further exemptions for new proposed Irish-medium schools.

In the month of June, four schools held ballots over whether to transition to an integrated model, these were: St Eugene’s Primary School, Strabane, Magherafelt Nursery School, St Eugene’s Primary School, Tircur (near Omagh), and Lurgan Model Primary School. There are a further four schools that have undergone the ballot initiative, and are pending approval from the Minister for Education, or are awaiting further developments.

Since the passage of the Act, the Integrated Education Fund (IEF) confirmed that two schools have completed the transformation process and adopted integrated policies, which will come into effect for the new school term.

Going forward

The IEF has set a target of reaching 100 integrated academic institutions by the year 2025. Should the transformation of all the schools who have successfully completed the balloting process be confirmed, the number of integrated schools will stand at 73.

In Brandon Lewis MP’s last act as Secretary of State before his resignation on 7 June, he announced £1.9 million in funding for the Integrated Education Fund.

Lewis said on 6 June: “My hope is that integration will soon become the norm and not the exception in schools across Northern Ireland. The work done by the IEF and NICIE is essential in helping Northern Ireland’s children to grow up in a truly shared society.”

The £1.9 million will go to the Integrated Education Fund (IEF) and the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE), which works to enable a greater number of children from different community backgrounds to be educated together. NICIE offers advice and support to parents and schools in the ballot process which sees parents vote on where to transform to an integrated school.

£1.5 million of the funding will be allocated to the IEF, with around £400,000 allocated to the NICIE. These funds will be spread out over the next two-and-a-half financial years.

Tina Merron, Chief Executive of the IEF, confirmed that 17 ballots have been held since the beginning of the IEF’s Integrate My School campaign, and called for the full implementation of the Integrated Education Act:

“Recent figures have shown that many integrated schools are oversubscribed; we need to work together to deliver an integrated place for every child who wants one.”

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