As the role of schools in promoting respect for religious and cultural difference is under the microscope in England, it is timely to reflect on the work of Northern Ireland’s integrated education sector in overcoming division.
When I became Northern Ireland’s Education Minister in 1986, 97% of Catholic children went to Catholic schools, as a matter of parental choice. By definition, therefore, State schools overwhelmingly catered for Protestant children. Like me, Northern Ireland’s young people grew up having little or no contact with religiously and/or culturally different peers. It was a system that, whilst not directly responsible for the outbreak of Troubles in 1969, none the less helped to polarise the community along religious and cultural lines.
One of the most memorable moments of my political career was putting integrated education in Northern Ireland on the statute book. The 1989 Education Reform order placed a statutory duty on the Department of Education to encourage and facilitate integrated education. I put those words in deliberately because, without them, I was not confident that the Department would throw its weight behind facilitating those parents who wanted integrated education for their children. (more…)Read More