Public call for a system of common schools in Northern Ireland

Research just published shows strong support across Northern Ireland for education reform, including the establishment of a single, common schools system.

A survey of a representative sample of the NI public, carried out by independent polling company LucidTalk and commissioned by the IEF, also found a majority in favour of change to the RE syllabus. In addition the sample – which was balanced to ensure it reflected the population – is keen to see business leaders helping to preparing students for the jobs market.

More than three quarters of those expressing an opinion agreed that “having a single common school system would be the best way to provide education in Northern Ireland.” Further, when people were asked to prioritise issues relating to the development of a school system fit for the 21st century, “educating children of all communities within one common school system” was again the most popular answer.

Analysing the results of the poll, LucidTalk CEO Bill White commented:

“ Education is a key issue in Northern Ireland (as it is anywhere) and our recent NI-Wide Attitudinal poll for the Integrated Education Fund produced some interesting results and showed some key patterns and trends. For example, we asked a question about nine key education issues, and asked respondents to grade these issues 1 – 5 in terms of importance (from very important to very unimportant). One of these nine issues was ‘Educating children of all communities within one common school system’, and it is noteworthy that this was viewed by a majority across the board, both Protestants and Catholics as a grade 1 ‘very important’ issue.”

In terms of RE in schools, nearly 70% of respondents said the subject should be broadened to cover religion, philosophy and ethics. This reflects the findings of the Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life (CORAB) which issued a report in December 2015 urging greater awareness of faiths and belief systems in all areas of public life, and also called for mandatory religious assemblies in schools to be abolished.

Importantly, the LucidTalk poll showed clear evidence of frustration with the schools system in Northern Ireland and with the inability of politicians to effect real structural change. When participants were asked what three words or expressions came to mind to describe the NI education system, responses included: “entrenching sectarianism”; “divisive”; wasteful; and “a rudderless, vision-less political football.”

Commenting on the LucidTalk poll results, IEF CEO Tina Merron said

“These results show that reform of the education system is a live issue for everyone, across all backgrounds. There is a wide awareness that the system is divisive and wasteful, unfair and segregated and the public seems to grasp better than our political leaders do, that we are not delivering the education service in the most economically efficient way. This means there is less money on the front-line where it is needed to drive up academic standards and equip young people for life after school.”

There was also a clear message that the public would like to see politics and vested interests taken out of the education system. More than two thirds of respondents think that there should be an independent planning authority for education similar to the Housing Executive, and nearly two thirds of those questioned said they would like to see an independent review of the current education system in Northern Ireland.

You can read a detailed summary of the research here: IEFAutumn15AttPoll March 16 publish