This has been a very encouraging year for integrated education in Northern Ireland, despite the challenges of another year with no functioning Stormont Executive and continuing political uncertainty.
I am delighted to say that our campaign is really gathering momentum.
In 2019, seven schools across Northern Ireland have held a ballot of their parents on becoming integrated, with the percentage saying ‘yes’ ranging from 86% to 100%. This includes a mix of Catholic schools and mainly-Protestant ‘controlled’ schools plus (for the first time in our history) two nursery schools. Just a few years ago not a single parental ballot on integrated education had ever taken place in a Catholic school, yet this year alone there have been three – all overwhelmingly in favour.
I am also delighted to report that integrated education is the fastest-growing form of education in Northern Ireland. In the past five years enrolments have increased by more than two thousand pupils; many more are turned away and there are nowhere near enough places to meet demand. Growth has been restricted, not because of lack of demand, but because integrated schools are not planned for by government. In some cases growth is impeded – proposals for five new integrated nursery units have this year been rejected by government.
This will not go unchallenged.
On a more positive note, the capital funding provided by HM Treasury through the Fresh Start Agreement is starting to deliver for schools on the ground. Following the move of Drumlins Integrated Primary School to their new building, a new school for Braidside Integrated Primary School in Ballymena is due for completion in early 2020. A further 21 schools stand to benefit from this scheme to the sum of almost £300 million. Omagh and Corran Integrated Primaries have also been able to celebrate new facilities this year.
Our model of community consultation (developed with Ulster University) and local opinion polls have demonstrated how education planning can meaningfully include the views of parents and local communities. Now it is up to the Department of Education and other statutory education planners to take note and start to adopt such models going forward.
Many schools throughout Northern Ireland want to be viewed as being integrated as their school enrolments become more diverse. We must encourage them to take the next step and consider formal transformation, as being an integrated school is about much more than simply a mixed enrolment.
The IEF will continue to be needed so long as there remain financial barriers to overcome in helping integrated schools to get started, and we will be there to provide support to nurture their development and growth.
We will continue to support parents and schools and we will continue to challenge government policy that impedes growth.
We have been calling for a fundamental review of the NI education system, which remains predicated on religious and cultural division. The IEF has worked to bring the issue of systemic reform to the attention of political parties, through face to face meetings, round-table discussions and larger group events. All our campaigning is supported by research evidence.
There are encouraging signs of a growing consensus that an independent review of the education system is needed in NI. Party manifestos and policy documents published this year, as well as speeches at conferences, suggest that the arguments for education reform are being heard across the board. I can assure you that the IEF’s Advocacy Team will continue to press the case. We know we need a new road map. The IEF has demonstrated how change can happen and what changes need to happen, not only from the bottom up but also from the top down.
I want to finish by saying just how humbled we were to be nominated for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize alongside our colleagues in NICIE. The IEF does not seek such accolades, as you probably know, but to be nominated by eminent academics and politicians locally and internationally is something we can feel proud about. However, the real heroes of this movement are the parents, the pupils and the schools, together with you, the friends and donors of the Integrated Education Fund.
Have a wonderful festive season and New Year!
Baroness May Blood
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