“A Peace Deal for Education?”
The commitment in the Programme for Government (PfG) to shared education reflects a significant statement of political and institutional commitment to addressing the separate and competitive nature of our education system. It potentially opens up the possibility of mature dialogue and the building of trust between all those who have significant interests in education to reshape our education system to become the driver for a more “prosperous, tolerant, stable and inclusive society.” 
The Integrated Education Fund (IEF) seeks to be an active and involved part of this process, offering independent advice and guidance, reliable data and invaluable contacts gained over a 30 year period of working towards this peace deal.
History tells us that political commitments to shared education face significant hurdles in implementation. Whilst the Programme for Government does not provide detail, we offer the following commentary and recommendations to support the implementation of this ‘peace deal in education’. Fundamentally, equality needs to be driving all decisions with regards growing a shared education system that would deliver on one key outcome: that regardless of which type of school a child attends, their identity will be guaranteed active and equal support.
Issues & Recommendations
- There have been three previous government attempts to grow a shared education system: 1830 – the National Schools System; 1921 – Lord Londonderry Act; 1974 – Basil McIvor’s ‘shared education plan’. The commitment made in this Programme for Government builds on these previous attempts and we need to learn what informed them and what challenges they faced as we debate whether we can afford to continue educating children separately.
- One of the first tasks of the proposed Advisory Group on Shared Education in the draft PfG will be to agree a vision for ‘shared education’. We offer our Continuum of Sharing to assist these deliberations. The Continuum is underpinned by our vision of good community schools where children of all faiths or none and regardless of ability, ethnicity, and cultural and social backgrounds, learn and are taught together; whether these schools are called mill schools; joint faith schools; national schools; local schools or integrated schools is irrelevant. What matters is that their ethos, practice and relationships offers equality of access and esteem to all children. However, there are and will be different approaches and journeys to greater sharing in education, which are sensitive to different areas, demography and histories. These need to be nurtured and resourced by our education system and prioritized in both the area based planning process and future planning processes.
- We welcome the commitment in the Equality Impact Assessment (EQIA) at a strategic level to “ensuring that provision is planned in such a way to ensure that, regardless of where they go to school, young people will be educated in sustainable schools where they can have full access to the revised curriculum and the Entitlement Framework.” However, we would add that “regardless of which type of school they attend, the identity of every child and young person will be guaranteed active and equal support.”
- Overall we are disappointed that the EQIA barely mentions good relations or conducts any analysis of the Draft PfG through a good relations lens. Under Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, public authorities, such as all government departments including the Department of Education, Education and Library Boards and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) are obliged to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity across a range of nine different groups in society. Section 75(2) obliges the same public authorities to have regard to the desirability of promoting good relations between different racial, religious and political groups.
Section 75 therefore recognizes that equality is experienced through human relationships, whether in the workplace, at home or in a school where people really meet as equals, sensing the acceptability of who they are and all that they bring. Arguably, the absence of any focus on good relations in the EQIA is an indication of the need to rebalance the PfG, the Economic Strategy and Investment Strategy to genuinely build good relations and an inclusive Northern Ireland.
- We recommend that the model of shared/integrated education as set out in the Bain Review informs the work of the Advisory Group, which should include not only greater sharing between schools (e.g. collaboration; co-location; shared campuses; federation) but also greater sharing within those schools that have or are developing inclusive and shared environments.
- That Government ensures that the new Education and Skills Authority Bill includes legislation to enable the development of new education models including shared management schools, shared faith or shared community schools, shared campuses, mergers between controlled and maintained schools and federations. We currently do not have the legislative framework to deal with the challenges raised by the issues of assets/ownership, governance and legislation to greater sharing and integration in education.
- Explore possible models for incentivising greater sharing/integration in education as outlined in the Bain Review, which encourage possibilities in greater sharing between and within schools whilst avoiding penalizing those schools constrained by demography and history.
- Whilst we welcome the commitment to “ensuring that all children have the opportunity to participate in shared education programmes by 2015 and substantially increase the number of schools sharing facilities by 2015”, we would recommend a more robust, costed and challenging target informed by a baseline to measure progress. Arguably, the majority of children already have an opportunity to participate in some form of shared education programme; the significant majority of which is funded by external philanthropic sources. Will the Executive put money where it has pledged support in principle – will there be a continued, practical commitment to resourcing this work?
- Whilst we very much welcome the target of increasing to 49% the proportion of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds achieving at least 5 GCSEs at A*-C or equivalent by 2014/15 we do not believe that this is challenging enough. It would mean that by 2015 there would still be 50% of our young people from disadvantaged areas not achieving the basic passport to further education and employment. We believe that there needs to be a more focused approach on the areas where the challenges are the greatest and this needs to be reflected in the target set.
- We recommend that an expectation and duty be placed on all schools in receipt of public money to be ‘inclusive shared spaces’ and be intentionally working towards being open to children from all the political, religious and cultural backgrounds that make up Northern Ireland.
- We welcome the recent announcement on the Education and Skills Authority becoming operational by April 2013 but note with great concern that the statement from the Department of Education fails to mention the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education and integrated education in general. This is significant considering the critical role that ESA will play in area based planning. We also hope that the establishment of this body will gradually move towards the dissolution of sectors.
- We look forward to seeing the Terms of Reference of the Advisory Group on Shared Education and enclose our own suggestions with regards some guiding principles for its establishment.
- Local schools, educational planning authorities and elected representatives must keep parents and local communities fully informed of all the possibilities and options for sharing, when local schools are being considered for closure or new schools are being planned. The IEF with the Rural Community Network is currently organizing a number of local events on education to raise awareness of DE’s policy direction as well as engage parents, local communities, schools and elected representatives in a discussion on their hopes for their schools and the levels of sharing they would be open to considering. Please click to view our leaflet on the Community Engagement in Education Project.
- The area based planning process must include an obligation to examine and explore the viability of innovative models of sharing and encourage local dialogue. Only by ensuring that parents have the opportunity to talk with those who hold different opinions than themselves can real change become possible.
- The Review of the Common Funding Formula must include an investigation into how greater levels of sharing and collaboration could be incentivized. We recommend the publication of the Terms of Reference for this review as soon as possible.
- All future investment in infrastructure and capital investment in education must clearly demonstrate contribution to good relations and a shared future. We welcome the commitment made in the Draft Investment Strategy for Northern Ireland 2011-2021 to ensuring that “cohesion, sharing and integration are at the heart of how we plan for the future.” We also fully support the analysis “that the pattern of existing infrastructure reflects division and it is important that new investment takes into account our commitment to support shared, accessible and welcoming facilities that provide high quality public services.”
The IEF is heartened that there is at last a growing acknowledgement among politicians, officials and wider civic society that sharing within and between schools represents good value and good practice. We have been pioneering sharing between schools of all management types for more than a decade, believing any step towards a more cohesive way of working is a step along the right path for our society. We are very proud of the work done, for example, by schools of all types under our Promoting a Culture of Trust (PACT) scheme since it was first launched by Senator George Mitchell and supported by the Northern Ireland Fund for Reconciliation twelve years ago. We are committed to fully supporting the Executive in whatever way we can to progress this work towards ensuring that all our schools become shared spaces offering equality of access and esteem to all children.