The focus and controversy over the administration of education, now resolved with the agreement to establish a single board, has distracted us from repairing the fault-line scarring our educational system: the segregation of children in single identity schools. This legacy of our past perpetuates the notion that division is inevitable and acceptable, hinders our attempts to build a cohesive society, and ignores the reality of an increasingly diverse society.
It is not acceptable to maintain parallel school systems presuming inherited identity and a homogeneity of belief and belonging. This failure to tackle the Catholic/Irish versus Protestant/Unionist division does our society no service. Our children’s complex and developing identities are masked under the presumption of single identity; they are inculcated from the age of three with an acceptance of an ‘other’ who is ‘different’.
We must dismantle segregation.
When asked, parents are clear; they want a quality education for their children and they want their children educated together. There is a need to connect parental preference with meaningful choice. We have 62 integrated schools where children are educated in an ethos of equality for all traditions, the majority of these schools oversubscribed. Where there is an integrated choice, many parents make that choice. However, there are areas where such choice does not exist. There is no planning authority for ensuring an integrated choice in every area. Unlike the main two sectors, groups of parents are expected to develop their own schools if they want an end to segregation. Such a situation is unfair and unequal.
There is a statutory obligation under the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 and the Belfast Agreement to facilitate integrated education. A recent judicial review ruling reminded the Minister that this was a live duty which had to be implemented at strategic and operational levels.
Through a series of simple steps it is possible to implement this duty effectively and move from our damaging and divided system to an integrated system.
All pre-school education should be genuinely open and welcoming to all and should be funded only when it provides evidence of this through admissions criteria. The single education board should be tasked with ensuring that there is an integrated choice in every area. This can be done, not by creating new schools, but by encouraging those schools willing to reflect the diversity in their school population to develop and gain recognition as the integrated choice for the area. NICIE will support schools through this process.
Programme for Government and Department of Education targets should be established to ensure that we move to a pluralistic system reflecting both parental choice and the reality of a society that does not want to be harnessed to past division.
In such a system we would continue to have single identity schools but these schools would be obliged to collaborate to ensure their students had experience of shared education. We would have schools integrated in ethos and legal status and we would have schools accredited as integrated in ethos. This would allow for meaningful parental choice and would be a potent symbol of the society we wish to be. Such an education system would help shape a peaceful and cohesive future. When we look at the growing radicalism globally and see the power of education as a force for good or for fundamentalism, can we persist with segregation?
Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE)
25 College Gardens
Belfast, BT9 6BS
Tel: 028 9097 2910
Fax: 028 9097 2919
Facebook: Nicie Belfast