Baroness Blood: Integrated education is a must

Recently Education Minister John O’Dowd gave his official response to the report from the Ministerial Advisory Group on Shared Education. I was heartened to hear that he places sharing at the heart of education. I hope that this means true sharing for our young people; that pupils of all traditions and backgrounds spend every day together as a matter of course, reflecting the increasingly diverse nature of the world of work which awaits them.

Of course, any steps to address the fundamental problems in our education structure are laudable steps forward. Mr O’Dowd acknowledged that the recommendations from MAGSE are a vision for the “short to medium term”. The Minister also said, in response to a question in the Assembly, that the ultimate aim is an education system without separation. So let’s see real, measurable progress towards that ultimate aim.

I must admit that, given the current stagnation over ESA and the sluggish pace of the area-based planning process, I am afraid that progress will be slow; we really cannot afford this, however.

We cannot afford to be sidetracked, surely, by expensive projects which promise a degree of contact but keep young people in segregated institutions, marked out by distinct uniforms and distinct school governance.

The current Area-based planning process should afford the ideal opportunity for reshaping the education system to meet the public wish for integration. However, some plans have already been agreed which do not seem to reflect the Minister’s wish for creative solutions, but which rather copper-fasten separation.

I would be glad to see the process of transformation, through which any school can become integrated in response to local demand, made clearer and easier. But recent surveys have shown that the majority of parents did not know that transformation of an existing school was at all possible; it was not the process which was off-putting but rather the apparent reluctance of officialdom when it comes to engaging with parents and school communities over the issue of separation and integration. Politicians and advisors must be held to the Good Friday Agreement, which places a statutory duty on the government to encourage and facilitate integrated education.

Let us make sure we continue to travel the path towards the education system to which the Minister has declared he aspires – one which is not blighted by separation; one where children learn, grown and develop together, in every classroom, every day.