A road-map to the best future for everyone

From Baroness May Blood MBE, Campaign Chair of the IEF
Article in ni4kids, May 2018 edition

The 20th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement passed in April with much reflection and analysis, as well as a degree of celebration – but without any government at Stormont.

We are working and living in the context of a political hiatus and a financial crisis and the effects on schools are clearly evident.

The Integrated Education Fund commissioned a survey by independent pollsters LucidTalk, who accessed their panel of 10,000 members to create an NI-wide picture of opinion on the education system.

A road-map to the best future for everyoneOne thing which leaps out from the results is the serious impact of budget cuts.  We heard of parents having to supply basic stationery items, pupils being sent home early, teacher redundancies, and fundraising requests to pay for painting and maintenance.

The great shame is that the budget could be better used if the basic structure of our education system were better.  Our education planning and delivery are based on the assumption that it is important to sustain several sectors:  we are all paying for duplication of provision (resulting in thousands of empty school places) and for duplication of management bodies (all drawing on the Department of Education’s funds).

A road-map to the best future for everyoneHowever, as our poll showed, for most parents the standard of education offered is their priority when choosing a school. This is closely followed in importance by the quality of the buildings and the distance from home.   Parents want to see good sports and cultural provision and extra help to meet special needs – and all these come a long way above considerations of ethos or management. Streamlining provision on a cross-community basis could result in a pattern of education delivery where everyone feels a sense of both belonging and ownership regarding their local school.

The Good Friday Agreement underlined the importance of integrated education in helping to build on the peace deal.  Today, there are 65 schools across NI offering parents the opportunity to access formally integrated education for their families, all thanks to parents; not one has been initiated by government.

We need more integrated school places, but we also need to disrupt the nature of our current education system.

Alternative ManifestoThe IEF has published its Alternative Manifesto, calling for fundamental reform to the structure of education and setting out steps to take us to a system which can support our journey to a flourishing, diverse but united community.

The recent Department of Finance budget briefing acknowledged the need for radical changes – “transformation” – to education here.  But there is no plan in place for achieving this.  The IEF Alternative Manifesto is a ‘road-map’ of achievable steps to bring us to a re-structured education system.  Key areas include the reform of teacher training, the extension of equality legislation to schools and the introduction of a single model of governance for all schools. When the IEF launched the document at Stormont on 16 April, MLAs from across the political spectrum responded positively.

Alliance education spokesman Chris Lyttle said
“If we are to have a society where everyone is respected, we need to start by respecting parents’ wishes to have their children educated together in an integrated ethos.  The education of our children together is a vital step towards building the united community the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland wish to see.”

A road-map to the best future for everyoneMike Nesbitt MLA (UUP) told the audience
“Mixing children from age four would provide a virtual inoculation against sectarian thoughts. As we approach Northern Ireland’s centenary, I can think of no finer way to enter the next hundred years than with a commitment to educating all our children together.”

The DUP’s Peter Weir, former Education Minister, acknowledged that it was time to change “antiquated” aspects of the system, such as schools being exempt from fair employment legislation.

Welcoming the publication, Sinn Fein’s education spokesperson Karen Mullan said
“Education is key to achieving a genuinely reconciled society and this Alternative Manifesto is an important contribution to the debate as to how we shape our schools system and develop our educational policy together for the benefit of children and the benefit of society.”

A road-map to the best future for everyoneWe are confident that our proposals would be welcomed by the wider public.  In the poll we commissioned from LucidTalk, we found overwhelming support – almost 80% – for merging schools on cross-community lines. This would bring both economic and social benefits, allowing children and young people to learn and grow besides others of all backgrounds and traditions in well-resourced and well-maintained buildings.   As it is, parents are being asked to meet the costs of division in education and that is unsustainable and unacceptable.

If the people making decisions about education could put children, and not institutions, at the heart of planning this huge and important public service, then we could develop an education system for the future of Northern Ireland and for the good of everyone.

Baroness May Blood is Campaign Chair of the IEF.

You can download the Alternative Manifesto here.

You can download the Attitudinal Poll summary results here.

This Article originally appeared in ni4kids, May 2018 edition.