Integrated Education: What’s gone wrong?
Almost half of all children are being taught in schools where 95% or more of the pupils are of the same religion and only 7% attend integrated schools in Northern Ireland.
Yet successive opinion polls point to huge public support for greater integration and an end to segregation.
A poll conducted by LucidTalk in 2013 found that:
66% believe that integrated schools should be the main model for our education system
68.7% believe that an integrated school is the best setting to prepare children for living and working in an increasingly diverse society.
79% said they would support a request to transform the school their child attended to an integrated school
Overall, three-quarters of those expressing an opinion do not feel that Stormont is fulfilling its obligations to encourage integrated education.
Yet the Good Friday Agreement contains a specific pledge “to facilitate and encourage integrated education and mixed housing” as an essential element in the process of reconciliation and the creation of “a culture of tolerance at every level of society”.
Speaking in the Waterfront Hall in July 2013 no less a figure than President Obama said:
“If towns remain divided, if Catholics have their schools and buildings and Protestants have theirs, if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden that encourages division, it discourages cooperation”
As far back as 2010 First Minister Peter Robinson described the Northern Ireland education system as a “benign form of apartheid” and called for a fully integrated system.
Yet now both the DUP and Sinn Fein have abandoned the concept of integrated education and instead both are promoting the concept of ‘shared education’.
Shortly after President Obama’s speech in the Waterfront Hall he and Prime Minister visited Enniskillen Integrated Primary School. Arlene Foster said she found the choice of venue for the premiers “disappointing,” adding that Mr Obama and Mr Cameron “could have seen” the shared education model that is in place in many schools across the county.
“All of the schools in Fermanagh come together in a shared education environment, they work very well together and instead they took the easy option of going to an integrated school “
Enniskillen Integrated Principal Adele Kerr subsequently accused Mrs Foster of a “blatant attempt to sabotage this historical day.”
“Mrs Foster’s comment was insulting. If Mrs Foster visited our school which she has never done, despite me telling her the door is always open, she would know why we were chosen for our visit. Her comment that it was the ‘easy option’ was openly critical of Mr Obama and Mr Cameron”
“Shared education is move in the right direction but only playing catch up with integrated education. Shared education will not be able to move quickly enough to fulfil Mr Obama’s vision for Northern Ireland in the time-scale he wants”
“Shared Education only allows children to walk around the wall and then they go back behind them. Integrated Education started to pull the walls down years ago”
This week Education Minister John O’Dowd introduced the Shared Education Bill into the Assembly
So what’s gone wrong? What’s the difference between ‘integrated education’ and ‘shared education’?
A working definition of shared education, endorsed by the Ministerial Advisory Group in their March 2013 report, ‘Advancing Shared Education’, is this:
“Shared education involves two or more schools or other educational institutions from different sectors working in collaboration with the aim of delivering educational benefits to learners, promoting the efficient and effective use of resources, and promoting equality of opportunity, good relations, equality of identity, respect for diversity and community cohesion”
In a submission to the Northern Ireland Assembly Committee for Education in October 2014 from Nigel Frith, Principal of Drumragh Integrated College, the integrated school was described as
“a learning environment where children and young people from Catholic and Protestant backgrounds, as well as those of other faiths and none, can learn with, from and about each other. The promotion of equality and good relations extends to everyone in the school and to their families regardless of their religious, cultural or social background. Integrated education is value-driven and child-centred. It is delivered through a holistic approach with an emphasis on developing every aspect of a child’s or young person’s potential”
The submission goes on to say that
“Integrated schools are not the only solution to society’s ongoing problems but they are a key part of the solution. It is the responsibility of us all to work together to resolve these difficulties, for the sake of our children, society and the future of Northern Ireland”
One of the pupils who attends Drumragh Integrated College gives perhaps the best definition of the difference between shared and integrated education:
“The difference between shared education and integrated education is that shared education you still have the different schools with different uniforms only sharing some things for a while but integrated education has all the one uniform and all the one school and you’re together all the time”
As already stated both the DUP and Sinn Fein have been vocal in their support of shared – not integrated – education; but they are not alone.
The recent report on Shared and Integrated Education presented by the Education Committee in September is spectacularly dismissive of integrated education and states:
‘Given the relatively limited uptake of Integrated Education and the very different views expressed by sectoral bodies in respect of its facilitation, encouragement and definition, the Committee agreed that the Department should undertake a strategic review of its approach and relevant actions to-date relating to Integrated Education’
The report goes out of it’s way to promote ‘shared education’ as the way forward:
‘The Committee recommends that the statutory obligation to encourage, facilitate and promote Shared Education’
The fact is that is time to grasp the nettle and finally deliver integrated education.
As I said during the debate on the report:
“I start off with the premise that says that the future of our part of the world depends on the absolute integration of our children. If you were to ask where you want to be in 20 or 30 years’ time, you would say that you want everybody to share some form of common identity. It would not be exclusive to any other identity that they might have, but we must find some way of working and living together. I start off with that premise, and I say that I am for integrated education”
Why then are the major parties seeking to champion the concept of ‘shared education’ and not ‘integrated education’?
The influence of various religious groups is certainly a factor that must be considered. We should of course be respectful of those with strong religious beliefs and appreciate the positive contribution that religion can have on society. But should religion play any part in policy making in a modern pluralist society?
It could also be argued that the electoral success of the main unionist and nationalist parties relies upon maintaining division in society. This is not good for the long term future of Northern Ireland certainly not good for our children.
The needs of our children must come first and not be side-lined by party political bias or religious dogma.
There is no future for Northern Ireland that is not a shared future and a cornerstone of that is REAL integrated education.