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.
We now have 62 formally integrated schools, educating 22,000 children. Yet this model represents only 7% of the total school population in Northern Ireland. Despite the recognition of the existing statutory duty in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement I, and others, have been frustrated by the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly’s lack of support for integrated schooling. Radical reform in education planning requires bold leadership and a willingness to take risks in the name of “doing the right thing”. And radical reform is certainly still necessary.
Integrated schools do not airbrush difference out of the picture. They work to explore and celebrate diversity, encourage self-expression and promote respect for others’ traditions and beliefs. There is nothing either to fear or cause concern in these ideals.
Perhaps politicians fear that shared schooldays will ultimately threaten tribal politics; as if denying what we hold in common has ever benefitted Northern Ireland. Perhaps they fear the wrath of different religious institutions keen to preserve their vested interests and grip on education.
In a landmark court case, Drumragh Integrated College in Omagh resorted to the High Court in Belfast to seek a Judicial Review over a Department of Education refusal, last year, to allow the school’s expansion. The successful Judicial Review exposed two major failings in the Department of Education in Northern Ireland. One was its failure to understand the very meaning of the actual statutory duty placed on it. Secondly, it failed to take this duty sufficiently into account when planning education.
The Department has so far chosen to plan the future of education based not on expressed demand but on the existing cohort of schools in an area. It runs the risk of creating the impression that it is more worried about upsetting local political/educational establishments than doing the best it can for children’s formative learning.
We should be trying to create a situation where all schools belong to everyone – the wider community as well as the pupils – promoting a sense of ownership and loyalty without the mutually suspicious rivalry which currently prevails. We should act quickly to build a truly shared and integrated system of schooling – something Northern Ireland could proudly show to the rest of the world.
(A longer version of this article appears on the Times Educational Supplement website: http://news.tes.co.uk/b/opinion/2014/07/23/the-growing-pains-of-integrated-schooling-in-northern-ireland-is-a-lesson-for-england-after-trojan-horse.aspx )Read More